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Seventeen-year-old Ellen Sung is the daughter of the only Korean American family in her small Minnesota town, and her classmates won’t let her forget it. But when she and Tomper Sandel, one of the most popular guys in school, fall hard for each other, Ellen finds herself facing racism at school and disapproval at home. The only way forward is to find the courage to speak up and raise her voice. Discover this groundbreaking Own Voices YA classic from Korean-American author Marie Myung-Ok Lee, reissued with a new foreword from bestselling author Kat Cho.
Welcome to Read This Book, a newsletter where I recommend one book that I think you absolutely must read. The books will vary across genre and age category to include new releases, backlist titles, and classics. If you’re ready to explode your TBR, buckle up!
Content warning: Abuse and murder
This week’s pick is one of my favorite children’s books in recent years because it celebrate resilience and the power of education!
Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed
Amal is a 12-year-old girl living in a small town in Pakistan. She dreams of one day becoming a teacher, and she loves school more than anything. She’s hopeful that she can continue her education for as long as possible, and her family, though poor, are supportive. But then one day, Amal inadvertently offends a member of the most powerful family in the region while at the market, the Khans, and they decide to call in her father’s debt early. Amal’s parents can’t pay, so they are forced to send Amal into indentured servitude to the Khans.
Amal is alone and far from home, and she’s heartbroken to be missing out on school. And life at the Khan household is not easy. Some of the members of the family are cruel and capricious, although others show kindness. As Amal begins to make friends and learn what’s expected of her, she realizes how hopeless her situation is–it’ll be years before her debt can be paid. But she also begins to learn the Khan family’s secrets…and if she can be brave enough to expose them, then maybe she can find her way home.
Aisha Saeed takes a situation that would be unimaginable for many, and she tells a brilliant and sensitive story of a young girl who has a dream and won’t be easily deterred. The stakes are real, and dangerous, which makes this a hard book to put down, and it borders on a thriller in some ways when Amal’s situation goes from bad to dangerous, but it’s not too dark for middle grade readers to handle. I loved that education–both the love of learning and the burning desire to learn–are central to Amal’s character and her motivation, and her gift for teaching comes across in everything she does and how she thinks. This is a great contemporary novel that explores issues of social justice, unfair labor, sexism, and more in a well-written and engaging story that might be intended for kids, but is great for older readers, too!
Bonus–I also loved Saeed’s YA novel, Written in the Stars!
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