Reading can help us heal: 25 powerful books for teachers & students

I’ve had a hard time sleeping lately. Part of it, certainly, is the more relaxed nature of my summer schedule. But, mostly it’s because I’m scared. Scared for our country, and especially for our children.

Growing up is never easy, but when I imagine what it’s like being a kid today – regardless of race, gender, or class, but especially our black and brown children – my heart breaks.

I often find myself feeling powerless, wondering if love will ever win out over hate, or if we’re headed to a world that I thought only existed in dystopian novels.

However, I also have hope, and as an English teacher, I have at least one solution to help our students (and myself) attempt to make sense of this crazy world and our place in it, and that’s for us to read. And to read a lot.

We know that reading helps us grieve, heal, cope, and escape. We know that reading teaches us about empathy and compassion. We know that reading allows us to see the world and others from different perspectives. We know that reading helps us figure out who we are, and what we stand for. Put simply, we know that reading make us better.

Therefore, as educators and adults, we have a responsibility to expose our children to the wonderful world of literature. While reading alone won’t solve our problems, the real and important conversations we have with our students about what we’ve read is a certainly great place to start.

The good news is that there are many wonderful authors and books to choose from. The following is a list of 25 powerful books that I, along with many of my former middle and high school students, have read and discussed over the past few years.

Whether you are looking for more novels to add to your lit circles or book clubs, or simply need more books to hand to the student that says, “What should I read next?”, this list is a good place to start.

This list focuses on YA novels, both historical and realistic fiction and from a variety of perspectives, that address important universal themes such as prejudice and racism, inequality and injustice, overcoming obstacles, and standing up for what’s right.

Please let me know what books I should to this list (in the comments or on Twitter) because I know there are hundreds. Thanks!

 All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kielyall american boys.png

Amazon Summary: “In an unforgettable new novel from award-winning authors Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, two teens—one black, one white—grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension.”

Jarred’s Take: Read this last year thanks to a Twitter recommendation, and was absolutely blown away. The alternating narrator allows readers to better understand both points of view. In my opinion, this is one book that all high school students should read this year.

Anything by Matt de la Peña

Seriously, all six of Matt’s YA novels are tremendous. In fact, I reviewed all of them using a super-scientific 30-point scale, which you can read here. If you don’t feel like checking out the link, the six books are: Ball Don’t Lie, We Were Here, Mexican Whiteboy, The Hunted, The Living, and I Will Save You. Spoiler: you and your students will love them all.

Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins

Amazon Summary: “Narrated by two teenage boys on opposing sides of the conflict between the Burmese government and the Karenni, one of Burma’s many ethnic minorities, this coming-of-age novel takes place against the political and military backdrop of modern-day Burma. Chiko isn’t a fighter by nature. He’s a book-loving Burmese boy whose father, a doctor, is in prison for resisting the government. Tu Reh, on the other hand, wants to fight for freedom after watching Burmese soldiers destroy his Karenni family’s home and bamboo fields. Timidity becomes courage and anger becomes compassion when the boys’ stories intersect.”

Jarred’s Take: The summary above says it all. Again, there is tremendous power in novels with multiple POVs, and I plan to get this book in the hands of more readers this year.

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

Amazon Summary: “Fifteen-year-old Lina is a Lithuanian girl living an ordinary life–until Soviet officers invade her home and tear her family apart. Separated from her father and forced onto a crowded train, Lina, her mother, and her young brother make their way to a Siberian work camp, where they are forced to fight for their lives. Lina finds solace in her art, documenting these events by drawing. Risking everything, she imbeds clues in her drawings of their location and secretly passes them along, hoping her drawings will make their way to her father’s prison camp. But will strength, love, and hope be enough for Lina and her family to survive?”

Jarred’s Take: Fortunately, author Ruta Sepetys resides in Tennessee, so I’m hoping to invite her to Maplewood High School this fall to discuss her moving novel (and soon-to-be movie) with our students.

Black & White by Paul Volpini

Amazon Summary: “Marcus and Eddie are best friends who found the strength to break through the racial barrier. Marcus is black; Eddie is white. Stars of their school basketball team, they are true leaders who look past the stereotypes and come out on top. They are inseparable, watching each other’s backs, both on and off the basketball court. But one night—and one wrong decision—will change their lives forever. Will their mistake cost them their friendship . . . and their future?”

Jarred’s Take: All readers have enjoyed this one, but especially our male athletes. Hoping to secure more copies of it this fall.

Call Me by My Name by John Ed Bradley

Amazon Summary: “Growing up in Louisiana in the late 1960s, Tater Henry has experienced a lot of prejudice. His town is slow to desegregate and slower still to leave behind deep-seated prejudice. Despite the town’s sensibilities, Rodney Boulett and his twin sister Angie befriend Tater, and as their friendship grows stronger, Tater and Rodney become an unstoppable force on the football field. That is, until Rodney sees Tater and Angie growing closer, too, and Rodney’s world is turned upside down. Teammates, best friends—Rodney’s world is threatened by a hate he did not know was inside of him. As the town learns to accept notions like a black quarterback, some changes may be too difficult to accept.”

