In troubled times, it can be difficult to escape feelings of anger and helplessness – and even harder to feel optimistic about the future. Thank goodness, then, for books: not only can they help us to escape from reality, but they can also instill us with hope. More importantly, they can take us on a journey of self-discovery, helping us to reconnect with those all-important values of generosity, empathy, bravery and self-belief.
We’re currently facing an uncertain political future and struggling to help the planet, and that’s on top of anything we might be dealing with in our personal and professional lives, from burnout and seasonal affective disorder to trying to negotiate a pay rise or promotion. Because of that, we can feel overwhelmed and scared, and it can be all too easy to forget the power of being kind, not just to others but also to ourselves.
With that thought in mind, then, we have searched out the 15 books which taught us to have courage and, above all else, be kind. Prepare to have your faith in humanity restored…
1) The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
“Even the smallest person can change the course of history.”
Tolkien’s decision to have four hobbits lead us through The Lord of the Rings’ war-ravaged Middle-Earth was a stroke of genius. Why? Because, just like us, they are simple people, who prefer the comforts of their own home, the reassurance of their day-to-day routine, and the easy complacency that comes from normality.
They are distinctly ordinary – and so, when the world cries out for a hero to rise up and fight against evil, Frodo, Samwise, Merry and Pippin initially worry that maybe they are not good enough, or smart enough, or strong enough, to make a difference. That an ordinary person, living an ordinary life, can never hope to do something truly extraordinary.
But over the course of the trilogy, they are proven wrong. Time and time again, they are forced to stare darkness in the face – and, time and time again, they prove that anyone can do anything, so long as their courage holds, their spirit does not fail and there’s a warm dinner to look forward to at the end of it all.
2) A Series of Unfortunate Events – Lemony Snicket
“At times the world may seem an unfriendly and sinister place, but believe that there is much more good in it than bad. All you have to do is look hard enough, and what might seem to be a series of unfortunate events may in fact be the first steps of a journey.”
If you didn’t read A Series of Unfortunate Events when you were younger, you missed out. Big time. (Although you can now watch the star-studded adaptation on Netflix, as an FYI). The incredibly twisted tale follows the Baudelaire children as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of their parents while dealing with the murderous intentions of the villainous Count Olaf.
As the title suggests, this is not a happy story – and Violet, Klaus and Sunny come up against a constant stream of adversities and tragedies throughout the 13-book series. Yet, despite the fact that the odds are well and truly stacked against them, the children never lose hope. Instead, they rely upon their wits – as well as one another’s love and support – to forge friendships, dream up solutions, and fight the good fight against their wicked new guardian. Read the tales, stat, for a crash course in inner bravery and strength.
3) To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”
Everyone remembers the first time that they read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Set in Alabama during the sweltering summer of 1935, it hurls us smack-bang into a small town riddled with poverty, racial tension and outright cruelty.
At its heart is a painfully familiar story – a black man has been arrested on false charges. However the manner in which the tale is told – through the eyes of an eight-year-old tomboy named Scout – allows Lee to highlight the small acts of everyday heroism which may otherwise have gone unnoticed.
With Scout as our narrator, we pay careful attention to the actions of her father, lawyer Atticus Finch. His moral compass is unwavering, his desire to do right by Tom Robinson is resolute, and his quiet dignity in the face of adversity is utterly inspirational. Just like Scout, we slowly come to understand that bravery doesn’t require boldness, or brashness, or brute strength.
In fact, the finest ways to show courage is in your convictions – and to stand up for what you believe in, no matter what.
4) Allegiant – Veronica Roth
“There are so many ways to be brave in this world. Sometimes bravery involves laying down your life for something bigger than yourself, or for someone else. Sometimes it involves giving up everything you have ever known, or everyone you have ever loved, for the sake of something greater.
But sometimes it doesn't.
Sometimes it is nothing more than gritting your teeth through pain, and the work of every day, the slow walk toward a better life.
That is the sort of bravery I must have now.”
There are many kinds of bravery – and Allegiant makes a point of teaching us about more than just the obvious one.
This tale (which, like the other books in the trilogy, Divergent and Insurgent, has been adapted into a blockbuster movie) is set in a futuristic dystopian version of Chicago, where society is divided into five factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candour (the honest), Dauntless (the brave) and Erudite (the intellectual).
When children reach the age of 16, they undergo a serum-induced psychological aptitude test which indicates their best-suited faction, though they are allowed to choose any faction as their permanent group at the subsequent Choosing Ceremony. We follow those who defect to be Dauntless, as they are forced to travel through their fear landscape and take on a series of nightmarish challenges. As the obstacles become more and more difficult, and protagonist Beatrice and co are forced to call upon all of their reserves of mental strength, we quickly come to realise that bravery is not the absence of fear – far from it. Any fool can be fearless, after all.
