Hail to the Books: Books About Independent People, for Independent People

Hello readers,

I was called out of town yesterday and returned at two A.M. Not being a night owl, that meant no Independence Day post. But here I am, ready to give you the special bonus I promised. But first: a big thank-you, again, to all the veterans who have served or are currently serving. A happy and blessed Independence Day to all of you and to everyone else.

Independence Day is sort of a mixed bag for people with disabilities, isn’t it? On the one hand, I believe everyone wants independence. That’s how we got the United States of America, for crying out loud. Yet as we know, independence is hard to come by when you have a disability because everyone seems to want you to be independent on their terms. You can be the most freethinking, funny, smart, and interesting person in the world (besides the Dos Equis guy, of course), but if you can’t tie your shoes, ride a bus, or walk or talk in a prescribed fashion, suddenly you’re not worthy of personal freedom. Really, sometimes I wish one of our founding fathers had been in a wheelchair or had cerebral palsy or something, because he (or even she; we don’t talk enough about the founding *women*) would never have put up with that.

Sometimes though, the fight for independence–on your terms or anyone else’s–can get long. Sometimes you need an escape. My favorite escape always was and will be reading books concerning independent protagonists. So in this post, I’m going to recommend several young adult and children’s books, as well as a few adult ones, that feature such protagonists. My goal is to reach out to those of us who are or will be this country’s movers and shakers, to help them embrace whatever freedoms they want and are capable of, regardless of disability. To that end, a few rules:

1. The protagonists of these books don’t necessarily have disabilities. Those who do, do not function only as inspirations.
2. Protagonists are both male and female–though as a female, I have read more books starring girls and women, so there may be more of those.
3. Protagonists deal with a wealth of problems and triumphs, because everybody feels shackled by something, disability or not.
4. Every protagonist has a different definition for independence. It could be physical, emotional, spiritual, or something else.

Here we go: a few of my favorite independence reads.

Homecoming (Cynthia Voigt). Thirteen-year-old Dicey Tillerman is an adult in a kid’s body. When her mentally ill mom abandons Dicey and her younger siblings James, Maybeth, and Sammy in the parking lot of a mall, Dicey must get them safely to a relative’s home. The alternative is being split up and placed in foster homes. The Tillermans must find independence from the negative images they have of themselves and others, as well as the freedom to define what a home is and which one is best for them. First in a seven-book cycle; the others are great as well, and Dicey’s Song, its sequel, won a Newberry in the early ’90s.

Johnny Tremain. (Esther Forbes). This classic, still read in middle school classrooms across the country, takes place during the American Revolution. Therefore, a backdrop of the search for freedom already exists. For teenager Johnny though, freedom must be physical and emotional. He loses the use of his hand in an accident, and therefore loses his place as a gifted apprentice silversmith. The adventures that follow place him in league with the Sons of Liberty and force him to face his real shackles–arrogance, pride, and ignorance.

Escape from Home and Lord Kirkle’s Money (Avi). Fifteen-year-old Maura O’Connell and her brother, twelve-year-old Patrick, must flee Ireland to escape the 1840s potato famine. Eleven-year-old Laurence Kirkle of England runs away from home to escape his abusive older brother and the father who turns a blind eye. The three don’t meet up right away, but once they do, they embark on a shared quest for personal freedom while dodging such dangers as unscrupulous detectives, “runners” who exploit immigrants, and anti-Irish hate crimes.

The Moves Make the Man. (Bruce Brooks). Jerome Foxworthy, known to friends as Jayfox, loves basketball and is great at it. The problem is, he’s black, and this is the 1960s South. When Jerome is selected to help integrate the local white school, he faces bigotry and skepticism from those on the basketball team as well as others. He also comes of age through his friendship with Braxton (Bix) Rivers, a white classmate with a passion for baseball and family issues. Both boys must craft their identities beyond skin color, familial background, and other obstacles.

Catherine, Called Birdy (Karen Cushman). Thirteen-year-old Catherine is growing up in 1290 England, but in terms of personality and beliefs about what women can do, she’s centuries ahead of her time. She’s also not about to let her dad marry her off to the first rich, ugly idiot of a man who asks. She comes up with all kinds of crazy plans and pranks to avoid this fate, including running away to join a monastery, becoming a juggler, or becoming a goat herder like her best friend Perkin. Her quest for independence involves not only escaping arranged marriage but also finding peace with where and when she was born and who she will become.

