Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Setting An Example: Strong Voices, Strong Women

Sometimes the list of Soaring Eagle nominees, since it is entirely based on nominations from teens throughout Wyoming, does not easily divide into genre categories. This week's list of books represent that fact:  the titles include historical fiction, historical fantasy, and nonfiction. All three titles, however, represent strong female voices telling their stories with dignity and intelligence.  All three present female characters fighting oppression within their respective societies.

The Royal Ranger, by John Flanagan.   We'll begin with the lightest of the three books:  the 12th in Flanagan's acclaimed Ranger's Apprentice series.  Whereas Will Treaty, the series' main character, has generally been presented as enthusiastic and optimistic, this title paints a much darker picture of Will. Due to a terrible tragedy that befell the Ranger in an earlier installment, he's grown morose and obsessed with the idea of revenge.  Will's saving grace comes in the form of a second main character, but she has her own troubles.  Madelyn, the daughter of Will's best friend, Horace, and Princess Cassandra, feels constrained by the restrictions of royal life, and battles against her parents and her lifestyle in increasingly risky ways.  Enter Halt, Will's former mentor:  he proposes that Will become mentor to Madelyn, and train her to become the first female Ranger in Araluen. Will reluctantly agrees, and Madelyn happily gives up her royal privileges to enter the Ranger force.  But when investigating a suspicious death leads Will to believe he's back on the trail of his nemesis, Madelyn's safety becomes a concern. Can Will pursue his enemy and still keep Madelyn safe?  Even more to the point -- can he satisfy his quest for revenge and still uphold the Ranger code of honor?  As stated, this is book 12 in Flanagan's historical fantasy series; find more backstory about the Ranger's Apprentice here.   However, since this title, Royal Ranger, introduces Madelyn as a new main character, it would not be necessary to have read the preceding eleven books to understand this one.

Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys.  Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. But one night, Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they've known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way out of their beloved Lithuania with others from their communities.  Nobody knows what they've done to deserve the inhuman treatment they receive; they are given little food and drink and subjected to filth, violence and worse. After stops at several labor camps, Lina and her family slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin's orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.

Through it all, Lina makes secret drawings, desperately trying to capture the truth of what is happening to her family and culture.  Her prayer is that her drawings, which she sends away with various accomplices, will make their way to her father, wherever he might be.  Lina holds on to this scrap of hope when faced with losing her freedom and everyone she loves. This masterful work of historic fiction presents a story of humanity that is not well-recorded in young adult literature: that of the disappearance of millions of people during the Soviet occupation, and their forced relocation to the Siberian labor camps.

I am Malala:  The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai. This nonfiction book, the only nonfiction to appear on this year's list of Soaring Eagle nominees, requires little introduction. Most people have heard at least something about the girl who was shot by a Taliban soldier, survived, and went on to be named, this fall, as the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, there is more to the story than that.  Malala's memoir, co-written with journalist Christina Lamb, recounts the rich culture and history of Pakistan, her homeland.  For readers, particularly teens, who have trouble understanding complicated Middle Eastern politics, Yousafzai explains -  in the voice of a teenager - the gradual occupation of the Swat valley by Taliban forces, and the increasingly fundamentalist Muslim restrictions placed on society.  One such restriction was prohibiting education for girls over the age of 11. Yousafzai, with the support of her parents, rebelled against this restriction and continued to pursue her own education; it was on the bus home from school that she was shot, in October of 2012.  That she recovered is considered a miracle.

Yousafzai continues to champion the cause of education for women, and has been noted as a global symbol of peaceful resistance to oppression. Her story both inspires and educates.

As we look forward to celebrating Thanksgiving next week, let's remember to be especially grateful to live in a country in which females have unlimited opportunities. And let's take from the example of Madelyn, Lina, and Malala the strength to stand up against oppression in any form, in any society.


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