Great Books to Teach Characterization
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
The quirky nature of the characters felt reminiscent (but different!) from other YA classic characters like Pudge, Alaska, Charlie, Eleanor, and Park. The way Niven characterizes the deep, honest, hard-hitting depiction of mental illness took my breath away. I felt rage that made me want to punch my mattress; I felt sadness that made me feel a hopeless sense of emptiness; but above all, I felt the power of love, loyalty, and friendship that made my heart both ache and swell. This is an unforgettable book. People will be talking about and referencing Finch and Violet for years to come.
Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña
Danny is half-Mexican, half-white, and he struggles to fit in with either group. He doesn’t feel as if he identifies with his Mexican side because he doesn’t speak Spanish, but he doesn’t quite identify with his white side because he looks so different from his peers. He feels his father left because of his whiteness and attempts to become a “better” Mexican to impress his father. This is a fantastic book to teach identity. The characterization is beautiful, and readers will feel very connected to Danny and his emotions. I felt frustrated as I read this book–a true sign that I was struggling right along with the main character. It is a fantastic choice for literature circles, and readers will absolutely adore Danny by the end of the book.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
August Pullman was born with severe facial deformities. He says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Because he is continually in and out of surgery and recovery, Auggie has always been home-schooled. When his mother suggests he start the fifth grade in a private school, he is against it but decides to give it a try. Told from multiple perspectives (including his sister who is in high school and other kids in the middle school), this book has wonderful, complex characterization. Teachers might, as an example of an activity, ask students to share what they learn about August from each character’s perspective. My high school students fell in love with the story, regardless of the fact that the narrator was so much younger than they were. So many students shared that the book made them want to become better people. It will change the way readers look at the world. This is one of those books that everyone should read–regardless of age. It would be great as a whole-class read-aloud or literature circle text.
Babymouse (series) by Jennifer and Matthew Holm
When you read Babymouse, you are so clear about who she is. She hates her whiskers, but also owns who she is. She has a wonderful imagination and has many dreams. With each new Babymouse book, you feel like you know her more and you keep on loving her. One thing that the Holms do that is quite brilliant in helping develop the readers’ relationship with Babymouse is to create a direct link to the reader by having Babymouse talk to the reader. This makes it so you learn about her inner voice. All of these great elements of story telling mixed with Matthew Holm’s fun illustrations help bring Babymouse to life.
Blood Red Road by Moira Young
You know an author is doing a brilliant job at character development when you feel truly deep passion for the characters. In Blood Red Road, Saba lists in a futuristic world called Silverlake which is a wasteland that is plagued by constant sandstorms. After one of the worst sandstorms Saba has ever encountered, four horseman capture her twin brother Lugh and Saba embarks on an epic journey to find him. During this journey, we get to experience all sides of Saba including many that made me thoroughly dislike her at times though I knew that it was because of her passion and drive that she acted the way she did. But what is most brilliant about Blood Red Road‘s characterization is that although there are many characters throughout the book, the relationships are so deep and detailed that you feel connected to each and everyone of them when reading.
Hurt Go Happy by Ginny Rorby
In Hurt Go Happy, when we meet our main character Joey, she is shy, unassuming, and a push-over. Joey became deaf at age 7 and is only allowed to read lips because her mother won’t let her learn sign language. She has no friends, has trouble at school, and struggles constantly in her every day life. You like her because she is nice and you can tell she is caring, but you just do not understand why everything is the way it is. It is through flashbacks that we begin to understand Joey. We also begin to understand her mom, her mother’s decisions, and Joey’s turbulent past. The other main characters in the book are Charlie, an older retired doctor, and Sukari, a chimpanzee, who you instantly love and cherish and do so throughout the book. The amazing thing I found is that Ginny Rorby is able to take you on this roller coaster of feelings about Joey’s mom. I teach this book to my 7th grade students and how we feel about her mother is of constant debate and is forever changing. Is is only through her and Joey’s growth during the journey of the book that these feelings happen.
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