Instead, bravery requires us to recognise that we are afraid. It takes great strength of character to face our fears, and use them as a tool to drive us forward. When we are frightened, we have two options: we can break through to a whole new level, or we can use it as an excuse to give up or quit.
The brave may be bold, but they still feel anxiety, dread and an overwhelming desire to turn and run (or simply bury their heads in the sand). That’s what makes them human – and that’s what makes them so inspiring.
5) The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
“Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don't let the bastards grind you down.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is a tale of terror, oppression and prevalent misogyny – but, crucially, it’s one of bravery, too.
Offred has been stripped of her name, separated from her loved ones, and forced into a life of sexual servitude. And, yes, she has been forced to comply with the rules of Gilead’s not-so-brave new world, but, through the simple act of sharing her story, she takes back control of her own identity – her own destiny, even. The very moment she begins to record her autobiography, she regains some form of autonomy and reminds us that she’s unwilling to go quietly into the shadows. And, through her eyes and recollections, we slowly come to realise that there are sparks of rebellion lighting up all over the former United States of America.
There’s the Latin graffiti scrawled at the bottom of her wardrobe: don’t let the bastards grind you down. There’s the quiet daring of Offglen, who – despite the terrible danger it puts her in – is willing to do anything to free her fellow Handmaids from a brutal existence. There’s Serena Joy’s willingness to break the rules that she herself helped to forge. There’s Nick’s passionate, forbidden embrace. There’s Moira’s furious refusal to submit. And, of course, there are the whirring cogs of the Mayday resistance, slowly grinding away beneath the text at all times.
Yes, they’re small. But, when everyone around you is marching to the same terrible beat, it’s worth remembering that any act of courage, however seemingly insignificant, may just be the push that someone else out there needs to make a difference. And, more importantly, it will remind them that no matter how dark the world has become, they are not alone.
6) Before I Fall – Lauren Oliver
“That's when I realized that certain moments go on forever. Even after they're over they still go on, even after you're dead and buried, those moments are lasting still, backward and forward, on into infinity. They are everything and everywhere all at once. They are the meaning.”
Sam Kingston is 17 years old, overwhelmingly popular, and living the high school life of her dreams.
And then she’s killed in a shock car accident.
She vividly describes her dying moments – and forces us, the reader, to endure the horror and pain of her last breaths. But, as she finally slips away, Sam finds herself waking up in her own bed again, heart pounding and bathed in sweat. It soon becomes clear that this Mean Girls wannabe has been given the chance — and the burden — to re-live the last day of her life over and over again, until she manages to ‘put things right’.
As the story of Before I Fall progresses, Sam comes to understand exactly how much power she truly holds over her own life, and how even the smallest changes might affect everyone else around her. And… well, we don’t want to give too much away, but it’s safe to say that this book asks us to take a long hard look at our lives, at how we treat people, and at what we deem to be ‘important’.
Trust us when we say it’s a must-read.
7) The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
“I am not pretty. I am not beautiful. I am as radiant as the sun.”
Katniss Everdeen is undeniably brave – a fact which is made abundantly clear when, in the first few chapters of The Hunger Games, she volunteers as tribute in place of her sister, Prim, knowing that it may well result in her death.
From then onwards, we see her let down her barriers, speak with people, forge friendships, and take heed of their advice – something which the self-confessed introvert finds difficult. We watch as she steps out of her comfort zone, dons rouge and a pricey gown, and appears live on television to speak about the bloodthirsty Hunger Games. We follow her into battle. We cheer her on as she challenges the Capitol at their own game, threatening suicide when they refuse to allow her and Peeta both to live.
But her biggest act of courage is, of course, the one which is born from kindness: during the deadly games, Katniss forges a powerful friendship with a little girl named Rue, and does her best to protect the youngster from the other tributes. When Rue is tragically killed, however, Katniss takes the time to give her friend a proper funeral. Paying no heed to the dangers around her, she tirelessly works to collect beautiful white-coloured flowers from the forest and create a funeral bower. She sings a sweet farewell song. And, in an intense act of rebellion, she presses her fingers to her lips and raises them to the sky as a mark of respect – sparking uprisings and rebellions against the Capitol’s regime and creating a symbol of hope for all those victimised by it.
In a world as bloody as that of The Hunger Games, it is fitting that Katniss’ most inspiring act was one of the heart, not of the mind. Because love, in desperate times, is an act of bravery in itself.
