Academic First Year Experiences

  • Book covers for CSUN's Freshman Common Reading, 2007-2015

Nominated Titles: the 2016-2017 Freshman Common Reading

Nominations for the 2016-2017 Freshman Common Reading at CSUN are closed; the same is true for 2017-2018 nominations.  But if you're ready to nominate a title for 2018-2019, please read the selection criteria and then fill out our online nomination form. For more information, read about our nomination process

What Freshmen Will Read by Maxine Joselow (Inside Higher Education, 11 July 2016) offers an overview of some books chosen by other colleges and universities for 2017-2018. Our book doesn't directly match the theme Joselow is considering ("Immigration and racial injustice are topics of choice for common reading choices this year"). If it did, I'm sure we'd be mentioned.

This table lists the titles nominated for CSUN's 2016-2017 Freshman Common Reading, beginning with the winning title and followed by the three other finalists.

Book cover shows a face with red paint splashed across the eyes and mouth.So You've Been Publicly Shamed
 by Jon Ronson.
 2015. 290 pages.  Winning title for 2016-2017.

Nominated by Jamie Johnson and Susanna Eng-Ziskin.

Jamie says:  I found this a thought-provoking, engaging read on the idea of public shaming through social media, told through a series of stories about the victims. Whether the stories be surprising, horrific, or sad, they all shed light on the effects of social media and how simple (albeit uninformed or provocative comments) can forever change a person's life. This book will encourage freshman students to discuss how social media affects their own lives and how easily they can change another person's life through a platform that is significant in their own daily life. It will also enlighten freshmen to reflect on their own comments, remarks, or tweets that could have changed another person's life.

Amazon review: "Ronson starts his book off by recounting a personal story. A group of men who made highfalutin' claims to conducting some sort of social experiment set up a Twitter account using Ronson's name, though they claim they weren't trying to pretend to be him. This account began sending out Tweets that made Ronson fear that his friends and family would mistake them for some alternate universe of himself. He confronted the men on camera, the video was uploaded to YouTube, and commenters promptly began to wage a shame war on the perpetrators that ultimately ended with their taking down the fake Twitter account. Ah, sweet justice. Or was it?

"Ronson began to wonder what happens to the people on the receiving end of an Internet mob's rage. Through digging into the stories of and conducting interviews with well-known people like disgraced author and journalist Jonah Lehrer and ordinary, previously unknown people like Justine Sacco, Ronson provides a vivid and disturbing picture of what happens to the people on the receiving end of vigilante-style justice and raises interesting philosophical questions about what this means for our larger culture."

Susanna adds: The book will engage freshmen, and draw them into reading and reflection through the use of some well-known (and other less well-known) stories about real people, what they did, and how they became "publicly shamed" through social media. It will encourage freshmen to grow intellectually by having them think about their own actions, their feelings of shame or humiliation, how they got through it (or didn't), and what they may have done to others as well. This book could be used in a wide number of courses, from writing, to sociology, to psychology, to gender studies, to philosophy and more. It's strong when it comes to evaluating gender differences and norms on the internet. The book addresses multiple significant issues, through the lens of social media, which I think our students can relate to, and more importantly need to think about.

More information: New York Times Sunday Book Review

Oviatt Library does not currently own this book, but it will be ordered early in the spring 2016 semester.

A wistful girl looks out through the window of a train's door.Orphan Train: A Novel by Christina Baker Cline.2013. 278 pages. 2016-2017 finalist.

Nominated by Irene Clark. 

