Story Time Reviews “Valedictorian” by N. K. Jemisin

Story Time Reviews remembers the joy of listening to bedtime stories. Today Story Time Reviews “Valedictorian” by N. K. Jemisin read by LeVar Burton. For those who prefer the print version, you can find it in the December 2014 (Issue 55) of Lightspeed Magazine.

Image of a royal blue mortar-board with yellow trim and yellow tassel representing Story Time Reviews "Valedictorian"

Where to Find the Story

“Valedictorian” © 2012 by N. K. Jemisin. After: Nineteen Stories of Apocolapse and Dystopia, edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow. It also appears in N. K. Jemisin’s collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?

The February 3, 2020 episode of the reading lasts 56:21 minutes. It is available on the LeVar Burton podcast, Apple podcasts, and Stitcher.

The Story

A brief description: A smart, stubborn high school student sets her own rules in a near-future dystopia. 

This short story (5939 words) takes place in a complex future many years after a devastating war. Spare and powerful words describe a layered society and characters with conflicting desires.

Zinhle, a senior in high school, lives inside a “Firewall” with people like her. She excels in school and despairs that none of her classmates or teachers challenge her. Everyone strives to be mediocre because when graduation comes, there will be change. Her desire to be herself, to never do less than her best, drives the story. 

The characters in this story are recognizable and intriguing. Even the ones who only appear for a paragraph. 

The antagonist is strong and presents a compelling argument. So compelling that Zinhle and the reader have a lot to think about.

The Author 

Photograph of N. K. Jemisin taken by Laura Hanifin 2015.
Portrait of N. K. Jemisin by Laura Hanifin, 2015

N. K. Jemisin is a N.Y. Times best-selling, multiple award-winning author and recipient of a 2020 MacArthur Fellowship. She began writing at 8 years of age, but didn’t write for publication until after she turned thirty.

Sadly, readers weren’t ready for her first published book, an inclusive fantasy, The Killing Moon

In 2016, her novel, The Fifth Season, won the Hugo. That made N. K. Jemisin the first black person in history to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel. (Well-deserved, but shameful that the genre and the world had waited so long to honor black authors.) The next two novels in The Broken Earth trilogy, The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky, won the Hugo for Best Novel in 2017 and 2018 (respectively). She is the first person ever to win the that award in three consecutive years.

Read what N. K. Jemisin has to say about how this story came about.

The Voice Talent

LeVar Burton is an Actor, Director, Educator & Cofounder of the award-winning Skybrary App, host and Executive Producer of PBS’s Reading Rainbow and lifelong children’s literacy advocate.

What can I add? Most of you are familiar with LeVar through his roles on Roots or Star Trek or on Reading Rainbow. He’s an exceptional ad entertaining reader. 

He doesn’t always read the story how I would, but his voice talent always compels me to stay with him to the end. He never disappoints. 

My Opinion

Wow. Burton’s intro to the story is spot on. The story makes you think. And I love that. 

It speaks to me about oppression—on a personal level, on a diversity level, and on an admiring writer level. 

The story has a depth that N. K. Jemisin reveals in the slow peeling back of layers. Then, as a thinking reader, there are more layers to explore once you’ve finished the story. 

It’s a story you can read many times and glean deeper insights each time.

I love stories that entertain me and challenge me to think. 


Do you read short stories? Where do you find them? Did you listen to or read this story? Story Time Reviews “Valedictorian” by N. K. Jemisin as read by LeVar Burton. Story and voice talent get 5 out of 5 stars. Let us know if you agree or disagree by commenting below.

Are You an Anti-Strong Female Protagonist Protester?

Have you read the protests? Did you nod your head and agree? Are you Anti-Strong Female Protagonist? You say you’re not against strong female characters, you’re against the label, the marketing term. Perhaps you’ve overlooked the reasons we need book and movie categories for strong female characters. Consider rethinking and rephrasing your argument.

Yes, there are reasons to wish we didn’t need this label and there are lots of books and movies that get the strong female character wrong. But not all women recognize a strong woman or know how to be one. For now, we need all the strong female protagonist examples we can get.

