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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is the story of Junior, a Spokane indian who finds himself torn between two worlds. His home is the town of Wellpinit, on the Spokane Indian Reservation, but he's given the opportunity to go to high school in the nearby town of Reardan, a community occupied primarily by white people and a far cry from the life he's used to on the reservation.
Junior struggles with racism and deals with the challenges of being different. He eventually begins to find himself accepted, with a few friends and even a new girlfriend. His connection to his heritage is embodied in his best friend Rowdy, with whom he struggles throughout the book, but the two eventually come to an understanding near the end.
Due to some language and sexual content, this book is probably best for high-school age readers.
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The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
The Red Badge of Courage is widely considered one of the most influential works in American Literature and one of the best war novels ever written. It is the story of young Henry Fleming, a private in the Union Army during the Civil War. Henry heads off to war filled with the bravado that comes with youth, but eventually begins to question his own courage.
Throughout the course of the novel, he comes face to face with death and his own cowardice, before eventually rising to the occasion and miraculously not only surviving but also helping his regiment win a skirmish with Confederate soldiers in the book's conclusion.
The most difficult book on the list, this one is recommended for advanced High School readers.
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Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
Bud, Not Buddy is the tale of 10-year-old Bud Caldwell, an orphan living in Flint, Michigan. After yet another unsuccessful stint with a foster family, this one involving a night locked in a shed with a hornet's nest, Bud decides to hit the road and find his real father, whom he believes to be a semi-famous band leader, Herman Calloway.
His journey leads him through a local shanty town and the home of "Lefty" Lewis, a local railroad worker, until he eventually arrives at a club owned by Calloway. Buddy states his belief that Herman is his father, and finds himself grudgingly accepted into the household. Eventually, Buddy learns that his mother was Herman's estranged daughter, and the family he's now living with is actually his own.
Probably most appealing to Junior High readers, but enjoyable at practically any age.
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Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Hatchet tells the story of Brian Robeson, a teenage boy stranded and alone in the Canadian wilderness following the heart attack of his plane's pilot and subsequent crash into a lake. His only tool is the hatchet his mother gave him before he left, and he's forced to find food and shelter on his own in order to survive.
Eventually Brian begins to become self-sufficient, as he learns to fish, hunt local birds, and make fire using sparks thrown by his hatchet. Following a huge storm that completely destroys nearly everything he's built, the tail of his plane appears above the water in the lake. Brian fashions a raft and manages to retrieve the survival pack from the aircraft. Shortly afterward, he's rescued thanks to an emergency beacon he accidentally activates.
Brian's tale is scary in parts, but is suitable for both Junior High and High School readers.
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Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan
Esperanza Rising's main character is a young Mexican girl named Esperanza. Her comfortable life on a large plantation in Mexico is shattered following her father's death and uncle's treacherous actions after his affections are spurned by Esperanza's mother. Esperanza and her mother are forced to relocate to the United States and find work in a migrant camp. Along the way they're helped by their former servants, who have family in the U.S. and help them adjust to the rigors of their new occupations.
When Esperanza's mother becomes ill, Esperanza is forced to take responsibility both for herself and for her mother's medical care. She learns the value of hard work and self-sufficiency, and eventually becomes fairly comfortable in her new life following the arrival of her grandmother from Mexico.
Esperanza's story is good for both High School and Junior High readers.