Linking up with Kelly again! Last week I talked about 7 picture books I love for teaching about virtue. This week I’ve got 7 chapter books I think are great for starting conversations with or among upper elementary and middle schoolers.
Some of these chapter books are long-time favorites that you may already be familiar with. I’ve chosen books that are fantastic stories with relatable characters and situations. Warning- some spoilers ahead!
Friendship, Compassion, Loyalty, Diligence
Jess wakes up early and practices running all summer, despite his family’s protests, hoping to be the fastest runner in the 5th grade. Not only is he not the fastest, he is beaten by the new girl, Leslie. Jess and Leslie become quick friends, despite their very different families and upbringing. A horrific accident results in Leslie’s death and Jess must face questions of what it means to be a friend and how to cope with loss. This book is great for conversations about peer pressure and navigating friendships.
Courage, Loyalty, Truth, Compassion, Love
Okay, fine, this is seven books instead of one. I know. If you had to choose just one, I’d go The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, obviously. But if you can, you should read them all. I have read the entire set more times than I can count and it remains among my all-time favorites regardless of genre or category. The characters provide endless models for virtue. Whether it is Lucy’s mercy when Edmund lies about her, or Reepicheep’s heroic bravery, or Aslan’s self-sacrificing love, you’ll find tons of material for conversations about what goodness looks like.
Trust, Hope, Integrity, Truth, Cooperation
I first discovered this book about 5 years ago and I love it! I read it aloud to 4th graders for a couple of years and they loved it as well. It’s a bit complicated and long for most 4th graders to read independently but makes a great read aloud for upper elementary, whether in the classroom or at bedtime. I especially like this book for reluctant (male) readers. I know several 10-12 year old boys who are not big readers who really got into this book. The plot is exciting and keeps the reader engaged throughout. The four (child) heroes of this novel pass a bizarre test and go undercover at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened on a deadly serious mission, with only each other to rely on. I loved chatting with my 4th graders about truth and intellectual honesty (although I didn’t use that exact phrase!) and the role of the media in forming our opinions and worldview when we read this book. I haven’t had the opportunity to read the rest of the books in this series yet, but I am looking forward to doing so!
4. The Giver
Truth, Responsibility, Wisdom
The Giver is so well known and such a classic at this point that it probably doesn’t need a summary, but just in case: Jonas lives in an ideal, utopian community. As Jonas receives his assignment as the Receiver of Memory for the community, he begins to learn more about it’s history and secrets, and is forced to grapple with questions about freedom and responsibility and suffering. I love this book for discussions about big philosophical and social questions with middle schoolers in particular.
Esperanza must leave behind the only life she has ever known as the privileged daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher and move to California, where she and her mother join others working in the agricultural industry and living in a camp. This book brings up issues of race, nationality, class, and labor that are good conversation starters around concepts like justice and human rights. Esperanza’s hope (fittingly) is an inspiration.
Compassion, Courage, Justice, Fortitude
This would be a great follow up to The Yellow Star (which I wrote about last week) or to read with older children while you read The Yellow Star to younger kids.
During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, 10 year-old Annemarie and her family take in her best friend, Ellen Rosen. Annemarie watches as the Danish resistance mobilizes to smuggle the Jewish citizens of Denmark to safety in Sweden. I’ve found this powerful novel is a great way to open up conversations with kids about being courageous in the face of persecution and standing up for what’s right, even when it’s possible you’ll suffer for it.
Justice, Courage, Respect, Responsibility
Kenny Watson’s family is driving south from Michigan to his grandmother’s home in Alabama during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The reader gets a close-up of family relationships, for better or worse, and sees how the choices of individual family members affect everyone. Themes of racism, the Civil Rights Movement, and social justice provide a backdrop to the family interaction and are good starting points for talking about human dignity and rights. Fair warning- there’s some language, a reference to teenage boys looking at a Playboy, and heavy concepts related to racism and violence in this novel. I’m not troubled by the inclusion of these things- they’re not gratuitous, they serve the plot and character development- but if you are, be aware of their presence.