George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

10 Books for Young Adults from Vulnerable Communities

September 19, 2017 Updated September 15, 2017

Many disenfranchised students become disenchanted by education when the literary selections they are fed in Language Arts classes depict a world through rose colored glasses.  Teachers and more often parents wish to protect students from the harsh realities of life and select novels with happy endings and little controversy and nonfiction books that avoid social problems. The truth is many of these students confront the harsh realities of life daily: crime, violence, child abuse and neglect.  Even those with seemingly perfect domestic situations may be exposed to spouse and child abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction and economic instability.  The inconsistency in the world the literature depicts and their own reality makes students question the authenticity of their entire education. 

Teaching students historic novels and nonfiction that accurately illustrates the problems they may be facing or demonstrates how people from the past have overcome difficulties in their own lives provides students with life skills to overcome problems.  When I taught in an alternative school, I saw many high school aged students who felt their problems were unsolvable.  Reading about others who have faced difficult problems successful increases the likelihood that these students will develop a more positive attitude toward life problems. 

Some parents complain that showing students the darker side history makes our country seem imperfect.  Some parents complain that showing students the darker side of man makes people seem despicable.  The truth is our country is imperfect and many people are despicable.  If students have a clear view of problems and are asked to develop methods to make the country, the world or people better, the world could become a better place.  Here are some books that I would suggest .

1. Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne details the Comanche tribe violence and the violence committed against them and captures the clashing of two different cultures and how both side committed horrible atrocities against each other in an attempt to obliterate the tribe and its life style.  Most of the tribe did not survive, but despite losing everything, a sense of pride and a sense of responsibilities to each other continued.   

The book details the life of Quanah Parker whose mother, Cynthia Anne Parker, was kidnapped at  ten year old  by a Comanche chief. After having three children, Cynthia is rescued against her will, when her Native American husband and all of her companions are massacred.  Her two sons escape, pursued by the soldiers and find their way back to camp.  She and her daughter, Meadow Flower are returned to civilization.  Meadow Flower is taken from her and dies.  Her youngest son dies of fever and Quanah Parker, her older son, becomes chief.  Quanah's struggle to free his people and finally to live in peace on the reservation is never without treacherous dealings with corrupt officials.  

2. The Other Slavery by Andres Resendez non-fiction discusses the use of Native Americans, Asians and other minorities were enslaved from Columbus until the 1900s.  Despite laws created to protect them, slavery continued by referring to it by different terminology. 

The continual exploitation and murder of women and children from the Caribbean (called the Caribbean to justify enslaving Native Americans by accusing them of cannibalism) to the Navajos in Western United States (justified because whites were saving their souls by Christianizing them.)  Most students are aware of the slavery of African Americans, but many are unaware of the violence, and slavery that occurred to other minorities. 

This book focuses primarily on Native Americans, but it touches on all of the different forms of slavery that occurred in the United States.  It also discusses how slavery continued by playing with language and rights.  As a result, many children and women continued to be enslaved despite laws meant to protect them. 

3. The Heart of Everything That Is retells the story of Red Cloud, who waged war on the United States Government to keep his tribal way of life intact.  He was successful for some time.  It is also a violent book that describes the fight for freedom and the ferocious warriors of the Wyoming west. 

Since those who believed in Manifest Destiny also believed that Whites had the right to disregard treaties and rights of the Native American, they were surprised at Red Cloud’s ability to use his forces as an effective military leader.  Eventually he destroyed the fort that was built illegally on Native American land and maintained the freedom of his people until his death. 

4. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee describes a horrible massacre of women, children and older men at Wounded Knee.  It is equally as violent and disturbing as The Heart of Everything That Is but reading both books together helps the student understand the anger and the violence.  Understanding why a people perpetuates violence is as important as understanding that they behave violently. 

The book describes a variety of massacres that occurred through out the West and Midwest by military and westward expansion.  Reading the story of Manifest Destiny by those who lost gives students a second view of history.  

5. Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Relly tells the story of WWII through the eyes of three women: Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager who is sent to a Ravenbruck Concentration Camp near Berlin with her mother, her sister, and her boyfriend’s sister; Herta Oberheuser, a German doctor who performs experimental operations on the women in the concentration camp.  Caroline Ferriday is based on a real person who raised money and provided corrective surgery of the victims of Ravenbruck.

