Ms. Hempel Chronicles

A PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist

A Story Prize Notable Book of 2008

Named a Best Book of 2008 by the Los Angeles Times, Amazon, the Hartford Courant, Heeb Magazine, Newsday, Salon, the Arizona Republic, and Kirkus Reviews.


Ms. Hempel Chronicles is, at heart, a coming-of-age story, except that “coming of age,” in Sarah Bynum’s hands, equals realizing that one never does officially come of age. Reading the book is like being dropped back in the seventh grade and understanding, not unhappily, that junior high doesn’t ever actually end. Story after story offers up pitch-perfect portraits of children and adults alike, by turns hilarious and affecting.

This book prizes literature and language. It celebrates adolescence, and ennobles the profession of teaching. It redeems the irredeemable 7th grade. I was profoundly moved by this book and am grateful to its author for reminding me of the true pleasures of those enduring and combustible combined forces.

- Antonya Nelson, judges’ citation, PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction

When I opened this utterly charming novel, I fell in love with it, as one is meant to.
Washington Post
Such a beautiful book is “Ms. Hempel Chronicles,” the kind that gives its reader profound insights into ordinary, everyday life. The more such insights we have, the better able we are to really live, and not just go through the motions…. “Ms. Hempel Chronicles” is a deeply affecting book because it reveals that human beings, because we are human, often feel many different emotions at once. We take on roles we are not always, strictly or bureaucratically speaking, qualified to perform. And yet, our vulnerability, our confusion often makes us infinitely more capable of empathizing with and relating to others.
 Los Angeles Times
In the dwindling market for literary fiction, many short-story writers have corralled their tales into the so-called “novel-in-stories,” with results that often fail to satisfy on both fronts. A great short story is one in which every sentence matters, often hinging on a singular turning point, ending in a way that is “surprising and inevitable” as Flannery O’Connor said. It’s hard to repeat this act without repeating tricks, and to have these stories add up in a meaningful way that mimics the arc of the novel. No wonder more writers don’t pull it off. But Sarah Shun-lien Bynum has, in her marvelous new book, “Ms. Hempel Chronicles.”
San Francisco Chronicle
Teachers, take note: You’ve got an articulate new advocate in novelist Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. Bynum’s “Ms. Hempel Chronicles” is not only a warm-hearted novel-in-stories about a young 7th-grade teacher navigating the final passage to her own adulthood even as she ushers her students through the tricky narrows of adolescence; it is also a testament to how hard – and important – the work of teaching is.
In her first novel, “Madeleine Is Sleeping,” a 2004 National Book Award finalist, Bynum uses an unorthodox sequence of short, shimmering prose poems to convey a sleeping adolescent’s at-times surreally mystical dreams and fantasies. “Ms. Hempel Chronicles” is more traditional in form – eight delicately linked stories about Beatrice Hempel – but no less impressive.
Christian Science Monitor
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum enchants with “Ms. Hempel Chronicles.”
Vanity Fair
Bynum’s dreamy, experimental debut, “Madeleine Is Sleeping,” earned a 2004 National Book Award nomination. In her second book, her prose tacks traditional but sacrifices none of its lilting charm. Ms. Hempel is a seventh-grade teacher besotted by her students but ambivalent about her profession; Bynum’s portrayal makes this humanist appealingly human. It’s a pleasure to be in her class.
Time Magazine
Nimble and entertaining…. The deftness with which she observes and describes her world and its inhabitants is so engaging that…”Ms. Hempel Chronicles” works as an account of how nostalgia – both for what was and might have been – can generate a thousand mercies.
  New York Times Book Review
Utterly winning…seamless, intuitive…. Each [story] is a small gorgeous thing on its own, but the wise and whimsical “Ms. Hempel Chronicles” gives them their collective due, deploying them on a broader canvas, their colors more layered, their impact more powerful.
New York Sun
An intricate and absorbing collection…. Bynum writes with great acuity, and the emotional undercurrents in this sharp take on coming-of-age and growing up will move readers in unexpected ways.
Publishers Weekly, starred review
Subtle, dazzling…. There is so much elliptical richness in the multifaceted character of Ms. Hempel that every chapter in this short, taut novel brings revelation…. No sign of sophomore slump in this masterful illumination of character.
Kirkus Reviews, starred review
Bynum has proven herself inimitable, capable of scavenging a universe of love and disappointment from the smallest crumbs of human experience…. Bynum’s descriptions of the young folk who make up Ms. Hempel’s universe are enough to make the book worth reading (twice).
The Rumpus
Bynum is a wonderful, practically magical writer and she depicts Ms. Hempel’s life in such a hilarious, poignant, quirky way that it’s irresistible…. It all rings so true that I want to give this book to everyone I know who has ever taught.
Curtis Sittenfeld
“Ms. Hempel Chronicles,” by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, is a deftly constructed novel masquerading as a collection of linked stories; you don’t even realize it’s a love story until you read the last chapter. Its heroine, Ms. Hempel, is a young private-school teacher whose troubles include haziness about the distinction between student and teacher. Chapter by chapter, as you watch her interact with her pupils, you realize that she’s as lost and confused as they are, and the result is an extraordinary sympathy for all concerned. Bynum seems incapable of writing a sentence that doesn’t have something fresh or funny or true going on in it. She gets you laughing and then she whacks you in the heart.
Jonathan Franzen