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Books that Inspire Students to Overcome Adversity

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Welcome to Top Grade: CanLit for the Classroom, a blog and preview video series that features new releases from Canadian book publishers ideal for use in K-12 classrooms and school library collections. Throughout the year, we will dive into new titles, highlighting relevant curriculum links and themes.

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Written by secondary school teacher Spencer Miller

School has always been a challenging experience but for the last two years school has been an ordeal! While adjusting to the new realities of masks, online learning, and cancelled activities, our students are still passing through the difficulties of growing up, forming relationships, and discovering themselves. 

I can see that my students are struggling, but I don’t always know how to help. I’ve found that some of the best comfort, advice, and encouragement can be found in the books we read.

One of the most helpful things we can do when facing a challenge is talk about it. When we talk about the struggles we’re going through, we learn we’re not alone. Books can help start the conversation. Reading and discussing books about navigating and overcoming challenges at school, can give our students confidence and deliver a message that they too can succeed.

For students who are quietly fighting battles at school each day, it can be powerful and validating to read about a character going through a similar endeavour. Getting to the end of a book and watching a beloved character find resolution can be a comforting and motivating experience.

Some of the most important lessons learned in classrooms this year won’t be about science, math, or history but the lessons we learn through listening, loving each other, and sharing our stories.

These brand new books tell stories about a diversity of students facing challenges at school and succeeding!

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Making friends can be hard! A group of classmates forms a bond on the playground as they learn to ask the right questions and share what’s most important about themselves. One question everyone wants to hear is “Hey kid, want to play?”.

A Kid Is A Kid Is A Kid explores the challenge of sharing the important parts of ourselves and making connections with the people around us. It acts as a helpful guide on how to make new friends.

In Class: As a group, brainstorm a list of questions that students can ask when trying to make new friends. Hang it on the wall of your classroom. Give students the chance to wander the room and practice asking and answering these questions.

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When Olivia starts to feel overwhelmed by her big feelings, she sprouts vines. They are thorny and twisty and make it impossible for Olivia to do the things she loves to do. Thankfully, Olivia’s teacher sees past the prickly and the pokey to the upset little girl and helps Olivia learn to manage the vines.

Olivia Wrapped In Vines is a quirky picture book perfect for talking and teaching about anxiety and other overwhelming feelings. It highlights the role that teachers can play in helping students learn to manage their feelings.

In Class: Just like Olivia’s teacher, you can teach your students some tricks to manage their feelings when they feel wrapped in vines. These might include thinking of their favourite things, giving themselves a hug, or getting a cold drink of water.

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Since losing her leg in an accident, Aria is nervous to return to school with her new prosthetic “helper-leg”. With nowhere to sit (all the school’s wooden furniture was burned during the war), Aria is terribly uncomfortable and can’t focus on anything the teacher says. Instead of giving up, Aria takes her situation into her own hands, building a bench with the help of a local carpenter.

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In A Sky-Blue Bench, Bahram Rahman writes a tribute to the resilience and resolve of young children—especially young girls—who face barriers to education.

In Class: Use this book to introduce the idea of accessibility. Take a tour of your school and challenge your students to look for barriers or areas that might be difficult for some students to access. Then let them suggest solutions for how you could create a more accessible school.

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Livy is having trouble fitting in as the new girl at school and dealing with Viola. Viola is Livy’s anxiety brought to life, a shadowy twin that only Livy can see or hear. Only when Livy learns how to ask for help and face her anxiety does she finally figure out living with Viola.

In Living With Viola, Rosena Fung draws on her own experiences with anxiety and growing up as the child of Chinese immigrant parents. This colourful graphic novel offers a real exploration of mental health, cultural differences, and the trials of middle school.

In Class: Give your students the chance to do some cartooning of their own. Invite them to draw the things that make them anxious and the things that bring them comfort. The final challenge is to draw your cartoon self conquering your anxiety!

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Life is anything but ordinary for this non-binary trans kid! Between an important science project, managing the growing popularity of their YouTube channel and being interviewed for an article in the local newspaper, Ciel also agrees to campaign to represent their school’s LGBT Alliance. How do you stay true to yourself when you’re being pulled in all directions?

In Ciel In All Directions, Ciel faces their biggest challenge yet: finding balance. The story is reflective of the struggles and pressures faced by today’s teens who want to do it all.

In Class: Challenge students to make a list of their priorities. Have them compare and discuss what things are most important and belong at the top of their lists. Finish your discussion by inviting students to put their well-being at the top of their lists. After all, taking care of yourself is essential to achieving your goals.

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Habiba Cooper Diallo offers up her high school journal for publication with the intent to shed light on her experiences as a Black, female student.

#BlackInSchool details her Grade 11 and 12 years attending school in Halifax. She documents, processes, and resists the microaggressions, stereotypes, and outright racism she experienced while being Black in school in Canada.

Young people will easily connect with this memoir, as it is written in the words of a real high school student. For Black students, this memoir will validate their feelings and experience and offer empowerment and encouragement. For others, it will be an important challenge and call to action to make schools a more inclusive place.

In Class: Journaling is a powerful tool! Have students record reflections on their time in school and growing up and encourage them to consider how race may have shaped some of their experiences. Make sure to provide supportive feedback that validates your students’ perspectives. 

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Spencer Miller graduated from the University of Calgary with degrees in English and Education. He participated in various projects examining the potential of children’s literature in the classroom as an undergraduate researcher. He is currently a secondary school teacher in Montréal/Tiohtià:ke. You can follow more of Spencer’s passion for books on Instagram @YACanadaBooks.

January 31, 2022
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