#IntlYALitMonth: The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival

Posted on 5/2/23 by Suzi Tonini

The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival written by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan is a riveting memoir of a young girl who survives genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Now a university professor living in the United States, Amra shares her experiences as a Muslim teen trapped in the upheaval of her beloved homeland. 

Amra’s recollections begin in 1992, and her inner thoughts swirl around typical teen preoccupations–friendships, Algebra, makeup, test scores, crushes, fashion trends, and her upcoming 16th birthday party. Two days later, Amra arrives at school to discover all the Serb residents secretly evacuated her village overnight, leaving only the Muslims behind, and her peaceful home of Bihać, Bosnia is about to become a war zone. 

During the first fearful days of waiting for the impending siege on their town, a friendly stray cat follows Amra home. Amra isn’t particularly fond of cats and calls the skinny calico “Maci,” the Bosnian word for cat, but Maci soon earns the affections of Amra and her family. Maci is a source of comfort during unsettling times of increasing violence, and throughout Amra’s harrowing tale of survival, Maci symbolizes the power of love to shine hope amidst the darkest of human experiences.  

Amra’s six-year account of the Bosnian genocide and its aftermath alternates between grief and rage, horror and benevolence, hope and hopelessness, and will likely remind readers of past and present examples of ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity. Amra’s interrupted childhood, growing immunity to sniper fire and air raid sirens, and her building determination to venture outside her home despite its dangers will also evoke readers’ memories of fear, isolation and frustration caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. And Amra’s perseverance through it all, with her Maci guardian spirit at her side, ultimately inspires hope for the future. 

Awarded a 2021 YALSA Finalist Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction, The Cat I Never Named explores the dangers of normalizing “othering” and violence, the consequences of unchecked bigotry, the importance of human connection, and the transformative power of education. Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess’ author note draws a parallel between the causes of the Bosnian genocide and rising hate in the United States and around the world, and calls readers to action with her plea, “I hope my story compels you to act and end hate, in whatever ways you can.” A heart-wrenching tale of immeasurable importance.

The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War and Survival

Written by Amra Sabic-El-Rayess with Laura L. Sullivan

2020, Bloomsbury 

ISBN: 9781547604555

Reviews: Kirkus; School Library Journal; Publisher’s Weekly

Awards: YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist; Capitol Choices Remarkable Book; Mighty Girl Best Book; Malala Fund Favorite Book Selection

Reviewer Suzi Tonini (she/her) is the School Library Leadership Consultant for the Colorado State Library. Suzi holds a M.Ed. in Education from George Mason University and a M.A. in Information Learning Technologies and Teacher Librarian endorsement from the University of Colorado Denver. Suzi has more than twenty years of experience as an educator and seven years of experience as a librarian for Denver Public Schools and the state of Colorado.

This month’s curator for #IntlYALitMonth is Julia E. Torres. JULIA E. TORRES is a nationally recognized veteran language arts teacher, librarian, and teen programs administrator in Denver, Colorado. Julia facilitates teacher development workshops rooted in the areas of anti-racist education, equity and access in literacy and librarianship, and education as a practice of liberation. Julia’s work has been featured on NPR, AlJazeera’s The Stream, PBS Education, KQED’s MindShift, Rethinking Schools, Learning for Justice Magazine, School Library Journal, American Libraries Magazine, and many more. She is a Book Love Foundation board member, Educolor Working Group member, a Book Ambassador for The Educator Collaborative, and a co-founder of #DisruptTexts. Her co-authored title Liven Up Your Library: Design Engaging and Inclusive Programs for Teens and Tweens is just the first of many forthcoming publications for librarians and educators. Connect with Julia at juliaetorres.com or on social media @juliaerin80

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