8) I Am Malala – Malala Yousafzai
“They thought that the bullet would silence us. But they failed. Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
In 2009, at the age of 11, Malala Yousafzai started a blog for BBC Urdu about life under Taliban rule in Pakistan under the pen name, Gul Makai. It was well received by the general public: eloquent, passionate and incredibly empowering. But her defiant response to the Taliban’s version of Sharia law led to her being targeted: in 2012, a gunman climbed onto her school bus and shot her in the head.
She was just 15 years old – and she survived.
Rather than being terrified by the attack, Malala vowed to fight even harder to make her voice word – and, nowadays, the youngest ever Nobel Peace Laureate travels the globe campaigning on behalf of every girl and boy in the world: she wants to win each of them the right to education and she won’t stop until she gets it. As a result, Malala’s real name has become synonymous with freedom, gender equality and bravery.
I Am Malala is the true story of this extraordinary girl’s life. But, above all else, it is a testament to the fact that true strength comes from within: we need to speak up for our beliefs – and for those who don’t have a voice.
9) Letter To My Daughter – Maya Angelou
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”
Maya Angelou may not have a daughter, but she has said, time and time again, that she sees the little girl she never had all around her. Letter to my Daughter is dedicated to the many women who view her as a mother figure, providing them with something like a guidebook, something like a memoir, as it walks them down Angelou's tried-and-tested path to living well and living a life with meaning.
In each of her 28 short essays, Angelou adopts her inimitable poetic style to recall events from her childhood, her travels, her faith. She talks openly and honestly about the friends she has lost, the trials she has faced, and the heartbreaks she has endured. She shares little pieces of her soul in each and every chapter, whether she’s addressing past lessons in fortitude, or singing the praises of a simple meal of red rice.
But, above all else, Angelou writes from the heart to millions of women – and, in the warm tones of a beloved grandmother or aunt, she reminds us that, yes, there is darkness in the world: thick, and pervasive, and damaging. Yes, our lives are fraught with tragedy. And, yes, life can be a constant uphill struggle. But, in spite of all of that, we have the strength and spirit to overcome more than we can possibly imagine – if only we learn to believe in ourselves.
10) The Harry Potter saga – J. K. Rowling
“We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”
The Harry Potter books are, without a doubt, the tomes which so many millennials live their lives by. At a glance, it’s a classic tale of good versus evil – but, throughout, Rowling acknowledges the fact that no one is inherently either.
Voldemort may be monstrous, but he was, once upon a time, a lost little boy called Tom Riddle, who grew up in orphanages and never knew his parents. Ron Weasley may be funny and warm, but he has seriously backwards ideas when it comes to slave labour (we’re talking, of course, about the unjust manner in which house-elves are treated). Severus Snape was a vindictive bully, but he put his life on the line in order to protect the son of the woman he loved. And Albus Dumbledore may be kind, and just, and utterly, utterly noble, but even he, as a young boy, found himself tempted by the concepts of wizarding domination and power.
“[It] was my weakness and temptation,” he later tells Harry (another who hangs between the black and white world of good and evil), his voice filled with regret.
With the exception of Voldemort, all of the above are remembered as heroes. Perhaps the message of this entire story can be summed up in the very first few chapters of The Philosopher’s Stone, when Harry dons Hogwarts’ singing Sorting Hat.
“Difficult,” the hat whispers, as it attempts to place Harry in one of the school’s prestigious houses. “Very difficult. Plenty of courage, I see. Not a bad mind either. There’s talent, oh my goodness, yes — and a nice thirst to prove yourself, now that’s interesting… so where shall I put you?”
Harry, desperate to avoid being placed in the house which favours pureblood students – and, as a result, has churned out many Dark wizards over the years (Voldemort included), pleads with the hat to place him in any other house at all.
“Not Slytherin, eh?” the hat responds. “Are you sure? You could be great, you know, it’s all here in your head, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that – no? Well, if you’re sure – better be GRYFFINDOR!”
That’s right: our destinies are not set in stone – and we have a choice when it comes to shaping our moral characters. Most importantly, we have to choose to be brave: Harry, had he not spoken, would have been sorted into Slytherin. Instead, he demanded a new fate for himself, and was instead placed into Gryffindor, the house of the brave and bold.
11) Matilda – Roald Dahl
“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”
The brilliant little Matilda is definitely the hero of her own story. When she finds herself bullied and belittled by her family and the evil Miss Trunchbull, she refuses to give in or let them shape her character, choosing instead to seek solace in the local library.
The books she devours night after night teach her the value of love and kindness – traits we see in her as she cheers on Bruce Bogtrotter, rescues her fellow classmates from the Trunchbull’s over-the-top punishments, and hatches a plan to save Miss Honey from her tyrannical and abusive aunt.
