The last few years have put teen activists in the spotlight. We’ve seen passionate teenagers take the lead in fighting for gun control and striking for actions to protect the environment from climate change.
Civic responsibility is not dead. Teens are taking charge and putting their time and talents to work with the goal of making the world a better place. They have internalized the African proverb: If you think you are too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito. What’s more, many teens are focusing their efforts on getting into the kind of good trouble that the late John Lewis devoted his life to.
It is important to not only have a voice, but also to use that voice for a greater purpose. There are so many truly inspirational books available that tell interesting stories and encourage teenagers to focus their energy in positive, constructive, and hopeful ways as change agents. Here are some of my favorites.
5 Books for Teens Who Want to Change the World
1. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
For several years, I ordered copies of this book to give each of my high school students at the end of the year. I thought its message was so perfect for the stage they were in. The story validates the idea of going after what you want but also reinforces the idea that we should use our skills and talents to improve our world in some way. In Miss Rumphius’ case, she scatters lupine seeds everywhere she goes to beautify the world. When I see former students, many of them share that they still have their copy of this book.
Yes, it’s a children’s story. Yes, it’s about flowers. But it’s also about recognizing that our universe of obligation extends beyond ourselves and that we have a responsibility to find our own way to make the world more beautiful. Like every great children’s book, this one tells a delightful story that is both empowering and impactful for readers of all ages.
2. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
My son’s university assigned this book as a freshman read. One day during the summer, I called home and asked him to complete a few chores. His response says it all: “I can’t, Mom. I’m reading this book and I can’t put it down.” Is there any English teacher who can resist this excuse?
I read the book on my own and then had my students read it. Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, shares the central story of Walter McMillian, an African American man on death row for murdering a white woman. As he defends and ultimately exonerates McMillian, Stevenson presents information that irrefutably identifies the injustices of our justice system. At the same time, Stevenson’s compassion for his clients, his belief that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” and his commitment to his cause motivate us to not sit idly by.
This book has had an indelible impact not just on my son, who is pursuing a public policy major, but on my students, many of whom declared this the most powerful book they’ve ever read. A few pursued senior projects that aligned in some way with his book, one ended up following up with a death row attorney who had spoken in our class, and another got a tattoo with a quotation from the book.
3. Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow
In this true life “boy meets world,” story, we learn about Derek Black, David Duke’s godson and the former heir apparent to Stormfront, a white nationalist group. After living an isolated childhood, he went to college in Florida. When word got out who he was, instead of shunning him, some students strategized about how to work to change his thinking.
Saslow does a phenomenal job highlighting the process that Black undergoes to denounce his previous beliefs, but he’s not the hero of the story: Allison Gornik is. Many of us spend time trying to figure out how to persuade our kids to make their beds; almost single-handedly, she came up with a plan that made a white supremacist change his worldview.
Some find this story hard to believe, but the best thing about it is it that it’s true. It offers hope in the form of a real-life example as well as a case study in how to make change. We know that hatred is learned, but this book proves that it can also be unlearned.
The title alone is just so optimistic, and the book is pretty great too. Eric Liu is the Founder and CEO of Citizen University, and he’s had ample opportunity to put his philosophy into practice.
Who doesn’t love a book that champions the idea that democracy is all about arguing, and that strong debate actually makes us all better because when we listen to each other and work together, we can find solutions to problems that actually work.
Liu’s other major idea is that power is neither bad nor finite. That means that we can’t use the excuse that we don’t have the power to do anything as an excuse. Liu gives several real-world examples of how ordinary citizens found ways to come together and mobilize forces in order to make change. He definitely provides a pretty comprehensive playbook for activists.
5. Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. By Brené Brown
I had a hard time choosing which Brené Brown title to include here but I chose this one because it is almost a compilation of all her work to date (and if you haven’t watched any of her TED Talks, run, don’t walk to YouTube).
Brown focuses on relationships. In order to be a “daring leader,” we need to establish and maintain strong relationships. And growing a relationship means that we have to be willing to listen to each other, risk sharing our ideas and even our fears, and take the time to really care about other people.
When this happens, then there is no limit to what we can accomplish.
Whether you’re looking for a way to inspire your teen this summer or seeking a pump-up for a new graduate, one of these books may just be the ticket. If you’re lucky, they may become so absorbed in their reading that they forget to unload the dishwasher.