George Lucas Educational Foundation
Growth Mindset

Young Adult Novels That Teach a Growth Mindset

Use these novels to teach learning from loss and overcoming adversity to your middle schoolers and high school freshmen.
Illustration of various characters rising out of the pages of an open book
Illustration of various characters rising out of the pages of an open book
  • 29K shares
  • 53 comments
  • read later Bookmark

Heroes in books and movies captivate kids, many of whom could teach a master class on these characters. The fresh perspective teachers can offer is how students themselves can and should be heroes.

As advocates of growth mindset, we can teach children that heroism does not require obsession with perfection or product. We should show students that we also value process and progress. Heroic stories can help: They teach students about mitigating mistakes, learning from loss, and overcoming adversity, all of which are key elements of growth mindset.

The following books feature protagonists of diverse backgrounds and races, many of whom reappear in compelling sequels that reinforce the initial lessons and keep students hungry for more. While these young adult books are typically middle school level, their resonant subject matter, complex characters, profound themes, vivid vocabulary, and historical contexts make them suitable as enriched reading for elementary students and as a bridge for high school freshmen.

Don’t let the youth of the protagonists fool you: All of these books are worthy of serious study—and they invite multiple readings.

Cover images of the following three novels
Cover images of the following three novels

Kenny from The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis: Ten-year-old Kenny is tormented by school bullies and his brother Byron, but when a family trip to the segregated South turns tragic, it is Byron who rescues his brother from trauma. Byron gently coaxes Kenny to reconcile with the monsters and angels that nearly destroy him. As Kenny makes peace with life’s joys and cruelties, readers realize that giving up is not an option.

Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell: After the massacre of her father and many other members of their island tribe, an orphaned young girl is abandoned for 18 years when the remainder of the tribe departs for the mainland. Karana endures and even thrives by embracing enemies, both animal and human. This profound, beautiful story about the power of forgiveness and the triumph of the human spirit spurs students to summon their inner strength in the face of despair and desolation.

Brian from the Hatchet series by Gary Paulsen: Brian enlists grit, guts, and the grandeur of nature to come to grips with himself, his parents’ divorce, and the harsh wilderness. Equal parts adventure and introspection, these stories promote inner and outer harmony, emboldening students to appreciate what they have and proving just how resilient humans can be.

Cover images of the following three novels
Cover images of the following three novels

Katie from Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata: When a move to 1950s Georgia separates her family from their Japanese community, Katie survives the stigma of bigotry with the help of her beloved, optimistic sister, Lynn. Lynn’s untimely death leaves Katie heartbroken, but she musters self-reliance and in turn becomes an inspiration to others. Katie’s family honors Lynn’s legacy, reminding readers to cherish hope even in the toughest of times.

Matteo from The House of the Scorpion novels by Nancy Farmer: While trapped in the savage country of Opium, Matt realizes that he is actually the clone of the evil drug lord El Patrón. Matt claims his own identity by recognizing that choices, confidence, and adapting to change create true character.

Cassie from the Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry saga by Mildred D. Taylor: The Logans cling to their land and little victories amid poverty and prejudice in 1930s Mississippi. Although Mama strives to shield her children from the pain of racism, Cassie grows up fast as the seeds of the civil rights movement are planted in her family farm. Students will struggle with the hard choice between standing down and standing up for yourself.

Cover images of the following three novels
Cover images of the following three novels

Stanley from Holes and Armpit from Small Steps by Louis Sachar: Sentenced to hard labor for a crime he didn’t commit, Stanley digs deep into a family curse that turns to fortune. This intricate, ingenious tale of friendship and fortitude will provoke debate about how much control we have over fate. Stanley and Armpit, the protagonist of Holes’ sequel, embody the pluck and persistence of growth mindset.

Meg from the A Wrinkle in Time books by Madeleine L’Engle: Swept into a strange, scary new dimension on a desperate search to save her father and brother, Meg summons the supremacy of love to win the day. Alternately harrowing and heartwarming, the book reminds readers that the only way to defeat darkness is with the light inside us all.

The Heroic Challenge

Being heroic can mean simply showing ourselves and others the best of what humans have to offer. We should cultivate and celebrate the hero living in each of us. Teachers can assist in this noble quest by supporting students in finding what is special about them (and each other!) and in nurturing the singular gift that only they can heroically share with the world.

Once students can identify positive, productive qualities in others—first in books and media, then in friends and family—they soon recognize and develop those same positive attributes in themselves. Teachers who attend to the whole child understand how social-emotional-soulful learning directly impacts student success and satisfaction and actively encourage their students to become role models in their own right.