Drawing of non-gendered humans, one with a bull horn yelling at another one who wears a black tie and is jumping back, startled--the anti-strong female protagonist protesters yell, sometimes without examining what they really mean.

Where the Anti-Strong-Female-Protagonist Protesters Get it Wrong

It’s a sign of male oppression, so say the anti-strong-female character devotees. Yes and no. Yes, the patriarchal societies of the world often/usually/always suppress the females in their societies. That oppression is wrong-headed, but real. Like it or hate it, it still exists in far too much of the world.

“Male characters aren’t labeled that way so female characters shouldn’t be.” It would be a wonderful world if we all naturally understood that both males and females are powerful characters. Too bad that’s not reality.

To say that we shouldn’t have a label identifying strong female characters seems to imply that all females know they are strong therefore we shouldn’t need the label.

Let’s take a moment and agree that oppression of one gender by another, oppression of one race by another, and oppression of one religion or ethnicity by another, is wrong. Let’s be clear: all oppression of one set of people by another is wrong. Oppression exists on all kinds of levels. Pretending it doesn’t exist is also wrong. To pretend that we’ve overcome oppression is wrongheaded.

Let’s Rephrase It

When you read the posts by members of the anti-Strong-Female-Protagonists movement, they claim the label has somehow led to a proliferation of females with male characteristics. It is this that they contend is the problem. They believe that somehow authors have bought into the idea that to be strong, females must shoot and kill and “act like a man.”

Hopefully, they are not suggesting that it’s unrealistic for females to shoot or kill or “act like a man.”

When you examine their complaints, it appears the are talking about poorly developed characters. Characters who exist solely to forward the plot. Or characters with less than deep and believable motivations.

So instead of protesting the label because of poorly written characters, let’s rephrase and complain about flat characters. Flat characters are unsatisfying, especially when the flat character is a female.

Why the Label is a Good Thing

Few matriarchal or true egalitarian societies exist today. Many women from patriarchal societies or relationships have had no mentors to teach them how strong they are. Some need to learn how to be strong. They need mentors and examples in books, movies, and in real life. Some of those examples may not meet everyone’s definition of a strong female. That’s okay. The woman next to you may see herself in that character.

Despite more and more authors stepping up to portray female leads, stories with female protagonists remain a small percentage of all stories published. Some readers seek stories with female protagonists. The label “strong female” is a marketing tool that helps readers find these stories.

Needed: Strong Females 

Your mother, aunt, or grandmother may have been a self-actualized, powerful female and mentored you. That’s great. Not all of us are so fortunate. 

Some of us need print and movie examples. Many of us need to be shown all the ways we are strong. If you haven’t had the life experience to help you identify your own strengths, examples help. Giving the world lots of fictional examples, all kinds of strong females, allow girls and women to see and test what kind of strong female they want to be. Please, allow them that opportunity.

It would be ideal for every female to have examples of the perfect, self-actualizing females surrounding her. But then we’d have to all agree upon what the perfect self-actualized female looks and acts like. And that’s not respectful of the diversity of human society.

Why Not Strong?

Is it truly the word strong you are protesting? Would you prefer simply female protagonist? That’s not a very compelling label for marketing.

Perhaps you would prefer using the same labels used in stories with male protagonists. For example: action hero, dumb jock, rogue, strong and silent, etc. The list goes on.

How would you rephrase “strong female protagonist” so readers can find those stories?

Don’t Throw Out the Label, Yet

Are you a part of the anti-strong female protagonist movement? Please protest patriarchal oppression. And protest poorly written, flat characters. Don’t throw the label “strong female characters” out. Some day the label will have fulfilled its purpose. But not today. Today we need strong females–everywhere.

How Do You Recognize a Strong Woman?

For the past four years, this blog has featured brief biographies of women. Each woman featured shows strength, but it’s not necessarily physical strength. If it’s not physical strength, how do you recognize a strong woman?

Daring greatly is being brave and afraid every minute of the day at the exact same time.

