LISTS & SUGGESTIONS OF HOPEFUL OR POSITIVE NOVELS
Before I list suggested hopeful or positive novels for inclusion in high school reading, let me say again that I realize that the bleaker novels do indeed provide moving moments. I understand English classes delve into the ‘human condition’, and sometimes the human condition is not very positive or optimistic – but sometimes, it is. A lot of the classics analyzed in English classes are about the depths of human despair, many written by authors who were living in this despair themselves. These novels seem to be ‘accepted’ more as literature than novels that are more uplifting – but still about the human condition. Why do books with dark themes seem to be what teachers and administrators deem read-worthy in English classes?? There are lots of books out there that touch the soul with thoughts and feelings that inspire rather than depress. It’s time we seek more of a balance in depressing literature and the uplifting literature read in high school English classes.
One of my favorite novels from high school was On the Beach, a heartbreaking account of nuclear war and its aftermath. Still, however, I was touched by the characters and their thoughts in those hard times. It resonated with me, and it got through to my soul. Yet, it's not one I would recommend for teens like my middle son when he was struggling with severe anxiety; I think it's safer not to assign books that are deeply troubling or depressing to an entire class but to allow students to choose to read these books if they desire.
Marianne Goss, who is quoted on the Opinions & Comments page, does a nice job of explaining this: "Why can't serious literature have a positive outlook? There is joy in life as well as sorrow, laughter as well as tears, hope as well as despair. I'm not looking for novels without moral dilemmas, loss, struggle, and conflict; I'm looking for novels that leave me feeling that there's reason to go on living."
Another one of my favorite books from high school was Black Boy by Richard Wright. This novel included poverty, alcoholism, his father leaving the family, the murder of a close relative, and more depressing topics; yet, there was still a glimmer of hope within the book. The last line of the book summary from Spark Notes hit the nail on the head: "Unfazed by the failure of his high hopes, he remains determined to make writing his link to the world." Wright found hope through his writing. I know if it had not been for this, then the book would not have had the impact it had on me, would not have become one of my favorites. The last paragraph of the book exemplifies that hope:
"With ever watchful eyes and bearing scars, visible and invisible, I headed North, full of a hazy notion that life could be lived with dignity, that the personalities of others should not be violated, that men should be able to confront other men without fear or shame, and that if men were lucky in their living on earth they might win some redeeming meaning for the having struggled and suffered here beneath the stars.”
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck is also one I read in school, and the plight of the Joad family in the Dust Bowl in the 1930s was indeed rather depressing. But then came Tom Joad's talk with his mom right before he left the family and she wanted to know if she'd ever see him again, how would she know he was okay. And Tom Joad replied:
"I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too."
And suddenly, I knew I'd remember those lines and that book forever. I'd remember that book BECAUSE of those lines. Those lines are where the hope is. Sure, the rest of it is written well, too -- but it is the hope that inspired me as a 10th grader. We have to remember our audience here, folks. They might be in high school, but they are really just starting out in life. Their hormones fluctuate, parts of their brain are not even fully developed, they are under stress and peer pressure, and their lives are front and center on social media. Let's give them the hope they need.
I know there is a place for the bleak books -- but I HOPE that the positive elements of it are discussed in class and focused on -- so that the bleakness is in context somewhat. Books with suicides don't offer that context nearly as much because the character doesn't get past the bleakness. We have to show teens that there are ways to get past the despair - in novels and in their own lives.
Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men doesn't offer the hope to me that Grapes of Wrath offers. Of course, it's still a classic and is certainly an intriguing story -- but I don't really know of a moment in it where hope appears and is not snuffed out. There is hope throughout To Kill a Mockingbird through Scout's innocent eyes and Atticus' sense of justice. There is hope in S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders through the "Stay gold, Ponyboy" dialogue and how youth is innocent and good and gold -- and we should all stay that way as long as possible.
So in an effort to help our high school students -- ages 14 to 18 -- stay gold -- or at least a part of them -- to stay gold, here are suggestions for more positive novels. I compiled these suggestions from various sites, comments, blogs, and my personal suggestions. If you'd like to send me your suggestions for hopeful literature, please go to the Contact page.
Throughout my life -- but especially during my growing up years -- what I love most about reading is coming across that paragraph or sentence that is something you thought only you had been thinking – and feeling the thrill and relief of knowing that you weren’t. That feeling, to me, is more important than plot or symbolism or anything else. It is what connects me with the character and the author.
