Finding a Mentor: How Books Inspire Resiliency - National Council of Teachers of English
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Finding a Mentor: How Books Inspire Resiliency

This post is written by member Amber McMath.

Obi-Wan to Luke. Charlotte to Wilbur. Dumbledore to Harry. The Giver to Jonas.Coach Carter to the Oilers. Mr. Miyagi to Daniel. Karl Zielinski to the Hidden Figures.

Where would our young protagonists be without their mentors? Whether they are seeking direction, licking their wounds, or overcoming obstacles, often our beloved characters look to a non-parental adult to fill the void.

As do our students.

“Today I believe that adverse childhood experiences and the wide-ranging health and social problems they generate are our Nation’s leading public health problem—bar none.” Dr. Robert Anda, the co-principal investigator of the landmark study on Adverse Childhood Experiences, sat at his computer and wept when he saw the results of his first survey. “I saw how much people had suffered and I wept.”

Most educators don’t need Anda’s findings to confirm what they already know: too many of our students have seen abuse, traumatic events, household dysfunction, and worse before they step through our doors. It’s what brought me to tears over Ally [pseudonym]. She didn’t complete the school year in my seventh-grade reading remediation class due to a drug-related expulsion. This is the same Ally who begged me each day to read a few extra pages of Pax by Sara Pennypacker. The same Ally who requested copies of Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt be sent to her while she served several in-school suspensions in the spring.

My Ally could write the book on the adverse childhood experiences that Dr. Anda researched. However, this summer she is reading a book. I had Ghost by Jason Reynolds shipped to her house. Not only will it pique her sports interest, it features an important character in Coach. The relationship between the protagonist Ghost and his track coach is the narrative equivalent of a winning lottery ticket according to Suniya S. Luthar, editor of Resilience and Vulnerability. “From the earliest pioneering studies for Norman Garmezy and Emmy Werner to more contemporaneous ones, investigators have consistently pointed to the critical importance of strong connections with at least one supportive adult” (544).

I need Ally to discover in the pages of Ghost the hope that awaits her in a relationship with a caring adult. This is crucial for all students whose own resilience will be their saving grace or whose circumstances will be their defeat. Resilience is far more likely to be motivated by a book than another school suspension, therapy session with a stranger, or lecture about addictions.

While most English teachers don’t also have a degree in adolescent psychology or counseling, they do hold hundreds of stories of resilience. Thankfully, young adult books are no stranger to characters like Coach who model the vital role of a mentor. Here are eight young adult titles published in the last few years featuring powerful mentors.

Blooming at the Texas Sunrise Motel by Kimberly Willis Holt

Stevie’s parents die suddenly, leaving her in the care of her grandfather at the motel he owns. The surrogate family she encounters there restores Stevie’s—and her grandfather’s—hope in humanity.

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

When outsider Willow Chance loses her parents, the role of mentor falls to her friend’s mother and other unlikely characters.

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

An unexpected teacher in Mr. Daniels guides Ally through facing and fixing her dyslexia.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds

The mentor that Ghost finds in his track coach gives him the guidance and confidence to deal with his past.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Joseph’s foster parents come through for him in surprising ways as he tries to reunite with his daughter.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker

Peter’s only friend in the world is his fox. When a war separates them, the hardened but wise Vola gets Peter back on track.

Rain, Reign by Ann M. Martin

Rose’s only companion is her dog Rain who got lost in a storm. With an unsupportive alcoholic father, Rose turns to her uncle for understanding.

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

In England during WWII, Ada, her crippled left foot, and her brother are saved from their abusive mother by the lonely Susan Smith.

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

Matt is desperate for a job–and a mentor–after the death of his mother. He finds both at the funeral home where his boss Mr. Ray helps him face the truth about life and death.

Other Recommendations:

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern

The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith

Booked by Kwame Alexander

Beautiful Music for Ugly Children by Kirstin Cronn-Mills



Amber McMath is a teacher in Owasso, OK. She currently serves seventh-grade students in reading remediation. She previously taught in Mali, West Africa but now enjoys the adventures of being with her incredible math teacher husband and adorable son. Twitter @mrsmcreading Blog