Recommended Read: I Can Only Imagine

If you’re like most of us at Gracepoint Berkeley church, you saw the movie I Can Only Imagine this past spring, and either cried a lot or cried a lot “inside.” I think I sat next to the person who wins the “Most Tears Shed” prize — you know who you are! 🙂

i can only imagineBUT did you know there’s a book? It came out a month before the movie, and I confess at first I was like…nah, even though I’m a sucker for memoirs. But I both read the book and listened to the audiobook (read by the author himself, which I always love) and recommend it for youth and adults alike! It is a quick read, written in a down-to-earth voice, but like the movie, it is a tear-jerker.

It is Millard’s fuller memoir and includes a lot more than what the movie could portray in 2 hours. It includes significant relationships in his life — for example, with his older brother (were you one of the people confused by the other guy in the family picture at the end of the movie?), as well as Kent, the friend from Glorietta Camp, who played a much more prominent role in his life than the movie was able to show.

And as can be expected, it goes into more depth of each person’s back story. Most notably, you get a fuller picture of Millard’s dad and how and why it is that he became the way he had been towards Bart and his brother. This book is excellent for developing empathy as you get a glimpse into each person’s story.

The movie played with the timeline of events, perhaps to create a more cohesive storyline, but Millard’s father fell ill while he was still in high school, so it was actually in his senior year that he was his father’s primary caretaker, and that they reconciled their relationship only to lose him so soon after.

I was reminded of this coming off of the Youth Ministry Training Retreat, where one of the big lessons we came away with was the power of listening and just being there and being with our youth, each of whom has a story, a world of struggles and realities beneath the surface. And actually, Millard’s youth group was instrumental in providing safety, stability, acceptance, and love amidst his tumultuous life. His youth group became a stable family for him, when he felt so unwanted, unloved, and unworthy. And they were there with him as he dealt with the loss of his father.

After reading the book, I felt like Millard was my friend. He was so vulnerable and real in sharing his struggles with self-worth and how he continues to build up his self-worth as a redeemed child of God. As I found out about his life story, I understood why MercyMe’s songs are often about these themes, and I could appreciate how his songs are born from the lessons and seasons of his own faith journey.

Anyway, wanted to add yet another book to your “to be read” list. This is a perfect one for bedtime reading, but be warned, you might stay up all night in order to finish!





How to Satisfy Your “Hunger” for Dystopian Novels

I’ve been so busy reading that I’ve once again neglected to post here. But recent conversations about The Hunger Games (hereafter referred to as THG) have prompted me to write this post.

It’s hard to believe almost ten years have passed since the first book in the popular dystopian trilogy was published. It’s safe to say THG sparked the glut of dystopian fiction that flooded especially the young adult literature market. We couldn’t escape, though I’m happy to report the craze has died down in the last couple of years.

Before you read on, I want to make clear that I love me some dystopian literature as much as anyone! There is something very powerful about the genre to cause people to consider the ways in which echoes of these dystopias might be in our current world, and to begin recognizing social structures, and so forth.

The dictionary defines “dystopian” as follows:

relating to or denoting an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.

The challenge with dystopian fiction for younger readers, however, is to build a world in which these unpleasant or bad consequences of a totalitarian state are explored in an age-appropriate way.

And here is my beef with THG. The target audience is 6th or 7th grade and up, but I disagree it is age-appropriate. Some teachers introduce the books as early as 5th grade, especially for reluctant readers, but I actually do not recommend the series at all (gasp!), for young and old alike. Why?

It is not just violent, but brutal. It is disturbing to read graphic descriptions of teens killing each other in hand-to-hand combat with all manner of weapons. Granted that is Suzanne Collins’ point — to disturb readers and to critique aspects of this bleak and twisted society. I get that she is not condoning this kind of violence. In fact, there is some “deep stuff” about government control through propaganda, about consumerist culture, media saturation, and about human nature.

However, most of the readers of the books do not have the framework to consider these deeper issues. They get engrossed with the plot because it appeals to 1) our sense of rooting for the underdog, 2) our baser attraction to drama and even violence (like how everyone runs towards not away from the fight at school), and 3) you and I know that half of the readers of the books got into the series because of the love triangle.

I don’t know how many students I had who said they hated the third book because it was “boring.” That’s because the focus was decidedly political and it is also the most violent of the three. I’m not naive and know you can’t avoid romantic business in young adult literature, but it goes beyond crushes and the Harry Potter level of stuff, and we’ll leave it at that.

So…what’s a teen to do?

Here are my recommendations. Read some of the books THG is borrowing from and inspired by. Some of the OG dystopians. The cool thing about this genre is that it’s timeless. In fact, some of the ones written long ago end up being even eerier, because you can see the ways in which we are actually like the futures the authors imagined. Yikes!

Four dystopian novels I recommend, from most recent to oldest:

The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993). A lot of people don’t realize it is part of a quartet of books, so you can get the series fix. It is a great dystopian novel to start out with, dealing with issues of identity, and causing us to consider how we track people in our schools and society. Don’t watch the movie first…I’ve heard it is disappointing. (Recommended age: 6th grade and up.)


Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953). One of my absolute favorite dystopian novels, and in my top 10 favorite overall books. It deals with censorship and with the power of knowledge, among other themes. Chances are you’ll be asked to read this at some point in middle or high school, but it is totally accessible and enjoyable of a read on your own. He wrote a bunch of other great short stories that get you thinking as well. (Recommended age: 8th grade and up.)

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954). This is probably THE dystopian novel contemporary dystopian novels borrow from the most. (Being stuck on an island and trying to survive might also remind you of some shows.) It has the violence (though far less graphic than THG), memorable characters, and definitely a great book to discuss human nature and the different ways we tend to organize groups/societies. There are also a lot of biblical allusions, or references, so this makes for a favorite to teach symbolism.  (Recommended age: 8th grade and up.)

Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945). Another popular book read in English as well as History classes in school, Orwell uses what seems like a story about farm animals to critique Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union. People love this book because it is super SHORT! It is also relatively easy to understand, and hilarious in a eerie way. It’s definitely memorable. (Recommended age: 8th and up. But read it again in 10th grade, when you take World History!)

If you read these four, you’ll see that you’re not missing out by not reading THG.

What’s your take on THG and its age appropriateness or merit as a dystopian series? I would love to hear your thoughts about any of the books featured in this post.

Oh, and for a Suzanne Collins alternative, I recommend The Underland Chronicles, which has stronger characters, themes, and world-building. And is age-appropriate.




Alicia: My Story, A CYL Book for the Ages

“What’s your favorite book?” This is one of the questions I get the most from people. And I have so many that I needed to start breaking them down by genre, or other ridiculously narrow categories so as to afford me more favorite slots, such as “My favorite book I read during the years I owned my Scion was…”

Since people have pointed out that favorite means ONE, and my overuse of it was rendering it meaningless, I have exchanged “favorite book” for books that “CYL,” or change your life.

Hands down, one of my absolute top three CYL books is Alicia: My Story by Alicia Appleman-Jurman. I’ve hesitated to write a post about it, because I know I cannot do it justice. But starting today, it is $1.99 on Kindle and other e-book versions. I don’t know how long that deal will last, but it has compelled me to finally post about it.

I love reading or watching anything about or set during WWII (see: shout out for The Book Thief, another CYL book). I also love memoirs and biographies. I also love books featuring strong female protagonists (Katniss was NOT the first, y’all). Alicia is all of those and more. I happened upon the book during a browsing session at Barnes & Noble on Shattuck Ave (we hardly knew ye). The title and cover don’t exactly scream, “Read Me,” but for whatever reason I picked it up, and boy, am I glad I ever did.

We were going through Ruth in our DTs at the time, and perhaps that colored my perspective as I got to know Alicia’s life story. As she lost each of her family members to the Nazis (I’m not giving away any spoilers, don’t worry), she continued to survive, with only her wits as well as the help of others. What was astounding was she didn’t allow her circumstances to overwhelm her or justify being selfish, but she continued to think of others. She ended up taking care of thousands of orphaned children, counseling them, mothering them, providing for them, when she herself had her own traumas and needs to tend to. All this would be admirable enough, but then every once in a while, she would mention things like, “I would soon be 14.” And you’re like…WHAAAAT?!?!

To date, reading Alicia the first time was one of the most moving reading experiences I have had. Alicia came to me at just the right time in my mid-20s. As I studied the life of Ruth, and got engrossed in the life of Alicia, I had this moment of, “My life is truly a picnic” and I committed to stop complaining about my life and how “hard” it was to deal with x, y, z first-world problem.

Then I proceeded to tell everyone around me to read it, and stocked up on copies to give away. I think Michelle from Gracepoint San Diego church was one of the first. And she couldn’t put the book down either! She would read it while Stephen was at soccer practice. 🙂 Over the years I have gifted it to many people, sometimes with a forceful, “You HAVE to read this.” Some people I remember for sure are Sandra from Gracepoint Davis church, Mia and Susan from Gracepoint Minneapolis church, Lydia from Gracepoint Los Angeles church, Anna, Christine, Hannah, Elise, pretty much any of my housemates over the years, and countless others…you can try asking random sisters if they’ve read it if you want to find out how they liked it! I think I’ve recommended it to many brothers as well. 🙂

While the book isn’t as well known as Night by Elie Wiesel, it is every bit as worthwhile a read. Alicia settled in the Bay Area when she came to the U.S., and devoted her life to sharing her story as a survivor of the Holocaust, especially with students. I therefore had the opportunity to meet Alicia in 2003, when she came to speak at the high school where I used to teach. It was before the era of always having a camera with me, so I do not have a photo of our meeting. But to prove that you can remember a life experience without a photo, I can still feel the firmness of her handshake and the attentive focus of her eyes as we had a short exchange, and I was able to express a bit of how her courage inspired me and so many others I have passed her story onto.

All this to say, I highly recommend this book for anyone who is in about 5th grade and up!

Have you read Alicia: My Story? Were you one of the ones I “forced” to read it? What books have “changed your life”?