Jarred’s Take: Stumbled upon this gem in our school library, and immediately began recommending it to students. As relevant as ever.

Copper Sun by Sharon Draper 

Amazon Summary“Copper Sun is the epic story of a young girl torn from her African village, sold into slavery, and stripped of everything she has ever known—except hope.”

Jarred’s Take: You can’t go wrong reading anything by the wonderful Sharon Draper, although this one may be my favorite.

Darius & Twig by Walter Dean Myers

Amazon Summary: Darius and Twig are an unlikely pair: Darius is a writer whose only escape is his alter ego, a peregrine falcon named Fury, and Twig is a middle-distance runner striving for athletic success. But they are drawn together in the struggle to overcome the obstacles that life in Harlem throws at them. The two friends must face down bullies, an abusive uncle, and the idea that they’ll be stuck in the same place forever.”

Jarred’s Take: Like Draper, it’s hard to go wrong with anything by Walter Dean Myers, and this one was no exception.

Fire from the Rock by Sharon Draperreading pic outside

Amazon Summary: “Sylvia is shocked and confused when she is asked to be one of the first black students to attend Central High School, which is scheduled to be integrated in the fall of 1957, whether people like it or not. Before Sylvia makes her final decision, smoldering racial tension in the town ignites into flame. When the smoke clears, she sees clearly that nothing is going to stop the change from coming. It is up to her generation to make it happen, in as many different ways as there are colors in the world.”

Jarred’s Take: Readers will find themselves rooting for Sylvia from start to finish, and by the end, have a much deeper and rich understanding of what it was like to live through the Civil Rights Movement.

Monster by Walter Dean Myers

Amazon Summary: “This New York Times bestselling novel and National Book Award nominee from acclaimed author Walter Dean Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon, a teenage boy in juvenile detention and on trial. Presented as a screenplay of Steve’s own imagination, and peppered with journal entries, the book shows how one single decision can change our whole lives.”

Jarred’s Take: I have never taught a student who didn’t enjoy this classic, which has also been written as a graphic novel.

Night by Elie Wiesel

Amazon Summary: “Night is Elie Wiesel’s masterpiece, a candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps.”

Jarred’s Take: I still remember reading this book as an eighth-grader, and the impact that it had on me. Re-reading as an adult was just as difficult.

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

Amazon Summary: “As the German troops begin their campaign to “relocate” all the Jews of Denmark, Annemarie Johansen’s family takes in Annemarie’s best friend, Ellen Rosen, and conceals her as part of the family. Through the eyes of ten-year-old Annemarie, we watch as the Danish Resistance smuggles almost the entire Jewish population of Denmark, nearly seven thousand people, across the sea to Sweden. The heroism of an entire nation reminds us that there was pride and human decency in the world even during a time of terror and war.”

Jarred’s Take: This was a class favorite when I taught seventh grader, although readers all of ages can certainly love and learn from it.

Response by Paul Volponi

Amazon Summary: “Noah and his friends go to a predominantly all-white neighborhood with a plan: steal a car, sell it to a chop shop, and make some fast cash. But that never happens. Instead, Noah, a teen father, becomes the victim of a vicious beating that leaves him with a fractured skull. The question is, was the attacker protecting his turf, or did he target Noah just because he’s black?”

Jarred’s Take: This book will make you angry, and that’s precisely the point. Like All-American Boys, this one is a must-read.

Tears of a Tiger by Sharon Draper

Amazon Summary: “In one horrifying night, Andy’s life changed forever… Andy Jackson was driving the car that crashed one night after a game, killing Robert Washington, his best friend and the captain of the Hazelwood High Tigers. It was late, and they’d been drinking, and now, months later, Andy can’t stop blaming himself. As he turns away from family, friends, and even his girlfriend, he finds he’s losing the most precious thing of all — his ability to face the future.”

Jarred’s Take: I don’t usually read whole-class novels, but reading this book aloud with my eighth graders a couple of years ago was one of the best experiences I’ve had as an English teacher. It’s that good.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Amazon Summary: “Bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.”

Jarred’s Take: Put simply, this book gets students laughing, talking, and seeing the world in a different way. I read this with 15 freshmen last year as part of an optional book club, and the discussion that followed was one of the most special things I have ever witnessed.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Amazon Summary: “It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still. Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement. In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.”

Jarred’s Take: Just wonderful. Using death as the narrator was a genius move by Zusak, and characters don’t come any better than Liesel and her friends.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LeeTo_Kill_a_Mockingbird

Amazon Summary: “A gripping, heart-wrenching, and wholly remarkable tale of coming-of-age in a South poisoned by virulent prejudice, it views a world of great beauty and savage inequities through the eyes of a young girl, as her father-a crusading local lawyer-risks everything to defend a black man unjustly accused of a terrible crime.”

