Positive Character Traits: Great Books About Courage
We hope you enjoy today’s special guest post by Topher South, an online high school English teacher at Nevada Connections Academy.
For parents and teachers, it’s important to guide children in developing positive character traits. Now, with the holiday honoring the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. approaching, followed by Black History Month in February, is the perfect time of year to focus on courage.
American Poet Laureate and all-around legendary writer Maya Angelou said, “Courage is the most important of all the virtues because without courage, you can’t practice any other virtue consistently.” Without the courage of your convictions, it’s impossible to leave your mark on this world. The following list features characters, authors, and subjects who embody the courageous ideals Martin Luther King Jr. embodied.
We recommend that parents evaluate any books to determine if they are appropriate for their child’s reading level and maturity. We hope these selections inspire you to read about courage, discuss courage, and model courage for your kids.
Martin Luther King Jr.: The Last Interview and Other Conversations by Martin Luther King Jr.
There is a nearly endless supply of nonfiction books about the incredible mark Dr. King’s courage left on the world and American culture. Choosing one felt like a difficult task, until I stumbled upon this brilliant interview collection. Who better to paint a full picture of the father of the civil rights movement than the man himself? This collection features the last interview King ever gave before his tragic assassination, and along with it is 128 pages of his thoughts on race, peace, violence, humanity, love, and more, all lit by his famous wit and warmth. This one has a place in every home, school, and online classroom.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This controversial books tackles many of the civil rights issues Dr. King brought into public conversation during the 1960s and examines them in the modern age. When sixteen-year-old Starr Carter’s childhood friend is killed in a misunderstanding with a police officer, leaving Starr the only civilian witness, she must balance the opinions of her urban friends and family with those of her prep school classmates as she becomes the focal point of a public firestorm. It’s an emotionally brutal coming-of-age story written with realistic modern-day language and some violence and sexual references, which may make it inappropriate for younger readers, but its portrayal of courage and resilience is something to behold. Blending in well-written characters, humor, and serious consideration of difficult issues related to courage, Angie Thomas has created a modern classic, and a must-read for people in their teen years and older.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
Christopher John Francis, the main character of this British young adult novel, is a teenager on the autism spectrum. He goes to a special school, and because of the way his mind works, sometimes just going outside is an act of courage. Meanwhile, his father courageously and compassionately raises him with love and understanding as a single parent who doesn’t understand his son’s mind but who can connect to his heart. Written from the first-person perspective, the book gives the reader powerful insight into the way Christopher’s mind works as he embarks on a riveting mystery—Who killed his neighbor’s dog?—that takes him out of his daily rituals and comforts and into the greater world of the London train system. He must deal with people who don’t understand him and sometimes respond with cruelty, and ultimately reckon with the true mystery of his life: What happened to his mother? Courage is something he needs, and it’s something he has in spades.
Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson and Black Panther by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I combined these two superhero comics because I couldn’t decide between these two awesomely courageous heroes. Ms. Marvel is the story of Kamala Khan, a teenage Muslim girl who gets body-shifting powers and has to balance the needs of her very traditional Pakistani immigrant family with learning how to be a superhero. Finding the courage to be herself and embrace her background is the meat of her powerful, hilarious, action-packed story, and it’s a great read for kids all the way to mid elementary school. Black Panther, on the other hand, is a little more mature. The author, Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a National Book Award and MacArthur “genius” grant winner. The book’s heady, intense meditations on what it means to lead with courage as the king and hero of a technologically advanced African nation make for a powerful read. The movie comes out in February. It’s worth brushing up on the real meat of this character before seeing him fight for Wakanda on the big screen.
Hero by Perry Moore
As part of modern American mythology, superheroes are our most accessible and popular depiction of the power of courage. However, Hero offers us a different take on superheroics. Thom Creed is a teenager living in a world where superheroes and supervillians are commonplace, and when he discovers he has powers, it kicks off a series of events that bring him to true courage. Thom isn’t just a superhero—he’s also gay, and those are two things that are not okay with his dad. So, after keeping the two most important aspects of himself a secret, he eventually has to find the courage to tell his father who he really is—while saving the city. Using discovering superpowers as an allegory for coming out, Moore presents a funny, action-packed, and emotional story about modern personal courage.