So I would first like to recommend a three book series by bestselling author Elizabeth Berg that makes me feel that way even now. The main character (Katie Nash) in each of these books reminds me of Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird; Katie has a similar voice, humor, innocence, and goodness. The series begins with Durable Goods, the story of a twelve year old Army brat, who has recently lost her mother to cancer. She is also coming to terms with an abusive father. Katie lives on an Army base in Texas in the late 1950s with her father and her older sister, Diane. When Diane escapes their home in the middle of the night with her boyfriend, Katie goes along. A reader quote on a website said about this book: "So magical and beautiful, that the more maudlin theme of this book can be digested by the reader with the hopefulness of a twelve year old girl.
Joy School is the second book in the Katie Nash trilogy. Quote from book: "Even when I like a person there is a weariness that comes. I can be with someone and everything is fine and then all of a sudden it can wash over me like a sickness, that I need the quiet of my own self. I need to unload my head and look at what I've got in there so far. See it. Think what it means. I always need to come back to being alone for awhile."
True to Form is the third in a series of books featuring Katie Nash. She is now a 13-year-old Army brat, in 1961. In this book, she has moved from Texas to Missouri, and is having a hard time finding friends. Quote from book after having an argument with her friend: "I wish for the first time in my life that I was a boy. The next day I could have gone over and just socked Cynthia on the arm and she could have said cut it out, dickhead, and things would have been back to normal, just like that. We would go out and do some rough things and then power ride our bikes over to McDonald's, get about forty-five cheeseburgers apiece and then have a belching contest. Yes. At this moment, I wish I were a boy named Jack Armstrong who did not mess up his only good friendship for the sake of a bunch of phonies."
Yes, these are all coming-of-age novels, but guess what? Teens are coming of age, and the thoughts and feelings of coming-of-age novels will resonate with them -- perhaps articulate something that they had only felt in their souls before. Sure, times have changed, but teens of this age all have basically the same fears and dreams -- no matter which decade it happens to be.
Another great coming-of-age novel is Object Lessons (1991) by by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and journalist Anna Quindlen. The book centers on 13-year-old Maggie Scanlan, the youngest child of the powerful Scanlan clan.
Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt is not a novel -- it is non-fiction, but it won a Pulitzer Prize for biography about McCourt's growing up years in Ireland and in Brooklyn, New York. He was surrounded by poverty, and he even suffers the death of some of his siblings, but he has determination and hope. Note: The dialogue might be confusing to read because there are no quotations marks.
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt is more often read in middle school than in high school, but I think the theme (how a fountain of youth can be a curse because time goes on while you stay the same) would be more appreciated by older students. A beautiful story. And movie.
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd -- on-line summary: It’s 1964 and racism is prevalent in the Deep South. Lily, 14, is suffering from 10 years of guilt and a father who unfairly blames her for the death of her mother. When she springs her black caregiver from an unjust judicial system, the two runaways find sanctuary with a trio of eccentric beekeeping sisters. Kidd offers a heap of wisdom about nature, mothers, daughters, and affirming the inner soul.
I would like to also recommend four YA books that I've read in the past few years that I think do a terrific job of keeping things real while also fanning the flames of hope, shall we say: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Twisted also by Laurie Halse Anderson, and Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone (although there is one twist in this story that I would rather it not have because people with OCD who read it might start second guessing things themselves). I know there are others, but these are some that come to mind as I write this.
At some point, I'd like to have a brief description of each of the following books; however, for now, most of them are just listed. I don't know anything personally about a lot of these books, so please research them for yourself. Ditto for the websites listed below with their own lists.
Reporter and writer Marianne Goss provides this list of uplifting novels on her webpage.
This is a long list of novels that are uplifting - some of them classics, some of them not appropriate for high school students. Scroll through it for a plot summaries.
This is a list of 'Best Fiction for young adults, 2012" -- click on and read the plots to find uplifting or inspiring literature.
