Outcasts and Underdogs: 8 More Young Adult Books that Teach Gratitude, Grit, and Growth Mindset (Edutopia featured article)

Superheroes and superstars already captivate kids, and many could teach a master class on these subjects. The fresh perspective teachers offer is how students themselves can and should be heroes.

As advocates of growth mindset, teach children that heroism does not require obsession with perfection or product. When educators also value process and progress, students are better prepared to accomplish honorable acts of their own.

Also emphasize that heroes include ordinary people who gallantly perform admirable deeds—frequently in the midst of difficult situations or personal challenges. Despite any shortcomings, stumbles, or setbacks, heroes ultimately rise to the occasion and selflessly help others, often simultaneously saving themselves.

Moreover, the hero usually is the only person who could create such a positive outcome in the given situation. If it were not for this unique human being’s cunning, courage, and compassion, the world would be less well off.


Literary Role Models

Heroic stories teach students about mitigating mistakes, learning from loss, and overcoming adversity, all of which are key elements of growth mindset. Despite hurdles, heartache, and hardship, literary heroes ultimately leave themselves and humankind in a better place than when they began.

The following list features diverse protagonists, many of whom reappear in compelling sequels that reinforce lessons learned 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 these novels suitable as enriched reading for elementary students and as a bridge for high school freshmen.

Don’t let the youth of these protagonists fool you: All of these books, penned by award-winning authors, are worthy of serious scholarship as they satisfy, stir, and speak to readers of all ages—and upon multiple readings.


1. Kenny from The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis: School bullies and his brother Byron torment Cockeye Kenny; but when a family vacation to the segregated South turns tragic and traumatic, it is By who twice rescues his “baby bruh.” 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 giving up is not an option.


2. Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell: Orphaned while witnessing the massacre of her father and many of her native island tribe, a young girl is inadvertently abandoned for eighteen years. Yet 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.


3. 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 instill inner and outer harmony, emboldening students to appreciate what they have and proving just how resilient humans can be.


4. 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 buoyed by the optimism of her beloved sister, Lynn. Although Lynn’s untimely death renders her heartbroken, Katie musters self-reliance and in turn becomes an inspiration to others. Her entire family honors Lynn’s legacy, reminding readers to cherish glittering hope, even in the toughest of times.


5. Matteo from The House of the Scorpion novels by Nancy Farmer: While trapped in the savage country of Opium, Matt determines 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. Later befriended by a band of fellow orphans, these “Lost Boys” learn all is never lost as they elude their captors in a thrilling escapade, leaving readers cheering for these resourceful ragamuffins.


6. Cassie from the Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry saga by Mildred D. Taylor: The Logans cling to their land and little victories amidst 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 grapple right along with the characters in the hard choices between standing down and standing up for yourself.


7. Stanley from Holes and Armpit from Small Steps by Louis Scahar: Sentenced to hard labor for a crime he did not 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. Both books’ memorable multicultural characters embody the pluck and persistence of growth mindset.


8. Meg from the A Wrinkle in Time books by Madeline 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, readers discover the only way to defeat darkness is with the light inside us all.


The Heroic Challenge

Being heroic simply means 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 that singular gift 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 advantageous 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.


You are encouraged to share other favorite classic, contemporary, and multicultural characters, both female and male, in the Comments section below. Orphaned, abandoned, or far from home, let’s expand the list of young protagonists who summon the inner strength to carry on and conquer their fears.


Also see this companion article, Orphans and Outsiders: 8 Young Adult Books that Teach Gratitude, Grit, and Growth Mindset, that was featured by the U.S. Department of Education and that contains eight additional young adult novels.

GM Novels Edutopia

This article originally appeared on Edutopia with the title Young Adult Novels that Teach a Growth Mindset. As of January 2018, this article has been shared 36K times and has been read by 335K educators and parents. It ranked as Edutopia’s second most popular article of 2017.

2nd Most Popular 2017

You can view more comments on these Facebook threads: March 23, 2017, March 31, 2017June 22, 2107, and October 5, 2017, December 28, 2017.

Whole-Class Novels Edutopia

For practical strategies for teaching whole-class novels, read Getting Everyone on the Same Page on Edutopia, as well as A Balanced Approach to Teaching Literature: Pairing Whole-Class Novels with Independent Reading Choice.

Empowered Parents #1 seller

For more on attending to the whole child and how teachers and parents can be allies in education, read the latest book by Robert Ward, Talented Teachers, Empowered Parents, Successful Students.


Middle Web 3-10-17

This article was also featured on the MiddleWeb SmartBrief website and on SmartBrief.

47 thoughts on “Outcasts and Underdogs: 8 More Young Adult Books that Teach Gratitude, Grit, and Growth Mindset (Edutopia featured article)

    1. While I’ve read most of the books Robert mentioned at one time or another, he makes me want to read all of them again. But here’s the best part: He wants me to share what I’ve read with others so the wonderful cycle of reading, sharing and learning can go on and on!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Another insightful article with many takeaways, and perfect timing as I get ready to have my students design our classroom library! One author whom I love is Eve Bunting; adding her to any classroom brings emotional depth and language for students to access.

    Liked by 1 person

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