You know those books that when you finish the last page you hold the book close to your heart, your arms folded over the cover, look up, sometimes with tears in your eyes, and breathe a heavy sigh? OK, that may sound like a scene out of Anne of Green Gables, but you know what I mean! Yes, the following recommendations are some of those books.
Published in 1999, with honors and accolades too numerous to mention, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak tells the story of Melinda Sordino, a high school freshman ostracized by her peers for calling the police to break up a late summer party. Unable to verbalize why she called and exactly what happened, Melinda stops speaking for almost the entire school year. Thanks to a perceptive art teacher, she slowly learns to acknowledge her fear, address her PTSD, and find her voice through art. Painful as it is, this should be required reading for all high school freshman and their parents.
You may possibly have been living under a rock if you missed Marcus Zusak’s wildly creative World War II novel, The Book Thief. This novel, released in 2005, written in verse and is like no other novel I’ve ever read. Orphaned Liesel Meminger reluctantly learns to appreciate her foster parents—crusty Rosa and lovable Hans Huberman. With Hans’s help, Liesel learns to read and begins to recognize the power of the written word. In quiet protest to the Nazi Regime, Liesel begins to steal the books the Nazi party seeks to destroy. She also writes her own stories and shares them with Max, a Jewish man the family has agreed to hide in their basement. At the risk of sounding cliché, Rosa, Hans, Max, Liesel’s best friend Rudy and especially Liesel herself are characters whose loyalty and devotion to each other, and whose determination to do good in the most difficult circumstances imaginable, will leave an indelible imprint on your heart. (In this case, the 2013 movie adaptation is actually quite good—but the book is brilliant, one of a kind, absolutely perfect.) Hurry, read it now.
Sherman Alexie’s only novel written for young adults, The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, reveals the hilariously painful and poignant thoughts of fourteen-year-old Arnold Spirit, Jr. as he makes the wrenching decision to leave his derelict reservation school and attend the all-white high school in a neighboring town. Coming from extreme poverty and a very different culture, he’s forced to deal with all of the racism, classism, and societal judgment that his decision creates—from both sides. Highly autobiographical, Alexie’s masterpiece helps us see into Arnold’s heart, witness his extraordinary intelligence and talent, and feel his tremendous pain. Awarded the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 and numerous other accolades, including the 2009 Odyssey Award as the year’s “best audiobook for children or young adults” (read by the author, himself—it’s amazing!), this novel has also been close to the top of the American Library Association’s Banned Book List every year since its publication. Given that tidbit of info, your kids will definitely want to read it.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, gorgeously illustrated by Jim Kay, is a desperately sad story, but don’t let that stop you from reading it. As Conor struggles to cope with his mother’s terminal illness, he’s visited by a monster each night at precisely 12:07 a.m. The monster spins fantastically creepy stories woven with meaning and symbolism, most of which swirl right past Conor’s breaking heart. This is an intimate look at grief, with all of its irrational and painful manifestations, through the eyes of thirteen-year-old boy. With haunting illustrations and storytelling at its finest, this book won both the Carnegie and Greenaway medals in the UK for the finest writing and illustration for children, in 2011. A very fine film adaptation was released in the US in January of this year.
Here’s my Goodreads review of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity after reading it for the first time in 2012. “Wow. This ranks up there with The Book Thief as one of my all-time favorites [See, I wasn’t kidding above.] Certainly, the best book I’ve read this year. The best book I’ve read in a very long time. Granted it contains every historical aspect of WWII that particularly captivates me–the French Resistance, women’s military and civilian service in England, all things Imperial War Museum, rural England, rural France–so it was bound to be a winner for me. I could go on and on. It’s a beautifully crafted, impeccably historically accurate story of friendship and loyalty. Like The Book Thief, not just for young adults. Love, love, LOVED it!” Hopefully, that’s enough to highly recommend this beautifully written historical novel about two young women, both civilian pilots devoted to the war effort in England, whose friendship endures and triumphs over the unimaginable. The audiobook of this novel is also outstanding.
Wonder by RJ Palacio is another book that swept the country, and the world, after its publication in 2012. The movie is set to be released later this year, too. Absolutely read the book before you see the movie. August Pullman was born with a severe facial deformity, which has kept him homeschooled until the fifth grade. Now he’s ready to integrate into a regular classroom, with regular kids who have regular parents. Auggie’s existence, however, is anything but regular—it is extraordinary. Kids (and parents) are sometimes (too often) mean and hurtful. Told in multiple voices, this novel is an up close, in your face, hard look at how we treat each other and more importantly, how we should treat each other. “Shall we make a new rule of life? Always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary.” Everyone in the world should read this book, especially now.
As I look over this list, I realize that all of the main characters in these novels face something seemingly insurmountable—peer pressure, oppression, racism, grief, war, really mean classmates—difficulties we all struggle with in one way or another, especially as teenagers. Great literature lets us see the world through someone else’s eyes. The characters’ experiences may be very similar to our own, or drastically different. Either way, we learn to feel how someone else feels, develop empathy and understand other people just a little bit better. That’s something we can all work on. These books will help.