About the Author
Share This Story
  • 29K shares
  • 53 comments
  • read later Bookmark

Comments (53) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (53) Sign in or register to comment

Robert Ward's picture
Robert Ward
Robert Ward is an enthusiastic educator, author, and champion for children.

Andrea, I am excited to read this book! Thank you so much for your suggestion. I also agree that the best YA books have something to offer adults and children alike. This book is going to the top of my must-read list!

(2)
cckb0326's picture

The heroes in the pages of the books and movies inspire the children to learn from the mistakes and overcome losses. Setting the growth mindset, the teachers might help the children to take the useful lessons from the novels and strive for better. It is not about the fact that books teach them to show their courage, it is more about how they value the progress and face life difficulties.
More and more middle schoolers and high school freshmen enjoy the heroic epics in which protagonists are depicted as brave warriors. The following books portray the central characters who come from the different backgrounds and races but are distinguished from others. These novels that are adopted for young adults focus on the complex and vivid characters, fascinating plot, unusual vocabulary.
I found these books worthy of attention since they depict the bright characters and discover the interesting twists and turns. I would not count all characters but only mention the most compelling ones. For instance, Karana who circulates in Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell is identified as orphaned young girl who confronts the cruelties of life and shows her inner strength and patience. Another character is Katie from the novel Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kahodata who endures the death of her beloved sister Lynn. For me, this girl becomes the ray of sun that cherishes hope and belief even in the difficult times.
Being heroic does not only imply to possess the noble qualities, it also means to cultivate the inner patience. The teachers might help students to understand that they also might discover the hero inside themselves. When the students seek the positive attributes in the books, friends, family, they also reveal these qualities in themselves. In the school settings, the students should be encouraged to promote their emotional and social development.

Robert Ward's picture
Robert Ward
Robert Ward is an enthusiastic educator, author, and champion for children.

Claudia, thank you for observations and commentary. I especially love how you speak about students cultivating "inner patience." As much as these books take their protagonists on wild adventures, they also push their young heroes to go inward. Through self-reflection and trail and error, these characters come to terms with their inner dragons and become better people in the process.

cckb0326's picture

This post is great! It gave me a lot of information that I didn't know!

Isai Rea's picture

I also recommend "The Shadow of the Wind" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The novel, although complex is suitable for high school students. Daniel is plagued with mystery over a mysterious author and a love curse that plagues this family in gothic Barcelona. Daniel parallels the life of Julian Carax and through almost dying Daniel learns that "Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you."

(1)
Robert Ward's picture
Robert Ward
Robert Ward is an enthusiastic educator, author, and champion for children.

Thank you, Isai! I am intrigued by your suggestion. It is always great to have some books that are more complex for those students who are ready for a challenge. I also love the "Books are mirrors" quotation.

Eva K's picture
Eva K
ESOL Teacher, Writer, Rower, Explorer

Thank you for this suggestion! I'm always looking for books with Latino characters to recommend to my high school students. I love Judith Ortiz Cofer and Sandra Cisneros, but it's good to have a few newer pieces...

ekatebini's picture
ekatebini
I am excited about research in education!

I cannot wait until growth mindset is more widely acknowledged. This is an example of pervasive research teachers are exposed to, yet parents are left in the dark, unless they themselves want to commit to reading research. I would love to create a TV show of easily accessible, digestible information about development and education. I think it would speed up the way important information about education would be spread to the general public!

Robert Ward's picture
Robert Ward
Robert Ward is an enthusiastic educator, author, and champion for children.

Thank you for your comments, Eva. It was important that I make my list as diverse as possible. One Latino title that has been suggested by the Edutopia community is Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. It has won numerous awards and is now at the top of my list of YA books I want to read. https://www.amazon.com/Aristotle-Dante-Discover-Secrets-Universe/dp/1442...

Robert Ward's picture
Robert Ward
Robert Ward is an enthusiastic educator, author, and champion for children.

ekatebini: Thank you for your comments about informing parents and the public about the benefits of growth mindset. I consider parents and teachers as allies in education and as partners in the nurturing of children. My latest book, A Teacher's Inside Advice to Parents: How Children Thrive with Leadership, Love, Laughter, and Learning, seeks to do just that by explaining the core needs of the whole child. https://www.amazon.com/Teachers-Inside-Advice-Parents-Leadership/dp/1475...

While growth mindset is important, I feel that it is only one part of what children need to flourish. Please see my Edutopia article, "Growth Mindset is Not Enough": https://www.edutopia.org/blog/growth-mindset-not-enough-robert-ward

Your bio is impressive, and I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts about this important subject.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.