Tower of BooksI’ve been doing a lot of reading in the last while, and I’ve read some fantastic books. I want to share three of them with you today, in brief. With each of them, although the key problem the main character faces is a challenging one, and many things help them learn to deal with it, the arts in some way helps them discover much about themselves and about how to surmount their challenges.

Each book could be considered early YA or late middle grade. I’d suggest that they’re appropriate for readers aged 11 to 15.

In The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt, a book set in the late 1960s while the Vietnam War was raging, Holling Hoodhood is a seventh grader who is dealing with the typical struggles of a kid who doesn’t quite fit in.

He is bullied, he thinks his teacher has it in for him, his dad is putting pressure on him since he’s the heir to his dad’s architectural business. While half his class — the Catholic half — attends one kind of religious instruction, and the other half — the Jewish half — attend their own instruction class on Wednesday afternoons, Holling is stuck in the classroom on his own with Mrs. Baker, the teacher who seems to hate him.

Where do the arts come in? Mrs. Baker introduces Holling to the plays of Shakespeare — and through those plays, he starts to understand the world around him, and his place in it. To find out just how this happens, you will have to read the book.

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Also by Gary D. Schmidt, Okay for Now takes place the following year, as one of the kids from Holling’s class moves away. This book follows the story of Doug Swieteck, seen by the people in his new town as “a skinny thug.” As the first few chapters unfold, we gradually realize that there are challenges in Doug’s life that he reacts to belligerently, earning him this title.

The breakthrough in this case comes when a librarian discovers Doug’s interest in art and particularly the art of John James Audubon. Doug begins learning to draw under the librarian’s tutelage, which leads to many other learnings, which all help Doug discover who he is, and how to function in the world he finds himself in. Again, I highly recommend you read this book.

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In Gracefully Grayson, by Ami Polonsky, the challenges the main character faces are very different from those of either Holling or Doug.

Grayson is seen by those around as a boy, but deep down inside, Grayson has always identified as a girl. It was easier when Grayson was younger to pretend that wide-legged shorts were really a skirt, that the face in the mirror was really that of a typical girl. The book is written in the first person, which effectively deals with the choice of pronoun. (From here on I’ll refer to Grayson using feminine pronouns.)

 As Grayson, now in sixth grade, grapples with her need to be herself, she becomes involved in a theatrical production directed by her favorite teacher. She finds a few kids in the production who support her — even in her decision to try out for a girl’s part, and even when she is cast in that part — although she has to deal with all sorts of opposition and bullying from many others.

To find out how Grayson comes to terms with all this, I urge you to read this book, which the Kirkus review I linked to calls “a kind and earnest look at a young transgender adolescent’s experience.”

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Three excellent books, each very different, but each of which brings hope to the main character through the arts. My kind of books!

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