Publisher's description: "Between 1854 and 1929, so-called orphan trains ran regularly from the cities of the East Coast to the farmlands of the Midwest, carrying thousands of abandoned children whose fates would be determined by pure luck. Would they be adopted by a kind and loving family, or would they face a childhood and adolescence of hard labor and servitude?  As a young Irish immigrant, Vivian Daly was one such child, sent by rail from New York City to an uncertain future a world away. Returning east later in life, Vivian leads a quiet, peaceful existence on the coast of Maine, the memories of her upbringing rendered a hazy blur. But in her attic, hidden in trunks, are vestiges of a turbulent past. Seventeen-year-old Molly Ayer knows that a community-service position helping an elderly widow clean out her attic is the only thing keeping her out of juvenile hall. But as Molly helps Vivian sort through her keepsakes and possessions, she discovers that she and Vivian aren't as different as they appear. A Penobscot Indian who has spent her youth in and out of foster homes, Molly is also an outsider being raised by strangers, and she, too, has unanswered questions about the past. Moving between contemporary Maine and Depression-era Minnesota, Orphan Train is a powerful tale of upheaval and resilience, second chances, and unexpected friendship."  

Irene adds: "This book addresses a situation which will provide students with a historical perspective on how Irish immigrants, in particular, orphans, were treated in the past, experiencing problems that other cultural groups are experiencing in the present. The characters are well developed and because the narrative involves parallel stories, it lends itself to other works of literature that also involve dual tales. The prose is not difficult and the students are likely to identify with Molly, the teenager who discovers that she has a lot in common with an elderly woman who experienced hardships that are similar to, and, in many ways, more difficult than her own."  

Oviatt Library does not own this book, but the library does have quite a few videos, articles, and other books about this historical phenomenon.

Cover shows a girl's silhouette in white, superimposed on a rampant bear, which is superimposed on an ornate coffeepot.Tell the Wolves I'm Home
by Carol Rifka Brunt.
 2012. 360 pages. 2016-2017 finalist.

Nominated by Debbi Mercado.

Debbi says: This wonderful and complicated story is told by awkward, 14-year old June as she deals with the death of her beloved and charismatic Uncle Finn at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Her workaholic parents and cruel older sister offer little solace as she works through her grief, and she eventually develops a secret friendship with one of Finn's friends with whom she can share her memories and the depth of her loss. Multiple sub-plots about family dynamics, the fear of AIDS, the loneliness of being gay, the awkwardness of the teen years, and the art world, create a rich story that is hard to put down and hard to forget. I started this book on the plane to Hawaii and I was so taken with it, I was content to forgo all Hawaiian excursions until I had finished it. It's that good!

The story tells of a unique moment in history when the AIDS epidemic was exposing many previously private gay men, and it is a window into its effects on the dynamics of one loving family. An equally interesting side story has to do with Finn's fame as an artist, and a portrait he leaves of June and her sister is central to the family drama. Our freshmen have grown up with gay rights in the news, and this book would provide an interesting historical backdrop to many of the issues and hard-won gay rights that we now take for granted. The possibilities for discussion are endless.

Oviatt Library owns this book.

Cover shows three uniformed youths standing at attention; subtitle: The Experiment that Went Too Far.The Wave by John Strasser. 1981. 144 pages.  2016-2017 finalist.

Nominated by Breanne Foster.

Breanne says:  This book, based on real events, is about a teacher trying to broaden his students' understanding of the world and of history in an experiment gone overboard. I think just as the teacher tries to engage his students and help them grow, this book does the same.  It is an easy and fast read (140 pages) but I found myself pausing and thinking about the implications in the text (group pressure, mob mentality/group think, exclusion and intolerance, and many other patterns of human behavior and psychology, for example) for hours, and talking about the book for days to anyone who would listen. I shared it with all my friends/family so I would have people to talk about the book with.
The book is based on history; not only does the teacher recreate behaviors of the Nazis from WWII, but the book itself was written in 1981 about a classroom experiment from 1967. It lends itself quite easily to being discussed from many different perspectives, including history, psychology, anthropology, and education, as well as U100 and English courses

More information: author's website; University of Texas College of Education Books R4 Teens reviewGoodreads review

Oviatt Library does not currently own this book.

Cover shows a Lakota dreamcatcher decorated with feathers.The Lakota Way: Stories and Lessons for Living by Joseph Marshall III. 2002. 256 pages. 

Nominated by Nicole Dickson, who also nominated this book last year.

