By Lori Day
As the author of a book about mother-daughter book clubs, and as a parent who often read books with my daughter at home, I cannot speak highly enough about the transformative power of literature. My favorite part of sharing books with my daughter is having a discussion that begins with some aspect of the plot or the characters, and then watching it shift seamlessly to a discussion about something similar that is going on in her own life. Whether during our book club meetings or in private historically these were conversations that might otherwise have never arisen. In those magical moments, the awkwardness and resistance that often prevent kids from talking directly to their parents about things that really matter just melted away thanks to the distance a “fictional” story presented.
Sharing books with my child helped me understand her world and opened up crucial lines of communication when she was in elementary school—lines that remained open throughout her tween and teen years, and to this very day. The benefits of connection and exploration of identity accrue to parents and children of all genders and gender identities, whether they are in a book club with other parents and children or whether they simply read books along with their kids at home.
The books I chose for this list touch upon some of the universal experiences of coming of age, and provide plentiful conversation starters for parents on the difficult issues kids are navigating in today’s society.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio (ages 8+)Talking points: Disability and empathy
Auggie Pullman, Wonder‘s protagonist, was born with a facial deformity that has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. But come 5th grade, he no longer wants to be homeschooled and desperately wishes to be treated like an ordinary kid, so he enters his local public school. The book begins from Auggie’s perspective, but soon pivots to include the points of view of other important people in his life.
This book is about bullying, but it is also about much more. It is about kindness and hope and the trials and tribulations of friendship under extraordinary circumstances. As Auggie’s family and friends wrestle with how to deal with his difference in an empathetic and accepting way, Auggie himself rises above his disability through a series of big and small moments so authentic to the journey of any child who must suffer inevitable wounds and derive strength from their remaining scars.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (ages 8+) Talking points: Female leadership and egalitarian gender roles
In the scorching summer of 1899, in a small Texas town outside of Austin, eleven-year-old Calpurnia Tate is growing up in a well-to-do family as the only daughter sandwiched between three older brothers and three younger ones. As the Tate family rings in the new century, Calpurnia wrestles with what it means to be a girl in this era, and how to reconcile her mother’s aspirations for her to be a housewife with her own aspirations to be a scientist. Her close relationship with her grandfather is central to the book.
Set against a backdrop of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, the story focuses on Calpurnia’s “evolution” into a budding young female naturalist who resents the gendered demands placed upon her to sew and cook and prepare for a domestic life she views as boring and monotonous compared to the excitement of studying nature and biology.
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis (ages 10+) Talking points: War and religious extremism
Eleven-year-old Parvana, like other girls and women in Kabul, is not allowed to go to school, go shopping, or even play outside since the Taliban has taken control of Afghanistan. She spends most of her time indoors, stuck in her family’s one-room home. When Taliban militants take her father away, Parvana must cut off her hair and pose as a boy in order to support her family.
Like many girls and women oppressed by the Taliban’s regime, Parvana actually comes from an educated family. The changes instituted under Sharia Law dismantle the rights and quality of life females experienced before the Taliban gained control. Although now dressing in a chador (veil), Parvana’s feelings about the repressive Muslim regime she now struggles against are always clear.
This is must-read literature for American children who have grown up during the war in Afghanistan and are curious about the lives of the people there, especially the plight of females.
Seedfolksby Paul Fleischman (ages 10+) Talking points: Poverty, social struggle, and the need for human connection
In this short, spare, beautifully written series of vignettes, a blighted vacant lot is transformed into a community garden and brings together the surrounding group of neighbors who are strangers to one another. The neglected patch of ground begins to come to life under the care of one young girl and then becomes a magnet for a dozen others who live nearby, each contributing a different planting. Each vignette is told by a different voice—young, old, male, female, Korean, Haitian, Hispanic—all living tough lives in need of something that speaks to their hearts and gives them hope.
This is a very moving book that describes multicultural, hardscrabble urban life in a socioeconomically disadvantaged environment. It will help you talk to your children about what it is to struggle with the basics of surviving when you have limited resources, and the resilience that can arise in those circumstances when people come together around a common cause.
The Giver by Lois Lowry (ages 12+) Talking points: Individuality, adversity and resilience
This is a haunting story about a futuristic society where life is rigidly structured and contentment comes at the cost of conformity. Parents all have exactly two children—one son and one daughter. Children are medicated so as not to develop romantic interests and at twelve they are assigned a career that has been chosen for them by the Elders. Anyone who is disabled or old is “released” for the benefit of all.
The story centers on twelve-year-old Jonas, a model child whose life assignment is to become the Receiver of Memory. He is both burdened and enriched by the memories that are passed down to him during his training and he comes to see the hypocrisy of his community that has sacrificed creativity and individuality for order and predictability.