Kristin Randle, who was mentioned earlier in other pages of thise website, compiled the following list of 'hopeful novels:
She entitled it: Beginnings of a Hopeful book list
A Wrinkle in Time—L'Engle
After the Dancing Days—Rostowski
Diamond in the Window—Langton
The Ramsay Scallop—Temple
The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen—Alexander
The Last Unicorn—Peter S. Beagle
Long Night’s Dance—Jones
A Girl Named Disaster—Farmer
The Devil’s Arithmatic—Yolan
Belle Prator’s Boy—White
The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963—Curtis
Good Night Mr. Tom—Magorian
The Eternal Spring of Mr. Ito—Garrigue
Words by Heart—Sebestyen
Come a Stranger—Voigt
Number the Stars—Lowry
The Romantic Obsessions and Humiliations of Annie Sehlmeier—Plummer
The Blue Sword—McKinley
A View from Saturday—Konigsburg
Anything by Elizabeth Speare
Anything by Elizabeth Goudge
And the list continues with input from many people from many sites:
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
Yukio Mishima's The Sound of Waves,
Kamala Markandaya's Nectar in a Sieve,
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
Walter Dean Myers' Somewhere in the Darkness
Elie Wiesel's Night
Bjarne Reuter's The Boys of St. Petri
M. E. Kerr, Gentlehands
Lois Lowry, The Giver
Walter Dean Myers, Slam!
Katherine Paterson, Jacob Have I Loved
Richard Peck, Remembering the Good Times
Dori Sanders, Clover
Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony
Bruce Brooks, Midnight Hour Encores
Alden Carter, Up Country
Jennie Davis, Sex Education
Lois Duncan, Killing Mr. Griffin
Walter Dean Myers, Hoops
Robert C. O'Brien, Z for Zachariah
Christopher Pike, Remember Me
Joyce Sweeney, The Tiger Orchard
Rob Thomas, Doing Time: Notes from the Undergrad
Will Weaver, Striking Out
Virginia Ewer Wolff, Make Lemonade.
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt
The Only Alien on the Planet by Kristin Randle
A Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
Speak by Laure Halse Anderson
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
That was Then, This is Now by S.E. Hinton
Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower
The Cheerleader – Jill McCorkle
Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore
Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twa
Walking Across Egypt by Clyde Edgerton
Curveball: The year I lost my grip by Jordan Sonnenblick
Twice Freed, by Patricia St. John
Across Five Aprils, by Irene Hunt
Holes by Louis Sachar
Monster by Walter Dean Myers,
Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo,
Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech,
Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone by J.K. Rowling,
Bud, not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli
Rules of the Road by Joan Bauer
Plant Life ( a novel about working in a factory in NC but also about personal growth -- interesting fiction about textile workers and one young woman who comes back home) by Pamela Duncan
Breaking Through by Francisco Jimenez
Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King
the John Green novels
And of course Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird
And I also want to post a few comments about some of those depressing novels:
This quote is from comments on an English classroom literature site: "Lord of the Flies . . . I read it when I was 14 and idealistic about saving the world. It wasn't just Ralph that cried at the end. I sobbed at the awful doomed picture of mankind. I've never been able to read it again,” wrote Nora from Bristol, UK.
And the one that I particularly detest since my son was reading it during his first bout of severe anxiety: Ethan Frome -- Here's a comment about that one, too:
Apr 19, 2011 Teakraken rated it 2 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: People who are insufferably smug
Recommended to Teakraken by: My English teacher, I thought she liked me :(
I absolutely hated this book. It seemed like Wharton wanted to find a horrible, semi-frozen ditch full of depressing, frigid mud and deliberately fall in it, flop about despondently, claw halfheartedly at the steepest face, fall back in, and languish miserably while expounding in a monotone about the futility of hope... and drag her readers in too.
Maybe it's because I grew up in New England and was taught how to sled properly, or because I have the emotional capacity of a sieve, or because secretly I am just like the characters in the book and find it scary, I wanted to slap everyone and every thing in the book. STOP MOPING! OH MY GOD!
I gave it two stars because Wharton did such a good job making me want to crawl in a hole and die that I have to appreciate it. pathetic existence you have barely managed to scrape from an unforgiving world, recommend this book.
"Hey Mrs. Kinetta, are you still inflicting all that horrible Ethan Frome damage on your students?" - John Cusack from the movie Grosse Pointe Blank
This article quotes a representative from the National Council of Teachers of English. Excerpt from The Chicago Tribune: Any method for getting schools to adopt new books works for Teri Lesesne,executive director of the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents, an arm of the National Council of Teachers of English. Lesesne said research shows that high school students have been reading the same rotation of texts since the 1960s."Sometimes I look at classics as the books that made our parents want to quit reading and now make us want to quit reading," Lesesne said. "I'm not saying throw out Dickens, throw out Frost, throw out the rest of them. I'm saying why not add in books that speak more directly to a teen?"