There are few truly great novels I’ve read that haven’t in some way informed, shaped, and changed my life for the better. They are classic novels and contemporary, historically-based and wholly imagined, replete with characters who are flawed and challenged and beautiful and evolving. They are, in a way, the kind of novels that build a reader’s character. After all, it’s hard to accompany a fictional character along on their journey of transformation without coveting a little of that transformation for yourself, am I right?
Sometimes the characters I meet in novels are just as, if not more, real to me than the flesh-and-blood characters who people my real life — and as a result their stories, struggles, successes, and experiences shape me in the same way that a true story would. Fiction can be great at exploring the universal truths that sometimes get lost among bare facts — in other words, telling stories that are truer than true. These are the novels with characters who flood your mind and nest in your heart, characters who inspire you to become a better you.
Here are 11 books that will build your character, broaden your perspective, and maybe even change your life a little. There's not much better reading than that.
1. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
After the unforgettable Joad family loses their Oklahoma farm during the Great Depression, they are forced to travel to California with the thousands of other families looking for migrant work. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath is not only an American literary classic, it is a testament to quiet strength and the resilience of the human spirit.
2. The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Following the story of modern-day migrants, Cristina Henriquez's The Book of Unknown Americans takes readers into the lives of members of the Rivera family. After teenage Maribel survives a traumatic brain injury, her family migrates from Mexico to the United States for better medical and educational opportunities. This story shows the bounds of family love and sacrifice are truly limitless.
3. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Author Jesmyn Ward's characters are so genuine and vibrant it's hard to believe Salvage the Bones is a work of fiction. The 14-year-old, pregnant Esch and her motherless siblings are trying to survive not only their tumultuous lives, but Hurricane Katrina and it's aftermath as well. This book offers readers an intimate look into the devastation of what poverty in the rural South really looks like, and the kind of endurance that is required of the young people who grow up among it.
4. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Regardless of what Atticus Finch may or may not have become in his later life in Go Set a Watchman, in To Kill A Mockingbird he is the exemplification of all things right, honorable, and just. And don't even get me started on Scout — one of literature's smallest, but strongest, leading ladies of all time. This novel is just one life lesson after another.
5. Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo
This is the novel that should be on every required-reading list everywhere — but somehow remains too radical to make the cut. Johnny Got His Gun tells the story of a World War I soldier who awakes in a hospital to discover he's lost his arms, legs, face, and ability to speak. One of the most grim, daring, and honest anti-war stories in literary history, this is one to take with you into the polls every single election season.
6. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
This novel is a little bit too close to the possibility of someday being true for comfort. Super Sad True Love Story documents the financial, social, intellectual and political downfall of the United States of America — a country where children accrue seemingly-incalculable amounts of debt before they’re even born, everyone interacts with the world through electronic devices that they wear around their necks, the youngest generation speaks in undecipherable abbreviations and has lost their ability to spell entirely, and a brand called “Onionskin” manufactures transparent jeans. Yikes. If nothing else it'll get you to put your smartphone down at the dinner table.
7. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
This gorgeous semi-autobiographical novel digs deep into the spiritual, political, and psychological yearnings of young Americans — both those whom were young when Go Tell It on the Mountain was published in 1953 and Americans coming of age today. The novel follows one 14-year-old boy as he goes on a truth-seeking journey of identity that will make you rethink the fullness of your understanding of your own identity as well.
8. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Arnold Spirit Jr., aka: "Junior" is so sweet, sincere, funny, and determined that just spending a few moments in his story will make you want to be a better person. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian the 14-year-old hopeful cartoonist and basketball-enthusiast grapples with with his decision to attend school off of his Native American reservation and maintains a genuine hope for his future that is both inspiring and contagious.
9. Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
Victor is a homeless, African-American 19-year-old squatting under a highway overpass just miles from the home where his father lives in Seattle, Washington. Set in 1999, in the hours during which the tension of the 1999 WTO protests builds to explosion, Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist is a must-read for activists, world-changers, and just about everyone else as well. Victor's personal journey of self-realization parallels the heightening violence of the protests in a way that is haunting, unforgettable, and will leave readers changed.
10. Veronica by Mary Gaitskill
Chronicling a life-changing friendship between two women who couldn't be more different from one another, at least at the outset, Veronica tells a story of how fame and beauty can destroy lives just as easily as they can build them up. It makes readers think about the life they'd like to recall living when they reach the end of their own. Beautiful, intense, and mesmerizing, this book will make you think about how you became who you are, and who you are on the path to becoming.
11. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This book will speak to anyone who has ever been transformed by their own love of literature — and therefore fits in perfectly on this list. The Book Thief tells the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster child living in Germany during World War II, who steals books as (though largely unknown to her at the time) an act of radical protest against the Nazi regime. Never underestimate the power of literature.
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