Herta Oberheuser was also a real person who felt she was helping the cause by cutting into the legs of young women, removing bones and muscles, inserting dirt, rocks, and pathogens that she allowed to fester.  She believed she was helping injured German soldiers and the lives of the concentration prisoners were unimportant because they had been sentenced to death anyway. 

Kasia Kuzmerick is a combination of many prisoners at the camp.  The problems and the solutions were real and the cooperation of the prisons to increase the likelihood of their survival is also true.

This is an excellent novel to discuss how people cooperating with each other can increase everyone success; however, there are some sexually explicit parts that might make it objectionable in some communities.

6. Beneath A Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan is a true story of Pino Lella who was a seventeen year of Italian boy living in Millan whose parents sent him to live in a monastery in the Alps where he and his fifteen year old brother led Jewish immigrants, downed British pilots and others to freedom over the Alps to Switzerland during World War II.  Afraid Pino would be drafted and sent to the Russian front when he turned eighteen years old, his parents insist he enlist in the Nazi Army. 

Using the skills, Pino learned from his race car driving friend, he becomes a driver for the premier Nazi in Italy where he is able to pass information to his uncle and the underground.  The book is violent and has some sexual scenes that are handled delicately.  Although this book does not have the brutality of Lilac Girls, it could be used to demonstrate that evil can be overcome through brave behavior.  The advantage of an historic novel like Lilac Girls and Beneath A Scarlet Sky is they motivate students to research the real people.

7. The Orphan Tale by Pam Jenoff is another World War II story based on a true story.  A young teenage girl from Holland finds herself expecting after a Nazi soldier quartered as her parents house pays her an unexpected visit.  Rejected by her family, she travels to Germany and works cleaning train car.  Since she has blonde hair and blue eyes, she is persuaded to have her baby at a home for unmarried mothers where her child will be given to a good German family.

Unfortunately, her child does not have blonde hair and blue eyes. Depressed and fearful about the fate of her child, she returns to work cleaning train cars.  When she hears the cries of babies, she finds an entire train car of Jewish babies.  Seeing one still alive, she grabs the child and runs into the woods while being pursued by the German soldiers.  Finally exhausted, she collapses in the woods where she is rescued by a circus clown.  She learns to be an aerialist from a famous German aerialist who is also a Jewish and being protected by the circus owner.  The details of the book are based a real stories from the war even though some of it is fictionalized.

8. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand about World War II, is the story of Louis Zamperini who was an incorrigible youth who became an Olympic champion. He overcame poverty and prejudice to achieve his skill with the support of a loving family.  During World War II his plane was shot down in the Pacific and he was taken to a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp where he suffered unbelievable hardship.  Despite every obstacle, he continued to endure.  Every young person needs to know that despite what obstacle one has to face, it is important to never give up.  Regardless of the cruelty of the camp's leader, Louis did not allow himself to lose hope, a lesson that would help many young people today.  

9. Before We Were Yours  by Lisa Winegate is based on a true story of Georgia Tann who kidnapped or usurped control of indigent children and sold them to wealthy families.  Although families attempted to retrieve their children, Georgia Tan used her political connections to thwart them.  Although this nightmare continued from 1930-1950, Ms. Tan was not tried until 1950 when she died before her trial concluded.  This book takes place in Memphis in 1939 when the 12 year old Rill Foss and her three sisters and one brother are abducted by this heartless woman.   This is an excellent novel to discuss whether the rights of poor parents should take priority over the kind of life style a rich family could provide. 

10. A Thread Unbroken by Kay Bratt is a fictitious account of child trafficking set in modern day China.  Two twelve year old girls are abducted by a woman and sold to a family living on a junk.  The family wishes one to become a bride for one of their two sons and use both girls as domestic servants.  Many students will find the ending of this book unrealistic because one of the girl's father eventually finds them and all of the guilty parties are punished.  I used to teach Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens and my students complained that they ending was too contrived.  They preferred Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame because the ending seemed more believable.   (In the book everyone dies because of their character flaw.) I think most students are too sophisticated and recognize that life is often not fair. 

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.

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