Teacher Wellness

Books That Foster Empathy and Hope

An educator shares some of her favorite reads of 2018—fiction and nonfiction that may help you recharge over the break.

December 14, 2018
© Unsplash / Alice Hampson

The following questions compel me to write, teach, travel, and listen. And most of what I read in 2018 explored these questions: Who am I? Where do I belong? How do I construct an identity that’s empowered and resilient, while also honoring past and present pain? How do I create a personal narrative that acknowledges systemic oppression, but also creates possibility?

I offer up a list of my favorite reads for this year that address questions of belonging and identity and pose new insight into what it means to be human, while also offering hope. Every educator strives to be beacon of hope—informed by the troubling realities of our world, but a realistic optimist nonetheless. May these recommendations help you cultivate this disposition.

If you read only one of my recommendations, read this one. It contains exquisite prose—passages worthy of reading aloud, a nail-biting plot, and characters depicted with such precision that your heart will break many times. Each time it breaks, you’ll be grateful for what you learned about yourself and others. Written by Tommy Orange, this book is about Native Americans, how identity is constructed, who writes history, and the power of storytelling. It’s about family, love, and community. My favorite read of 2018.

This graphic novel is Thi Bui’s memoir of emigrating from Vietnam and her journey to understanding her parents. This book will resonate deeply whether you are a parent or a son or daughter. It’s about the Vietnam War, understanding the hard decisions people make, and the process of uncovering deep reserves of empathy. The words and images in this book are simply gorgeous.

Essayist Ijeoma Oluo takes on heavy topics—including police brutality, white privilege, and microaggressions—and discusses them in an accessible and sometimes entertaining way. Oluo is straightforward and incorporates her own stories to communicate the destructive impact of systemic oppression. This is required reading for anyone committed to understanding their identity and to healing the pains of our country’s past and present.

Tomi Adeyemi’s sweeping fantasy with a modern context is a first of its kind: All of the characters are African American, and the heroines are young women. This was the most gripping page-turner I read this year. From the first page: “They killed my mother. They took our magic. They tried to bury us. Now we rise.” Adeyemi brilliantly balances despair and rage with hope and possibility. This book is an unparalleled treat. Read it when you have a whole weekend.

This young adult novel by Angie Thomas deftly explores the complexity of identity for kids of color who attend private schools. Although it centers around the police killing of an unarmed African American teenager, and this is powerfully depicted, the book is so much more than this story. It’s about a young African American woman finding her voice and her place in her family, community, school, and world. I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was exceptional.

What I love about this compilation of advice columns written by Cheryl Strayed is this: You can read a letter and Strayed’s response in 10 minutes and feel like you spent hours with a wise, brilliant being. You may feel shaken by the stories, but you’ll find connections with strangers and insights into your own predicaments.

Celeste Ng presents a plot that surprises, thoughtfully developed characters, and rich complexity in an easy read. This is simply good storytelling. Not a word is wasted in this novel, making the story of a teenage girl and her mother, and the community they move into, one that you won’t want to leave. This novel is about belonging and the questions that compel many of us because we all seek belonging.

This is a story about how women find their power in a world ruled by men—contemporary themes explored in an ancient context. Madeline Miller’s Circe is an epic retelling of the infamous character from Homer’s Odyssey from her perspective. Miller invites us to consider these questions: Who do you want to be in the world? What powers do you desire? What kind of life do you want to live? Circe is at the top of my list of characters with whom I most want to have dinner.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pushes us to think about where we belong, who our people are, and how we connect with others. She deftly weaves discussions of identity, home, friends, and partners into a sweeping and compelling love story. You’ll be fascinated by the characters, the tensions of their journeys, and the Nigerian setting, and you’ll see your own struggles and questions in theirs. We humans share many more similarities than differences. This book is a good reminder.

Whichever of these recommendations you decide to explore, may they contribute to your resilience, hope, rejuvenation, and well-being.

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