12 Must-Read Books from StoryStudio Authors – Chicago Review of Books


StoryStudio Chicago is celebrating its 20th Anniversary this year!

The organization first opened its doors in 2003 with just four students. Today, StoryStudio has become an important literary institution in Chicago and across the country, welcoming more than 1,200 writers each year to dedicated writing classes, readings, events, festivals, and more.

At its heart, StoryStudio exists to build communities of storytellers trained to question, explore, celebrate, and change their worlds using the power of story. Writing is too often a solitary practice, which is why it is all the more important that aspiring and accomplished authors alike find spaces where their art is valued and where new connections can become a lifelong support system.

StoryStudio has helped launched the careers of countless writers over the past two decades. To learn more, here are 12 books from StoryStudio authors that you should read today!

The Beauty of Your Face
By Sahar Mustafah
W.W. Norton 

The Beauty of Your Face tells a uniquely American story in powerful, evocative prose. Afaf Rahman, the daughter of Palestinian immigrants, is the principal of a Muslim school in the Chicago suburbs. One morning, a shooter–radicalized by the online alt-right–attacks the school. As Afaf listens to his terrifying progress, we are swept back through her memories, and into a profound and moving exploration of one woman’s life in a nation at odds with its ideals.

Choosing Family: A Memoir of Queer Motherhood and Black Resistance
By Francesca T. Royster
Abrams Books

As a multiracial household in Chicago’s North Side community of Rogers Park, race is at the core of Francesca T. Royster and her family’s world, influencing everyday acts of parenting and the conception of what family truly means. Like Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, this lyrical and affecting memoir focuses on a unit of three: the author; her wife Annie, who’s white; and Cecilia, the Black daughter they adopt as a couple in their forties and fifties. Choosing Family chronicles this journey to motherhood while examining the messiness and complexity of adoption and parenthood from a Black, queer, and feminist perspective. Royster also explores her memories of the matriarchs of her childhood and the homes these women created in Chicago’s South Side–itself a dynamic character in the memoir–where “family” was fluid, inclusive, and not necessarily defined by marriage or other socially recognized contracts.

The Lost Son
By Stephanie Vanderslice
Regal House Publishing

How does a mother survive the unsurvivable? After her husband and the baby’s nurse kidnap her infant son, Nicholas, and take him back to their native Germany, Julia Kruse must completely rebuild her life in America. The Lost Son chronicles Julia’s journey from Depression-Era Queens, NY through World War II as she struggles to provide for herself and her remaining son, Johannes. Over the years, her search for Nicholas is thwarted at every turn, until she falls in love with chauffeur Paul Burns, whose boss might have the political connections to find her son and bring him home from the German front during the last days of the Third Reich, where Johannes is also fighting for the Allies.

Down the Steep 
By A.D. Nauman
Regal House Publishing

Willa McCoy is a strong-minded teenager who longs to follow in the footsteps of her important father. But the year is 1963, the place is small-town Virginia, and her father is a Klansman. Steeped in racism, Willa believes the Klan is daring and brave—like the father she idolizes. She wants only to rise in his esteem; he wants only to keep everyone in their place. Impatient for her to be more feminine, Willa’s parents send her to babysit for the new minister’s wife, Ruth Swanson, unaware the Swansons have moved from Minnesota to do their part in the budding Civil Rights movement. Soon Willa finds herself at Ruth’s kitchen table with Langston Jones, a smart young Black man. Langston and Willa despise each other, but they both love Ruth, so their paths continue to cross. One evening, Langston reveals a devastating secret that forces Willa to see her father’s true character, and the once-loyal daughter rebels. As she plots to destroy her father’s reputation, she unwittingly sets into motion a series of events that leads to her family’s ruin.

Cold Girls 
By Maxine Rae

Eighteen-year-old Rory Quinn-Morelli doesn’t want to die; she wants refuge from reality for even a minute: the reality where she survived the car crash eight months ago, and her best friend, Liv, didn’t. Yet her exasperating mother won’t believe the Xanax incident was an accident, and her therapist is making it increasingly hard to maintain the detached, impenetrable “cold girl” façade she adopted from Liv. After she unintentionally reconnects with Liv’s parents, Rory must decide: will she keep Liv’s and her secrets inside, or will she finally allow herself to break? And if she breaks, what will she unearth amid the pieces?

The Window
By Amelia Brunskill
Delacorte Press 

Anna is everything her identical twin is not. Outgoing and athletic, she is the opposite of quiet introvert Jess. The same on the outside, yet so completely different inside—it’s hard to believe the girls are sisters, let alone twins. But they are. And they tell each other everything. Or so Jess thought. After Anna falls to her death while sneaking out her bedroom window, Jess’s life begins to unravel. Everyone says it was an accident, but to Jess, that doesn’t add up. Where was Anna going? Who was she meeting? And how long had Anna been lying to her?