Amazon review: Rich with storytelling, history, and folklore, The Lakota Way expresses the heart of Native American philosophy and reveals the path to a fulfilling and meaningful life. Joseph Marshall is a member of the Sicunga Lakota Sioux and has dedicated his entire life to the wisdom he learned from his elders. Here he focuses on the twelve core qualities that are crucial to the Lakota way of life--bravery, fortitude, generosity, wisdom, respect, honor, perseverance, love, humility, sacrifice, truth, and compassion. Whether teaching a lesson on respect imparted by the mythical Deer Woman or the humility embodied by the legendary Lakota leader Crazy Horse, The Lakota Way offers a fresh outlook on spirituality and ethical living.

Nicole adds: This book teaches students about important life values, such as love, honesty, and other traits. It makes the reader think about their morals. It also opens the reader to a culture that they probably know very little about.

More information: author's website.

Oviatt Library does not currently own this book.

Book cover shows a pair of orange-red rubber-soled flat canvas shoes.Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman. 2014. 416 pages.

Nominated by Erin Delaney.  

Erin says: "Not the same as the Netflix series! (At least, not exactly the same.)

"Orange Is the New Black is Piper Kerman's memoir about her time in prison for committing a nonviolent drug offense. She introduces readers to a variety of characters in a women's prison. She engages with current issues (such as poverty, addiction, and recidivism) that are relevant to the prison experience. In addition, she faces her own crime and sees the harm it caused to others.

Erin on how the book meets our criteria: "(1 & 2) I taught the book last Fall (2014) in English 115 Honors and the students were very engaged with the text. We used the book as a jumping off point to research other issues in the prison system, which encouraged the students' intellectual growth. (3) The book could work well in a variety of classes, including the social sciences, gender and women's studies, and writing classes. (4) The book discusses women's prison in particular. Although the author is white, she includes a critical discussion of race and the way it affects the prisoners' experiences. The book also brings up issues of gender identity and sexuality. (5) The book addresses significant issues, especially the issue of minimum mandatory sentences for nonviolent drug crimes."

More information: here's the review from Amazon.

Oviatt Library does not currently own this book.

Smiling young man with a suitcase and backpack walks out onto a front porch.The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs. 2014. 416 pages.

Nominated by Felicia Vertrees.  

"A heartfelt, and riveting biography of the short life of a talented young African-American man who escapes the slums of Newark for Yale University only to succumb to the dangers of the streets—and of one’s own nature—when he returns home.

"When author Jeff Hobbs arrived at Yale University, he became fast friends with the man who would be his college roommate for four years, Robert Peace.....The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace encompasses the most enduring conflicts in America: race, class, drugs, community, imprisonment, education, family, friendship, and love. It’s about the collision of two fiercely insular worlds—the ivy-covered campus of Yale University and Newark, New Jersey, and the difficulty of going from one to the other and then back again. It’s about poverty, the challenges of single motherhood, and the struggle to find male role models in a community where a man is more likely to go to prison than to college. It’s about reaching one’s greatest potential and taking responsibility for your family no matter the cost. It’s about trying to live a decent life in America. But most all the story is about the tragic life of one singular brilliant young man. His end, a violent one, is heartbreaking and powerful and unforgettable." (*Version*=1&*entries*=0)

Felicia says:  "This book talks about the difficulties for a young black man, who is brilliant academically but for some reason couldn't separate himself from his neighborhood. It's as if his crime-ridden neighborhood in New Jersey went away to college with him. It's also about his single mother and absentee father and how growing up in such a chaotic household really affected him later on. It's written by his former college roommate, and it is one of the books that I could not put down. Our students  will relate to his story. It has a lot of life lessons."

Oviatt Library owns this book.

Book cover shows the back of a woman wearing pink, with dark braided hair.The Book of Unknown Americans: A Novel by Cristina Henríquez. 2014. 304 pages.

Nominated by Jennie Quiñonez-Skinner.  

