How Tweens and Teens Can Learn Tolerance Through Literature

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine

By Kristin Guay

In today’s middle and high schools, teens are exposed to a more diverse population than ever before, involving students, parents, and school staff. This diversity is reflected in religion, culture, language, sexual identification and preference, and political beliefs.

While this exposure to a diverse population has numerous benefits, it has also created some obstacles and tension in schools and communities around the country. News headlines are filled with hate crimes, school bullying, and hostile engagements between different races and political leanings. This is a world in which teenagers today have a front-row seat — in schools, sports, community activities, and neighborhoods.

Now more than ever, it is important for teens to accept these differences — even if they do not agree with them. Teens are living in a world very different from their parents, and the world of their future will also be diverse. In order to be successful, children and teens need to learn to be open to others to ensure success in various aspects of their lives.

There are many books on the market that can help teens become more accepting in our diverse world. Some give first-person accounts of what it is like to have a physical disability and how others treat a person with such. Other books tell stories of teens who are confused about their sexual identity and other’s expectations of who they should be. Many books can transport the reader to a world that challenges their ideas of freedom. Some books allow a character to explain what it is like to have a family member or friend who is experiencing prejudice, bullying, or intolerance of some kind.

Consider this excerpt from the best-selling Wonder by R.J. Palacio, a story about a young boy with a facial deformity.

“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an Xbox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary. I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don’t make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don’t get stared at wherever they go.

“If I found a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all. I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look-away thing. Here’s what I think: The only reason I’m not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way.”

This brief excerpt illustrates the inner feelings of a young boy and how his perceptions and feelings about himself are shaped by others’ reactions. A parent may not have the time to read every book their child is reading, but there are synopses of almost all books on the internet. By knowing the content, a parent can ask pointed and specific questions that encourage their child to think about their own actions.

Questions such as:

“How do you feel when you see someone with a disability?”

“How do you think that person with the disability feels when they are in public?”

“How do you think they feel about your reactions to their disabilities?”

“What would be the best way to respond in this situation?”

These are all questions that encourage your child to reflect on their own actions and allow them to express their thoughts and concerns. The parent can work with their child to develop a plan of action for when they see a person with a disability. The child might have a better understanding of what that person experiences on a daily basis and might respond in a more positive and supportive manner. Reading books about specific issues such as disabilities, bullying, and prejudice prompt a dialogue between a parent and child that might not happen otherwise.

Resources for parents

There are many wonderful websites and reading materials available to help parents raise more informed and accepting children. One such site is Building an Eclectic Education (, created by writer, librarian, and teacher Brittney Herz. This site offers suggestions and reading materials that help educate others about different people in the world. Two books that are suggested for parents to read are Lies My Teacher Told Me (James W. Loewen) and The World’s Religions (Huston Smith).

In Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen attempts to set the record straight about important issues in U.S. history. He feels that history textbooks used in today’s classrooms are tainted by misinformation and blind patriotism — leaving out some of the messy drama and conflict that is so important to the history of our country. As Herz explains, “One way to promote understanding is to make all students aware of the truth. This means teaching them history accurately. Not the watered-down, Disney-esque version that is taught in most politically run schools today. I mean the real history of the world. All the nitty gritty details of it.” The World’s Religions by Houston Smith is considered essential for teaching the world’s predominant faiths, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Teens today sit in classrooms with students of various religions, and an understanding of these religions is necessary for personal and professional relationships.

“Tolerance isn’t something that needs to even be as vast as world religions and politics,” Herz explains on her site. “Teaching teens to be tolerant of other students and members of the community is a great place to start. It is much easier for teens to make fun or, or belittle, those with less-visible ailments. For instance, a student who is suffering from Asperger’s may be a target because they do not understand the same social cues as everyone else. This doesn’t mean they are any better or worse than your teen. In fact, the student struggling may have skills your teen does not.”

It is important for parents to have these conversations with their teens to help them understand others in their world.

Reading material for parents

Hate Hurts: How Children Learn and Unlearn Prejudice (Anti-Defamation League): This books covers a great deal of information from birth to the teenage years in understanding where hate comes from and responses to it. Chapters include topics like discovering self and others, exploring differences, learning to interact with others, and learning to be a part of society. The book also explores ways to deal with hate and how to change your community in a positive manner.

All Kids Are Our Kids – What Communities Must Do to Raise Caring and Responsible Children and Adolescents (Peter Benson): This book challenges communities — families, neighborhoods, schools, business, and youth organizations — to work together to raise children to be healthy, successful, and caring. This guide focuses on bringing out the best in children by creating positive change in our communities.

What Kids Need to Succeed: Proven, Practical Ways to Raise Good Kids (Peter L. Benson, Judy Gailbraith, Pamela Espeland): Research from the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, which surveyed 90,000 kids in grades 6-12, has identified 40 developmental assets that kids need to be successful in life. This book explores these different assets, including cultural awareness, conflict resolution, and supportive families and communities. This book also covers more than 700 ideas to help make a positive impact in the development of our children.

Are We Born Racist?: New Insights from Neuroscience and Positive Psychology (Jason Marsh, Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Jeremy Adam Smith): This book takes the work of leading scientists, psychologists, educators, and activists to determine how people form prejudices, how racism is harmful, and how we can create a post-prejudice society.

Book suggestions for middle schoolers

Wonder (R. J. Palacio): This is a wonderful, uplifting story of a fifth-grader named August starting a new school. August was born with a facial deformity that has prevented him from attending a mainstream school — until now. His mission is to convince his classmates that he is an ordinary kid, just like them.

365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts (R. J. Palacio): This is the companion to the bestselling novel. The English teacher, Mr. Browne, shares his principles to live by on a daily basis. The book is filled with messages of hope, kindness, strength, and the desire to live a better life.

Wringer (Jerry Spinelli): This is a story about a young boy growing up and waiting to be what he wants to be and what he feels is right — despite what is expected of him. It has a positive ending demonstrating how one person can make a difference and change the way people think.

New Boy (Julian Houston): A 15-year-old boy is sent to a Connecticut boarding school to escape the segregated South. He struggles with being the first African-American student in the school while also dealing with horrors going on at home.

Before We Were Free (Julia Alvarez): Anita is a 12-year-old living under a dictatorship in the Dominican Republic while the rest of her family has immigrated to the United States. She must gather strength and overcome her fears to find eventual freedom.

Whale Talk (Chris Crutcher): This story focuses on young athlete “T.J.” Jones and his determination to bother the elite athletes in his school. Themes include multiculturalism, domestic and child abuse, discrimination and blended families.

Out of My Mind (Sharon M. Draper): This book will change how everyone looks at others with physical disabilities. Readers are introduced to Melody, a young girl with cerebral palsy who is smarter than most adults and children she knows. The Denver Post notes: “If there is one book teens and parents (and everyone else) should read this year, Out of My Mind should be it.”

Rhyme Schemer (K.A. Holt): This features a seventh-grade poetic bully who becomes the one being bullied. Twelve-year-old Kevin is neglected by his parents and bullied by his older brothers — resulting in his aggression at school. Soon the tables are turned as Kevin must deal with a new situation at school.

Maus: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began (Art Spiegelman): Try to picture cats as the Nazis and mice as the Jewish people — that is what you have with this story of a survivor of Hitler’s Europe and his son trying to come to terms with his father’s past.

Kristin Guay lives in Cape Cod with her husband, two daughters, and beloved black lab. A former middle school language arts teacher, she is currently Youth Services Director at Centerville Library.