In this season when everyone needs a little uplift, I would like to develop and share a list of the ten most inspiring YA and middle school novels. But I could use your help.
Honestly, I don’t know enough to come up with a solid ten. Below are my own nominations; I hope you’ll offer yours. And by “inspiring” I don’t mean saccharine, built to fit a religious framework, or preachy in any sense. I think a story that can inspire is one that is honest; that faces reality without premade conclusions, that enters into difficulty and challenge and finds the energy, call it resilience, that people need and can find in frightening times like this.
Middle and high schoolers are among the most stressed and struggling of people right now. So the news tells me, as does my wife, a therapist who works with children, teens and adults; and books that are good stories, true in the deeper sense, can help us find our way through. So here my three nominations, which I hope will inspire you to offer yours:
1. Holes. On school visits I’ve often been asked what’s my favorite novel for middle schoolers, and I say this one. I’ve been consistently impressed, years after its 1998 publication, by how many kids have also read and love Holes. It’s a quirky story that vividly embraces how warped and arbitrary life can seem to a young teen like Stanley Yelnats, who’s unjustly sentenced to a dried-up detention camp where the adults are mostly either mean or evil and the work is cruel, plus possibly fatal. When Stanley escapes, we experience with him that if you take a big risk on breaking free, luck can find you. So can truth.
2. Freak the Mighty. This novel is short, sad and anything but sugary. But the tale of how big, downhearted Max and bullied, disabled Kevin find each other and together become Freak the Mighty, for just a little while, is heartbreaking and inspiring at the same time. Just as genuine inspiration (if you ask me) tends to be.
3. The Goats. Much less well-known, this fine novel tells what happens when a boy and a girl, each one the most awkward kid at a boys’ and a girls’ summer camp that face each other across a lake, are intentionally marooned on an island with their clothes stolen in an annual prank — and do not accept their fate. Their drama builds quietly, and with it grows our appreciation for what two underestimated young people can do, and become, when they decide to defy humiliation and exclusion.