The Book of Unknown Americans is less about the actual trek of its characters than about how they settle in, make do and figure things out. They talk to one another, give advice and lend a hand. .... Despite the travails that any of us have in these unsure times when traveling or relocating — who among us wouldn’t want to be able to say we are home at last?" --Ana Castillo, "Americanos."  New York Times Sunday Book Review. 3 July 2014.

Jennie adds:  "Not just an "immigration' story, this book tackles some of the stereotypes and diversity within a community. The characters are diverse (not just one monolithic Latino experience), but more than that the characters are undergoing a journey of self-discovery which I think speaks to so many college students.The goal is to understand your past while becoming your own person."

Oviatt Library owns this book.

The book's subtitle and author name glow in deep yellow against the gray-on-charcoal darkness used for the title.Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Héctor Tobar. 2014. 320 pages.

Nominated by Ronit Sarig.  

"In this masterful dissection of the 2010's dramatic sixty-nine day ordeal by thirty-three trapped Chilean miners, Héctor Tobar weaves a suspenseful narrative that moves back and forth between the waking nightmares of the buried men, and those of their families on the earth's surface. In Deep Down Dark, Héctor Tobar takes us deftly to the very cliff-edge of human survival." (Jon Lee Anderson,*Version*=1&*entries*=0)

Ronit adds: "The book deals with a contemporary issue that most students are familiar with and likely followed on TV. It is a story of survival in dire circumstances and deals with human relationships and group dynamics when people find themselves in a situation they never anticipated. The book is a compelling read."

A movie is in the works (set for release in November 2015): The 33.

Oviatt Library does not currently own this book.

Two ghostly faces gaze at one another above a distant view of a bridge in New York City.A Tale of Two Citizens: A Novel by Elyce Wakerman. 2015. 376 pages.

Nominated by Mona Houghton.  

"Immigration issues divide the country, and economic woes circle the globe. It is 1929. A lie helps Harry Himelbaum get past the cold scrutiny of Ellis Island's immigration officials. Among the inspectors is Will Brown, a zealously patriotic Iowa lawyer, dedicated to minimizing foreign influence in America and recently married to his childhood sweetheart, Barbara.  Against the tumultuous backdrop of the 1930's – Depression-era dust storms, widespread fear of "the other," and the intensifying goose-step of Nazism –this gripping story follows the interwoven and conflicting dreams of Harry and Will and their families, as Harry works to send for the wife and child his lie has concealed, threatened at each step by the growing suspicion of government surveillance, and Will rises in the ranks of the newly founded Immigration and Naturalization Service. But Will must choose between his principles and his marriage as he builds his case against Harry, for when Barbara catches wind of Will's obsession, she steps in to try to save Harry from the potentially dire consequences of being sent back to Poland. The suspenseful and heart-wrenching clash of family loyalties, love, and legalities peaks at the end of the decade when the two men finally come face to face at a congressional deportation hearing in Washington, D.C., as Harry struggles to plumb America's mercy, and Will to staunchly uphold her laws."

Mona adds:  "What I admire about this book is the unique interweaving of history and intimate story, plus a love triangle to spice things up. Elyce Wakerman, a creative writing professor, wrote the book while she was teaching here at CSUN. I am sure the spirit of our diverse community played in her imagination as she made this tale." 

Review by Norm Goldman,

Oviatt Library owns this book, and so does Academic First Year Experiences (inside CIELO, Sierra Hall, 4th floor) does. 

A young woman stands beside a reclining mountain lion on a rocky outcropping.Teresa of the New World by Sharman Apt Russell. 2015. 192 pages.

Nominated by Mona Houghton.  

From "In 1528, the real-life Spanish conquistador Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked in the New World where he lived as a slave, trader, and shaman. In this lyrical weaving of history and myth, the adventurer takes his daughter Teresa from her home in Texas to travel to outposts in New Spain. Once there, Teresa is left behind as a servant in a Spanish household. But when an epidemic of measles devastates the area, the sixteen-year-old girl must set off on a new journey, listening again to the voices of the desert, sinking into earth to swim through fossil and stone, reclaiming her power to outwit the cunning figure of Plague. Rich in historical detail and scope, Teresa of the New World takes you into the dreamscape of the sixteenth-century American Southwest."  