Child of the Civil Rights Movement by Paula Young Shelton and Raúl Colón
A book for the youngest readers in the family, Child of the Civil Rights Movement is simple but deeply realized. Paula Young Shelton recounts her memories of being a very young child during the civil rights movement in an easy-to-follow, emotionally rich story, and Raúl Colón’s lovely illustrations bring it to life in a way that will touch the whole family’s hearts. This is an excellent book to add to daily reading rotations, as it reinforces empathy, justice, and family bonds, and teaches that courage is something even little children can embody.
Next up, more delightfully illustrated early childhood reading! These companion books are written with the children of those enlisted in our military in mind. The very first page refers to the parent in question as a superhero, and from there it elucidates how military parents are real-life armed forces heroes. While either book is a powerful tool to help young children understand what military parents do when they are away, it also works as a heartfelt depiction of courage in the military that young children can understand in a meaningful way.
March by Congressman John Lewis
Yes, this is another comic book, but this one is more of a graphic memoir. In it, John Lewis depicts his memories of being a prominent member of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement and the acts of courage he and his compatriots engaged in. Made up of three volumes that function as one book, March starts with Lewis’s youth, depicting the Jim Crow South, the first meetings with MLK Jr, and the cruel segregation he and his family and friends were made to endure. The trilogy follows him as they stand strong against beatings and threats of violence, and ultimately march on for justice. The artwork is immersive, and the story flows quickly, bringing its award-winning story of world-changing courage to life in full color.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
A semiautobiographical middle-grades novel from legendary storyteller Sherman Alexie, this selection follows Junior, a young Native American boy, as he finds the courage to attend an all-white prep school outside of his reservation, facing the resistance of the kids at the school and the people back home. Alexie, not shying away from the brutal reality he experienced growing up on a reservation in Washington, fills this book with pain and love in equal measure as his main character finds the courage to build a better life for himself. Featuring everything from basketball to first-time dates, friendships broken and redeemed, death, joy, struggle, and racism, Junior’s story will give you the courage to face your fears and stand up for what you want, no matter the hardships you may face.
Sula by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is known for her staggeringly beautiful prose—painstakingly crafted word by aching word—and Sula is an example of her in top form. It follows Nel and Sula, two black women who live lives as different as they could possibly be. Nel stays in their small town to get married and raise a family, and Sula heads off to college and the broader world, hungry for new experiences and knowledge. The novel shows the triumphs and drawbacks of each lifestyle contrasted with the other, and swims deep into the courage it takes to choose either one. It shows how courage comes not from the outcomes of choices, but from making those choices, and following them to where they lead. Morrison’s writing is breathtaking. In Sula, she creates two characters who will stay with you for life. Recommended only for the most mature readers.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
This one is a lot of things: an incredible class on writing compelling stories; a semifictionalized, semitrue memoir-ish epic; a gut-wrenching exploration of the traumas of war; a story of male bonding and camaraderie amid painful, miserable circumstances; an indictment of violence; and a celebration of the lives of soldiers. Mostly, though, it can be considered a meditation on courage, told through the stories of Vietnam War soldiers, and their lives before, during, and after the war. It’s a war book, so it’s definitely violent and has profanity, so it’s probably not a good read for children of middle school age or younger, but reading this book for the first time in a high school creative writing class changed the way I think about writing, war, and the courage of those who serve in the military.
Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston
The last book on this list is one of the hardest to read. Hurston is known for Their Eyes Were Watching God, but her short stories and other writings are every bit as much worth reading. Mules and Men is an academic work, an example of what is known as autoethnography, or a style of writing where an author explores his or her own culture. Don’t let that scare you off, though. Mules and Men is an entertaining collection of what Hurston calls, “big old lies”—folklore, stories, and recollections she grew up immersed in.
Some of the stories involve courage, and some do not, but the real piece of courage here is the simple act of writing. Mules and Men was published in 1935. Hurston spent years collecting and writing an academic piece exploring black American culture at a time when the majority of academics and the broader American culture was against this type of research—especially if conducted by an African American woman. The author faced nearly insurmountable pushback, both racist and sexist, but she overcame it with incredible courage, ultimately writing one of the most important works of ethnography ever published.
Courage is a necessity for us all, from a toddler facing a fear of the dark, to a child dealing with growing up, to a teenager coming up against adulthood, to a parent trying to raise a child of character and conviction. We hope that reading these books, aloud, together, or alone, brings courage to you and yours.
What books have inspired courage in you and your family? Share your recommendations below!