The Ballad of Lucy Whipple (Karen Cushman). Cushman is great at writing independent YA protagonists, which is why she made the list twice. The protagonist of this second novel is California Morning Whipple, a young teen forced to leave her beloved Massachusetts town for 1850s California after her father dies. Her mother packs up California and her younger siblings, all named for things or concepts of the West (Butte, Prairie, Sierra), to run a boardinghouse for a bunch of rude, stinky, spitting miners. At least, that’s how our protagonist sees it. She eventually changes her name to Lucy because she feels that better suits her identity. This first strike at personal freedom is followed by others she doesn’t even recognize at first, like the time she singlehandedly starts a library system in her new town because she misses her beloved books. Eventually, she learns to make a new life for herself on her own terms in California.

Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe). One of my favorite pieces of world literature, this novel for teens and adults concerns Okonkwo, respected chief of a Nigerian people who must grapple with physical and emotional changes when missionaries come to his land. Members of Okonkwo’s family such as his son and one of his wives have their own struggles for personal freedom within the context of colonialism. Though the ending is sad, what I love about this book is that it shows how the human spirit is strong enough to endeavor to make its own way even when others are ruling over it.

Girl at the End of the World (Elisabeth Esther). This memoir, which I recommend for adults based on disturbing content, concerns a woman who was raised in a fundamentalist religious cult without knowing it was a cult (and really, isn’t that the way it goes for many members)? The memoir speaks of her physical, emotional, and spiritual struggles for freedom even after she and her husband leave The Assembly; she dedicates an entire chapter to the after-effects of “religious PTSD.”

The Misfits (James Howe). This is a series of four middle-grade books concerning male and female protagonists Bobby, Joe, Addie, and Skeezie (AKA Elvis). They’re outspoken, overweight, quiet, gay, smart–just “different” in their own unique ways. This makes them prime bullying targets until, in their own books and in their own way, they make bids for independence from negative images. You’ll find all these kids in the fictional town of Paintbrush Falls.

After Ever After. (Jordan Sonnenblick). Jeffrey Alper isn’t your average eighth-grader. In fact, you might know him as That Boy Who Had Cancer. That was back when he was four. He’s in remission now but afraid the cancer will return. Yet he can’t think about that much because he’s got other problems, like his crush on Lindsey Abrams and the upcoming eighth-grade end of course tests that will determine whether he and his classmates get to go to high school. The problem is, Jeffrey sucks at math, which is a major requirement. When he and his friend Tad, also a cancer survivor, team up to make sure Jeffrey passes math and Tad, PE, what follows is a revolution the likes of which the eighth grade never saw coming. (You can also read prequel Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie for a look at Jeffrey’s older brother Steven’s POV).

Red Ink (Kathi Macias). Recommended for teens and adults due to thematic content, this novel is based on the true story of Zheng Li. A Chinese woman who converted to Christianity after marrying a Christian, Zheng Li was forced into abortion because of the one-child policy and suffers great persecution in a Chinese prison. One especially hardhearted guard singles her out for torment. The book focuses on spiritual freedom. It also brings light to the issue of human trafficking through the related subplot of an American victim named Maggie.

I am Nujood, Age 10 And Divorced (Nujood Ali). The author of this memoir, recommended for teens and adults, was married at age ten to a man three times her age. The memoir details Nujood’s escape from her marriage and the truth of what often happens to young girls in her home country of Yemen. I Am Malala is a similar book written by the girl who sought an education against Taliban law and nearly paid with her life.

The Help (Kathryn Stockett). If you haven’t yet read this bestseller, snap it up. Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter are all strong heroines; there’s also great discussion fodder here regarding freedom vs. “white man’s burden,” civil rights, and other issues.

House Rules (Jodi Picoult). I enjoyed this story of eighteen-year-old Jacob Hunt, a fictional character with Asperger’s Syndrome. Be aware that his AS is not researched as well as it could be; Picoult tends to give him every possible characteristic a person with AS might or might not have. The novel is also heavy on language and melodrama. However, there is an element of independence here for Jacob, as well as Theo, his younger brother. Both have to learn what “look out for your brother; he’s the only one you’ve got” means, and what that may entail giving up in terms of physical and emotional freedom. The lack of autonomy for Jacob and the people around him also provide good discussion fodder for what a novelist should and should not do when it comes to portraying disability. Recommended for adults based on these findings.