Plague Years: A Doctor’s Journey through the AIDS Crisis
By Ross A Slotten
University of Chicago Press

Plague Years is an unprecedented first-person account of that epidemic, spanning not just the city of Chicago but four continents as well. Slotten provides an intimate yet comprehensive view of the disease’s spread alongside heartfelt portraits of his patients and his own conflicted feelings as a medical professional, drawn from more than thirty years of personal notebooks. In telling the story of someone who was as much a potential patient as a doctor, Plague Years sheds light on the darkest hours in the history of the LGBT community in ways that no previous medical memoir has.

By Melanie Weiss
Rosehip Publishing

High school freshman Roman Santi has everything — good looks, great friends, a mansion with an infinity swimming pool — except the one thing he really wants. A relationship with his father. When Roman’s life gets turned upside down, (thanks, Mom!?), he is forced to leave his pampered Hollywood lifestyle and move into his grandparents’ Midwestern home.

See Also

Miles from Motown
By Lisa Sukenic
Fitzroy Books

After moving from her beloved Detroit neighborhood to an unfamiliar suburb on the outskirts of the city, Georgia lies to prevent becoming disqualified from the contest (which is for Detroit residents only) by using her aunt Birdie’s address. With her older brother deployed to Vietnam, and her family worried about when–or if–he’ll make it home, Georgia tries to settle into her new life. But she misses the old–her friend Ceci, the cracks in the sidewalk that used to catch her skates, the hide-and-seek tree, and the deli on the corner. She wonders if she’ll ever make new friends or feel like she belongs. To make matters worse, she must also find a way to intercept the contest finalist announcement that will be mailed to Aunt Birdie’s mailbox before her family uncovers her deception. During that summer, Georgia discovers her own resiliency in the face of upheaval and the power of truth when lies ring hollow.

Everyone Dies Famous
By Len Joy
BQB Publishing

As a tornado threatens their town, a stubborn old man who has lost his son teams up with a troubled young soldier to deliver a jukebox to the wealthy developer having an affair with the soldier’s wife. It’s July 2003 and the small town of Maple Springs, Missouri is suffering through a month-long drought. Dancer Stonemason, a long-forgotten hometown hero still grieving over the death of his oldest son, is moving into town to live with his more dependable younger son. He hires Wayne Mesirow, an Iraq war veteran, to help him liquidate his late son’s business. The heat wave breaks and the skies darken. Dancer tries to settle an old score while Wyne discovers the true cost of his wife’s indifference and turns his thoughts to revenge. When the tornado hits Maple Springs, only one of the men will make it out alive. Everyone Dies Famous is a story from the heartland about the uncommon lives of everyday people – the choices they make, how they live their lives, and how they die.

Twice a Daughter: A Search for Identity, Family, and Belonging
By Julie Ryan McGue
She Writes Press

Julie is adopted. She is also a twin. Because their adoption was closed, she and her sister lack both a health history and their adoption papers–which becomes an issue for Julie when, at forty-eight years old, she finds herself facing several serious health issues. To launch the probe into her closed adoption, Julie first needs the support of her sister. The twins talk things over, and make a pact: Julie will approach their adoptive parents for the adoption paperwork and investigate search options, and the sisters will split the costs involved in locating their birth relatives. But their adoptive parents aren’t happy that their daughters want to locate their birth parents–and that is only the first of many obstacles Julie will come up against as she digs into her background.

Brave(ish): A Memoir of a Recovering Perfectionist 
By Margaret Davis Ghielmetti
She Writes Press

At forty, Margaret quits her sales job to follow her husband’s hotel career to Paris. She’s setting sail on this adventure with a glass half full of bravery, a well-traveled passport, a journal in which she plans to write her novel.. Over the next fifteen years abroad, the cultures of Egypt, Thailand, and Singapore confront Margaret with lessons she never would have learned at home. But it’s only when she and her husband move back to Chicago–with Margaret now stepping into the role of perfect caretaker to her parents–that she has to decide once and for all: will she dare to let go of the old rules and roles she thinks keep her safe in order to step into her own life and creative destiny?

StoryStudio Chicago is turning 20 this year! As part of the Stories Matter Foundation, StoryStudio prides itself on teaching, fostering, and highlighting writers from right here in Chicago, to all across the globe. The Foundation’s annual gala, StoryBall, is taking place on April 28, 2023, and you’re invited to attend this Literary Carnival to celebrate the past 20 years, and to toast to the next 20. If you’re not local or can’t make it, donations to Stories Matter Foundation are always appreciated. Help writers tell their stories!


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