Brene Brown

She doesn’t wait to be saved or given permission to act.

Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.

Mother Teresa
Photo of Mother Teresa in her blue on white habit

Sensitive, kind, and dedicated to serve others, Mother Teresa was a strong woman. She acted on her convictions and founded the Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa and her missionaries cared for people dying of HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, ran soup kitchens, dispensaries, mobile clinics, children’s and family counseling programs, as well as orphanages and schools. She put her own health at risk and worked tirelessly to help those in need.

Strong women challenge themselves. 

Where there is no struggle, there is no strength.

Photo of Simon Biles in a red long-sleeve leotard, mid-air during a gymnastics routine.

America’s most decorated gymnast, Simone Biles is physically small, but she didn’t let that stop her. Her strength isn’t only physical. A focused and dedicated athlete, she challenges herself and works hard to achieve her goals. 

Strength can be mental, emotional, or physical. Physical strength isn’t necessary to be a strong woman. But women can also be physically strong.

A strong woman speaks her mind.

You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.

Maya Angelou
Photo of Kamala Harris By Office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States, is confident, assertive, and full of personal charisma. She does not shrink herself to fit the roles or expectations of others. Vice President Harris speaks her mind and does not back down when others attempt to diminish her.

She can make choices against convention

It’s ok to care about what other people think, but you should give a little more weight to what you, yourself, think … The habit of thinking is the habit of gaining strength. You’re stronger than you believe.

Nnedi Okorafor
Photo of South African female combat troops with helmets, weapons, and in cammo

Strong women know others might judge them for choosing a career that goes against what is “feminine.” They also know that others do not determine their self-worth. They find their self-worth inside themselves.

Photo of a female construction worker carrying a long beam over her shoulder.

She can say no.

We don’t even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. In times of tragedy, of war, of necessity, people do amazing things. The human capacity for survival and renewal is awesome.

Isabel Allende

Rosa Parks was soft-spoken, sweet, and small in stature. Some described her as timid and shy. But in 1955, Rosa said no. She refused to give her seat up for a white man. She might have been ‘timid and shy’ but she was a strong woman.

A strong woman seeks the right attention

You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt

Though she was a shy and retiring person, Eleanor Roosevelt gave 348 press conferences as First Lady. She stepped into the role of First Lady and used her position and her voice to help others. Eleanor was a United Nations delegate, a human rights activist, a teacher, and a lecturer who averaged 150 speaking engagements a year throughout the 1950s.

She frees herself from the victim mentality

Only I can change my life. No one can do it for me.

Carol Burnett
Photo of Oprah Winfrey clapping

Outgoing, enthusiastic Oprah Winfrey is idealistic and has the interpersonal skills to make others want to join her to make things happen. She had plenty of reasons to see herself as a victim, but she changed her life. And she works to change the life of others.

Her Strength May Not be Recognized

One small crack does not mean that you are broken. It means that you were put to the test, and you didn’t fall apart.

Linda Poindexter

Strength is not always visible. Others may refuse to see it. Sometimes you may have difficulty seeing past your perceived flaws or the insults and injuries life has dealt you.

The broken heart still has heart beats. Though you may feel like death, you are stronger than you think.

Qwana M. BabyGirl Reynolds-Frasier

Strength is contagious

Learn about the strengths of the women before you and around you. Surround yourself with strong women. Find mentors and be a mentor. 

Fight and push harder for what you believe in, you’d be surprised, you are much stronger than you think.

Lady Gaga

How do you recognize a strong woman? Sometimes you need to look in the history books. Sometimes you need to look in the mirror.

Photo Credits:

Photo of Mother Teresa by Laurel  Maryland, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Simone Biles in 2016 Olympics at Rio de Janeiro, CC BY 3.0 BR, byFernando Frazão/Agência Brasil via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Kamala Harris Public Domain 

Photo of female South African troops by MONUSCO, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of female construction worker  from Seattle Municipal Archives, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Rosa Parks Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Eleanor Roosevelt at the United Nations, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Oprah Winfrey by Machocarioca, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Photo of old woman by Free Photos on Pixabay