Jarred’s Take: In my opinion, the best book of all-time. Thinking of using it as the anchor text for my first unit this fall. Would love any ideas for those who have taught it in the past.


Note: The following books are ones that I have not read but have added to my “TBR” Pile.

Boy 21 by Matthew Quick

Amazon Summary: Basketball has always been an escape for Finley. He lives in broken-down Bellmont, a town ruled by the Irish mob, drugs, violence, and racially charged rivalries. At home, his dad works nights, and Finley is left to take care of his disabled grandfather alone. He’s always dreamed of getting out someday, but until he can, putting on that number 21 jersey makes everything seem okay. Russ has just moved to the neighborhood, and the life of this teen basketball phenom has been turned upside down by tragedy. Cut off from everyone he knows, he won’t pick up a basketball, but answers only to the name Boy21–taken from his former jersey number. As their final year of high school brings these two boys together, a unique friendship may turn out to be the answer they both need.”

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

Amazon Summary: “A coming-of-age tale for young adults set in the trenches of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, this is the story of Perry, a Harlem teenager who volunteers for the service when his dream of attending college falls through. Sent to the front lines, Perry and his platoon come face-to-face with the Vietcong and the real horror of warfare. But violence and death aren’t the only hardships. As Perry struggles to find virtue in himself and his comrades, he questions why black troops are given the most dangerous assignments, and why the U.S. is even there at all.”

How it Went Down by Kekla Magooon

Amazon Summary: “When sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson dies from two gunshot wounds, his community is thrown into an uproar. Tariq was black. The shooter, Jack Franklin, is white. In the aftermath of Tariq’s death, everyone has something to say, but no two accounts of the events line up. Day by day, new twists further obscure the truth. Tariq’s friends, family, and community struggle to make sense of the tragedy, and to cope with the hole left behind when a life is cut short. In their own words, they grapple for a way to say with certainty: This is how it went down.”

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Amazon Summary: “In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever. Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily. Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept “separate but equal.” Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and the fact that they may be falling for one another. Boldly realistic and emotionally compelling, Lies We Tell Ourselves is a brave and stunning novel about finding truth amid the lies, and finding your voice even when others are determined to silence it.”

Mississippi Trial, 1955 by Chris Crowe

Amazon Summary: “At first Hiram is excited to visit his hometown in Mississippi. But soon after he arrives, he crosses paths with Emmett Till, a black teenager from Chicago who is also visiting for the summer, and Hiram sees firsthand how the local whites mistreat blacks who refuse to “know their place.” When Emmett’s tortured dead body is found floating in a river, Hiram is determined to find out who could do such a thing. But what will it cost him to know? Mississippi Trial, 1955 is a gripping read, based on true events that helped spark the Civil Rights Movement.”

Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez

Amazon Summary: “This is East Texas, and there’s lines. Lines you cross, lines you don’t cross. That clear?” New London, Texas. 1937. Naomi Vargas and Wash Fuller know about the lines in East Texas as well as anyone. They know the signs that mark them. They know the people who enforce them. But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive. Ashley Hope Pérez takes the facts of the 1937 New London school explosion—the worst school disaster in American history—as a backdrop for a riveting novel about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.”

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper

Amazon Summary: “Stella lives in the segregated South—in Bumblebee, North Carolina, to be exact about it. Some stores she can go into. Some stores she can’t. Some folks are right pleasant. Others are a lot less so. To Stella, it sort of evens out, and heck, the Klan hasn’t bothered them for years. But one late night, later than she should ever be up, much less wandering around outside, Stella and her little brother see something they’re never supposed to see, something that is the first flicker of change to come, unwelcome change by any stretch of the imagination. As Stella’s community—her world—is upended, she decides to fight fire with fire. And she learns that ashes don’t necessarily signify an end.”

Trouble by Gary Schmidt

Amazon Summary: “Henry Smith’s father told him that if you build your house far enough away from Trouble, then Trouble will never find you. But Trouble comes careening down the road one night in the form of a pickup truck that strikes Henry’s older brother, Franklin. In the truck is Chay Chouan, a young Cambodian from Franklin’s preparatory school, and the accident sparks racial tensions in the school—and in the well-established town where Henry’s family has lived for generations. Caught between anger and grief, Henry sets out to do the only thing he can think of: climb Mt. Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine, which he and Franklin were going to climb together. Along with Black Dog, whom Henry has rescued from drowning, and a friend, Henry leaves without his parents’ knowledge. The journey, both exhilarating and dangerous, turns into an odyssey of discovery about himself, his older sister, Louisa, his ancestry, and why one can never escape from Trouble.”


Author: Jarred Amato

High school English teacher who is passionate about improving TN education, one book at a time.

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