Most importantly, however, we see that Matilda may be small, but she is mighty. There’s a power hidden away inside of her, which she can tap into whenever she wants to roar against the lions of injustice – and, through her own tiny acts of rebellion, she brings about change.
12) Yes Please – Amy Poehler
“The only way we will survive is by being kind. The only way we can get by in this world is through the help we receive from others. No one can do it alone, no matter how great the machines are.”
Amy Poehler is famed for being furiously funny, and Yes Please definitely doesn’t disappoint on that front: her debut book is warm and gleeful, and reading through her stew of essays and personal stories feels almost exactly like being hugged by a friend you haven’t seen in years. And, fair warning, it will have you laughing out loud on the train (and attracting scandalised looks from your fellow commuters).
However, buried amongst all of her sunshine-y anecdotes about sex, love, work, friendship, feminism and parenthood, are some incredibly dark moments, too. Because Poehler doesn’t shy away from showing herself at her worst: she bravely opens up about moments when she has been petty, or shallow, or short-sighted, or even cruel. And, in the chapter ‘Sorry, Sorry, Sorry’, she recalls a particularly painful incident, when her own pride and embarrassment resulted in her waiting years and years to apologise for hurting someone.
Yes, Poehler is unafraid to look the hardest truths of her life square in the face without flinching. Yes, she details her struggles with self-esteem, and recognises that she’s capable of “girl-on-girl crime”, the same as all of us. But she has absolutely learned from her mistakes. And, through sharing them with us with the added benefit of her 20/20 hindsight (she even edits her own apology letter, picking out where she was making excuses), the Parks and Recreation star has penned an almost manual filled with advice on how to live our best lives. Win.
13) Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
“Watch and pray, dear, never get tired of trying, and never think it is impossible to conquer your fault.”
Little Women was written at a time when women were expected to be gentle, polished, and submissive in order to make a ‘good’ marriage. Which is why the headstrong Jo March, intent on becoming a writer and travel the world, is such a breath of fresh air: she defies conventions, turns down a “perfectly good marriage proposal” (because, while it’s right for society, it most definitely isn’t right for her), leaves the comfort of her hometown, and heads to New York City to lap up all that the city has to offer her. That takes courage.
But, while the book is all about bravery, it also teaches us a lot about the power of kindness, too. The love that the Marches bestow upon each another, as well as their family, friends, neighbours, lovers and eventual children, is the most aspirational thing about the story.
We see it in the way they donate their Christmas lunch to the poor Hummel family, and Jo’s quick decision to chop off her long locks so that she can raise the money her mother needs to visit her father at the military hospital. Love guides the March sisters’ decision to return their meagre Christmas presents and use the money to buy their mother a gift of her own, and Meg follows her heart when she chooses penniless John Brooke over her scores of wealth suitors. Beth overcomes her shyness to play piano for the lonely old man next door, and Jo uses her inheritance to open a school for anyone who is willing to learn.
Love guides their every decision. And, as a result, the March family is always surrounded by people who love and respect them in return. Real love, given without expectation of gain, is the most truly rewarding part of life.
14) Charlotte’s Web – E. B. White
“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what's a life, anyway? We're born, we live a little while, we die. A spider's life can't help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone's life can stand a little of that.”
Another book for children, another timeless lesson for readers of all ages.
Charlotte’s Web focuses on three unlikely heroes, and highlights their individual strengths as it does so. We’re overwhelmed by the sheer force of a little girl’s love, we’re moved by the selfless sacrifice of a web-weaving spider, and awed by the eventual quiet greatness of a humble pig. Most of all, however, we’re left with the unwavering belief that we give our lives meaning by helping others.
As Charlotte tells Wilbur: “A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to life up my life a trifle.”
15) Wonder – R. J. Palacio
“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.”
August Pullman has boundless energy, is endlessly curious, and always on a quest for adventure – just like any other 10-year-old boy. However, owing to his severe facial disfigurement, the star of Wonder is made to feel very different from those around him. People point and stare and, when he enters mainstream school for the first time, he finds himself victimised by cruel playground bullies.
We’re forced to walk in August’s shoes – and, with every step, we learn how painful it really feels to be on the receiving end of dirty looks, ugly words and cruel stares. Whenever someone offers a small smile, or a few words of encouragement, August’s day immediately improves – proving that a little kindness really does go a long way.
In spite of all the negativity he’s subjected to, however, August refuses to be broken. Instead, he marches onwards with courage, defiance, and endless optimism – and, as he rises above the taunts and teasing, he earns the respect and admiration of those around him. Just make sure you have the tissues to hand for that emotional final chapter…
Main image: Getty