Mona adds: "It is a great read. I think the students will enjoy the 'story' and engage with the history that backgrounds it."

Oviatt Library does not currently own this book.

Cover of the THE CIRCLE shows a maze-like design inside a silver circle against a red background.The Circle by Dave Eggers. 2013.  497 pages.

Nominated by Irene Clark.

"Set in the not-too-distant future, The Circle follows the career trajectory of Mae Holland, a young woman in her twenties, who joins a company that demands transparency in all things. Two of its many slogans are 'secrets are lies' and 'privacy is theft.' Anonymity is banished; everyone’s past is revealed; every­one’s present may be broadcast live in video and sound. Nothing recorded will ever be erased, the goal being to have all aspects of human existence — from voting to love affairs — flow through its portal, the sole such portal in the world. The book raises issues that are relevant to our perpetually connected students and could easily be linked with other dystopian works, such as Orwell's 1984."  

Irene adds: "In addition to being an acclaimed author, David Eggers is deeply concerned with literacy and has established a number of literacy centers around the country. His presence on campus would be worthwhile in many ways."

Oviatt Library does not currently own this book, but Academic First Year Experiences (inside CIELO, Sierra Hall, 4th floor) does.

A small boy writes on pavement with a piece of chalk.Take this Man: A Memoir by Brando Skyhorse. 2014. 272 pages. 

Nominated by Corie Skolnick.

Corie says: "This is a great read and I think a natural for the students of CSUN. Brando Skyhorse is an Angeleno after all! I have seen him read/talk and he is a dynamic public speaker as well."

"The true story of a boy’s turbulent childhood growing up with five stepfathers and the mother who was determined to give her son everything but the truth. When he was three years old, Brando Kelly Ulloa was abandoned by his Mexican father. His mother, Maria, dreaming of a more exciting life, saw no reason for her son to live his life as a Mexican just because he started out as one. The life of 'Brando Skyhorse,' the American Indian son of an incarcerated political activist, was about to begin.  Through a series of letters to Paul Skyhorse Johnson, a stranger in prison for armed robbery, Maria reinvents herself and her young son as American Indians in the colorful Mexican-American neighborhood of Echo Park, California. There Brando and his mother live with his acerbic grandmother and a rotating cast of surrogate fathers. It will be over thirty years before Brando begins to untangle the truth of his own past, when a surprise discovery online leads him to his biological father at last." (

Publisher's reading group guide:


Oviatt Library does not currently own this book.

Five teens grin triumphantly on top of a hill; a city skyline is barely visible in the distance.Spare Parts by Joshua Davis. 2014. 240 pages.  

Nominated by Scott Andrews.  

Scott notes: "The subtitle says a lot: 'Four Undocumented Teenagers, One Ugly Robot, and the Battle for the American Dream.' The book tells the story of four high school students who win a robot-building competition against university students." 

From the Amazon summary: "But this is just the beginning for these four, whose story--which became a key inspiration to the DREAMers movement--will go on to include first-generation college graduations, deportation, bean-picking in Mexico, and service in Afghanistan.'"  The movie version of this book was released in 2015. 

Oviatt Library owns this book.  So does Academic First Year Experiences (in CIELO, Sierra Hall 4th floor).

Sepia-toned clouds, trees, mist, and mountains surround the book's title.The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson. 2014. 208 pages. 

Nominated by Bobby Espinoza.

Bobby says: "This is a short book by a famous evolutionary biologists from Harvard.  It is a National Book Award Finalist. The book addresses the following our-place-in-the-universe subjects: How did humanity originate and why does a species like ours exist on this planet? Do we have a special place, even a destiny in the universe? Where are we going, and perhaps, the most difficult question of all, 'Why?'”

Oviatt Library does not currently own this book.