Parents who read The Giver with their kids will be able to discuss what it would be like to live without disease or pain or crime or wars, and whether such a utopia is actually in some ways dystopian, because without challenges and adversity and failures, we are not fully human.
The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler (ages 12+) Talking points: Social media and platonic boy/girl friendships
Who remembers those CD-ROMs you’d get in the mail from AOL in the mid-’90s, giving you 100 free hours of this new thing called the Internet? This is the setting for The Future of Us, featuring two best-friend protagonists, Emma and Josh.
When Emma logs on to AOL for the first time, she somehow stumbles through a
wormhole to the future, where she discovers something called Facebook and has no idea what status update, poke, or friend request mean.
She soon realizes she can glimpse her own future as a thirty-one-year-old woman, as well as the futures of her high school friends. Soon, the teenagers start to understand “ripples”—the things they say and do in daily life that have observable effects on what they see in their future lives on Facebook. Josh sees a happily married adult version of himself, while Emma sees an adulthood she is desperate to change. Along the way, Josh and Emma realize that it is better to live in the present, especially because the future they decide they want is with each other.
Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli (ages 12+) Talking points: Bullying, individuality, and fitting in socially
Stargirl is one of my favorite books for tweens and young teens. It is as eccentric and enchanting as its protagonist, Susan “Stargirl” Caraway, whose unconventional life and worldview are at first mesmerizing to her classmates, but eventually backfire on her after she tries to conform, betraying her true self. There seems to be an element of magical realism in this book, although I’ve never heard or read anyone else express this same observation. The character of Stargirl is perhaps a metaphor for the inner tension all adolescents feel to some extent between going along with the crowd and daring to be unique.
This book addresses many important issues like individuality, bullying, bravery, diversity and acceptance. I’ve never read a book with a stronger message of nonconformity and staying true to who you are than Stargirl.
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray (ages 12+) Talking points: Bullying, the beauty ideal and self-actualization
Part Lord of the Flies, part America’s Next Top Model, and part Gilligan’s Island, Libba Bray’s fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek send-up of American girl culture, reality TV, and a beauty industry run amok is some of the smartest social commentary I’ve ever read in the YA Lit genre. Fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream Pageant are in a plane crash and find themselves surviving, Lost-style, on a desert island without make-up or cameras, and also without food, water, or shelter.
Their surreal adventures as they cope with their own human foibles without hairspray or the Internet are actually an interesting counterpoint to the descent into savagery seen among the boys in Lord of the Flies. For these beauty-obsessed “mean girls,” being cut off from civilization gives them the freedom from societal pressures to actually find themselves, and to come of age in a remote location where their appearance can no longer be the core of who they are.
Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry (ages 12+) Talking points: Pressure on boys to prove bravery, and what it means to be a man
Written in 1941 and set in Polynesia, Call It Courage remains popular to this day. Fifteen-year-old Mafatu has had a crippling fear of the ocean ever since his mother drowned when he was a young child. His father is the chief of an island of seafaring people where courage is measured by a man’s ability to conquer the sea. Mafatu has had to endure teasing and ridicule his entire life. At 15, he can take it no longer, and sets out on a solitary journey by canoe in order to win the respect of his community. More important than that, he goes off on a quest to find courage within himself.
As coming-of-age stories go, this one is classic, especially for boys. Girl-oriented books like Island of the Blue Dolphins and Julie of the Wolves are classic survival stories starring brave girls who triumph in harsh circumstances. Parents who read Call It Courage with their kids can talk about what society expects of boys and girls as they “come of age,” how those things are similar or different, and how things are evolving.
Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin (ages 12+) Talking points: LGBT relationships; issues of racial, gender, and socioeconomic justice
In this beautifully written historical novel set in Prohibition-era Minnesota, sixteen-year-old Garnet must go live with snobby relatives at a lakeside resort for the summer to escape a polio epidemic in her hometown. It is to be her last hurrah—a summer of fun before her final year of high school, after which she is to get married and settle into being a housewife. Garnet has a passion for bird watching and dreams of one day going to college and becoming an ornithologist, despite her mother’s more traditional plans for her. When Garnet gets a summer job in a hat shop, she meets the beautiful flapper Isabella, and they fall in love and begin a secret relationship.
When the author, Molly Beth Griffin, was asked in an interview why she chose to write a lesbian coming-of-age story, she explained that most books about LGBT teens focus on their “coming out” stories, but that this should not be the only type of book out there. The relationship between Garnet and Isabella involves many of the same joys and challenges of teenage love experienced by heterosexual couples, and she wanted to show that. The book also revolves around many important and interesting social and historical facts beyond the sexual orientation of the main characters; it delves into issues of racial and gender inequality, as well as the economic dynamics of the Gilded Age that led to the Great Depression.
Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, and speaks on the topic of raising confident girls in a disempowering marketing and media culture.