Inspirational Books For Teens

Inspirational books about those who overcome physical or mental infirmities to become winners are often an inspiration to young people to change their own sometimes self-centered lives.

Parents who have given up on trying to interest their teens to read are missing a golden opportunity. I remember when my own daughter was 12 or 13, and loved to be engrossed in a novel or biography about a teen facing a horrendous challenge in his or her life. While not classics, these books seemed to inspire a certain other-centeredness that turned my child on to reading in a way other books had not done. They also led to the best books in their genre, with mother looking over her shoulder, and gave us plenty of food for our long discussions.

And maybe offered her some solutions for the much less major dilemmas of her own young life.

If young readers can relate to stories about human beings in trouble, human beings who cannot walk or play or hear, it may be possible to stir something in their often "me-centered" lives. Hopefully, the compassion and concern stirred up for such suffering humans will be a bridge to another view of life, a filling of the gap of teenage egoism. Each of the real or fictional characters who overcome some disability in the books discussed here have common denominators with almost all of us. The discovery of these common denominators can be redemptive for young readers and non-readers alike.

The Jazz Man by Mary Hays Welk (Aladdin Books, '93) is the simplest book in the genre I have read, suitable for those reading at 3rd to 6th grade level and up to about 14 years old. It tells the story of Zeke, a lame African American child who moves to Harlem from the south. Because he can't run and play with other children, Zeke builds a world of his own across the alley from his sixth floor window. Into the room he watches comes a jazz piano player. Who music and magic fills the lonely child's world.

Zeke's poverty, lameness, the marital problems of his parents plague hi, but the jazzman's music helps to reconcile him to life. It's a simple, uncomplicated story, with plenty of insight into human suffering and the power of imagination woven between the lines. The sometimes-poetic script is accompanied by lovely black and white woodcuts that capture the poignancy, warmth and movement of Zeke's world.

The story of another child, Karen, by Marie Killilea (Buccaneer, '99) is also popular with younger readers, from fifth grade up. It's the true story of a cerebral palsied child and her family's struggle to make her whole. Karen is born into a deeply religious and cohesive family unit, two background elements which repeatedly appear in stories of dramatic rehabilitative successes. Certainly in the case of the Killileas, the faith, closeness, and loving persistence are responsible for the young couple's determination to get some hopeful answers for their daughter's prognosis.

It takes twenty-four visits to doctors and clinics all over the eastern seaboard, emotional and financial strain and an expenditure of endless love and faith before they find the doctor with the answers""and therapy techniques""to utilize Karen's wasting muscles. It's difficult to remain unemotional Karen's resultant success over pain, stubborn limbs and self-pity. Her parents' efforts, both in working with Karen and with setting up a national CP organization to help others so afflicted, are inspiring. Written with humor, joy, and love, the book admits of some sentimentality for which Marie Killilea night be forgiven, because it is her child which makes this valiant struggle against a debilitating disease.

Youngsters reading the book will probably recognize this, and find it natural. They also express appreciation for their own physical abilities and empathize with a child so severely limited.

Equally inspiring but much less sentimental is E. G. Valens' story of skiing hopeful Jill Kinmont after a crippling accident charts her future life-struggle as a Long Way Up (Harper and Row""out of print). Jill Kinmont, 15 when she wins her first race, begins to train rigorously for the Olympics. The grinding physical and mental discipline, the exhilaration that follows from graceful speed skiing in sun, wind and snow, and from popular acclaim, are soon transformed""when a tragic accident ends her skiing career. Now Kinmont faces a life of work, discipline and exhilaration to recover. Paralyzed from the waist down, and only minimal arm and finger movement, but inspired by her close-knit family, this unassuming and spirited young woman tackles her rehabilitation with unequalled vigor. Gradually, though she is human enough to sometimes be resistant, frightened and embarrassed along the way, a whole new world opens for the crippled star""the world of scholarship and of charity. Of concern for others.

Refusing to submit any part of her mind to her ailment, for example, by refusing to take pain medication which diminishes her mental capabilities, Jill doggedly attends UCLA, makes new friends, and finally teaches remedial reading. Written simply, the book never dwells on the emotional aspects of accident and recovery, and even treats those aspects with humor, irreverence and matter-of-factness. Even athletic boys might be lured by the first half, which deals with ski training in a very informative and imaginative way.

Dorothy Wilson's Take My Hands (McGraw""out of print) is another biography of personal comeback, this time the story of Dr. Mary Verghese, whose physical handicaps were but an impetus to devoting her life to hard work for others. A brilliant, compassionate and durable young intern in an Indian medical college, Mary Verghese is critically injured in a bus accident. Facially disfigured and paralyzed from the waist down, the plucky woman realizes she cannot remain inert, self-pitying and uninvolved for long.

With a strong family-centered and deeply religious orientation to life, she offers her hands. With her family's blessings, to God's uses, i.e., the healing of others. Uncomplaining, determined, even stubborn, Dr. Mary starts by working in a leprosy clinic, graduates to performing delicate corrective hand surgery on lepers, and finally, through a compelling interest in rehabilitative medicine, faces her own painful rehabilitation process. One can't help being drawn into the drama of Mary Verghese's story, and the beautiful flowering of her dream for others. It is always awesome to observe deep religious faith working in a gritty, tenacious human being, and there is certainly inspiration to be drawn from the woman's fortitude and moral excellence. However, too noble, too distant, perhaps, Mary Verghese may be beyond the realm of relatability to some teens.

In setting, however, the book captures the color and flavor, graciousness and warmth of the Indian people. Its theme of faith in action is beautifully echoed,

A book with a similar tale but far more human, warm and real, is Mermaid on Wheels by June Epstein (Taplinger) Bred in a lively, cohesive family which played, worked and shared with equal passion, Margaret Watkins is able to respond to a crippling auto accident with vigor and spontaneous determination. Her rehabilitation progress at the Australian Austin center is remarkable and inspiring, and its technical aspects of note.

The psychology of the disabled person, even one as proactive as Watkins, is covered well in this volume, as are the needs of the handicapped person in the public and private arena. The narrative flows in almost journalistic style, making it quick and easy reading, complete with interesting photographs. It is strongly recommended for students from Grade 6 through high school.

A slightly more difficult read with far more literary value is Joanna Greenberg's In This Sign, (Holt, '88) a wonderful coming of age novel about a child of two deaf mutes. Abel and Janice meet and fall in love at a school for the deaf, later marry and try to adjust to a hearing, productive world. Trying to conceal their deafness so as to get along better in the world, they become financially entangled and struggle, nearly penniless and afraid for 20-odd years. Margaret, their hearing child, becomes their bridge into the hearing world.

How Margaret suffers because of her dual position as their child and their mediator makes for a poignant story. Beautifully sculpted writing, with the sign of the deaf almost coming alive off the pages in Greenberg's deft, almost tactile handling of the language, makes this a fine literary work. So, too, does the carefully managed style reflect the hesitating, confused thought processes of the deaf, with their meager word mastery. This is a good book to teach humane, positive acceptance of the handicapped, and to instill a desire to work for these silent, suffering humans. Unsentimental but powerfully moving, the book cannot help but change the reader. It is excellent reading for Junior High through High School.

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