The Giver (Lois Lowry). Why would you need freedom when your community, run on Sameness, is perfect? Twelve-year-old Jonas thinks he’s free already–free of pain and suffering and complications. Yet when the twelve-year-old is chosen as the next Receiver of Memory, his head becomes filled with the truth–and once you know the truth, freedom and responsibility tangle into a complicated net that makes for a great story. Recommended for older middle-graders due to euthanasia discussions.

Taking Liberty, Come Juneteenth, Numbering All the Bones (Ann Rinaldi). Rinaldi was and still is one of my favorite authors, and one of the best historical authors for young people I have encountered. These three of her books are not connected in a series, but all concern the journeys to freedom for three slaves–one respected house servant, based on the real-life Oney Judge, one Texan slave whose emancipation remains unacknowledged after the Civil War, and one slave daughter of a master who won’t acknowledge their relational ties.

The Journal of Ben Uchida. (Barry Dennenberg). Part of the My Name is America series, this story concerns fictional Ben Uchida, an inmate of Mirror Lake Internment Camp during World War II. Try Farewell to Manzanar for a female perspective on Japanese internment.

Chinese Cinderella, Falling Leaves (Adeline Yen Mah). The first of these books is the YA version of Yen Mah’s memoir; the second is the full adult version. Yen Mah tells her story of abuse at the hands of a family who considers her bad luck because her mother died giving birth to her. This gives rise to her journey toward freedom, found in writing and practicing medicine.

The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan). You don’t have to be abused or oppressed to want and need independence. Sometimes you simply need to find out who you are in the scope of bigger concepts like family, country, and culture, as these four sets of mothers and daughters do. A classic and personal favorite.

The Diary of Anne Frank, The Book Thief, Number the Stars… If you can name a YA or MG book regarding the Holocaust, or a memoir on the same topic, it’s almost guaranteed there will be an element of independence there. Even if the protagonists die during the book, the indomitability of the human spirit still comes through beautifully. For Such a Time by Kate Breslin is an adult novel of the time period, a retelling of the story of Esther, that is a personal favorite.

The Choosing (Rachelle Dekker). Though Christian-based, this book is not overtly religious. It concerns Carrington and Remko, two people raised in a society where a woman’s only value lies in whether she is chosen to be married. A man’s only value lies in his career. Together, they must decide whether to stay with the status quo or rebel against it, finding their true destinies.

Ghost Boy). (Martin Pistorious). This new bestseller chronicles the journey back of a South African man who contracted encephalitis as a preteen and became trapped in his own body. As a result, he was remanded to an institution, but ended up writing his memoir.

Bad Boy. (Walter Dean Meyers). The memoir of an acclaimed YA novelist and his life on the streets of Harlem; concerns his journey off the streets, in which his love of literature played a big role.

Out of My Mind. (Sharon M. Draper). Fifth-grader Melody Brooks is a good representation of how a person with CP struggles for independence and self-hood. Bullying and skepticism are portrayed with heartrending accuracy, but so is a freedom-affirming surprise ending.

That’s not at all an exhaustive list; I could go on for weeks. But it certainly is a good beginning, and I hope you and yours will choose at least one to try.

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4 thoughts on “Hail to the Books: Books About Independent People, for Independent People

  1. If I ever get time to sit and read, I definitely need to pick up a few of these. In the spirit of sharing, here’s a couple of books that I can remember off the top of my head about spirit and independence by Jeannette Walls.

    The Glass Castle is the author’s true story of growing up roaming around the US with her bizarre and troubled family. It’s both hilarious and heart-breaking at times, and really drove home for me that we don’t know the history and obstacles that the people around us might have had to overcome to be where they are. That resonates for me a lot (even of my own story is not nearly as shocking as Jeannette’s) since I often feel my unusual experiences alienate me from my peers. I sometimes find it difficult to have normal conversations about family and background without treading into awkward territory.

    I also loved (maybe even more) her semi-fictional book Half-Broke Horses, which is based on the life of her grandmother. Since she couldn’t verify every detail, she took the liberty of fleshing out the story that she knew to be true with details that bring it to life. Her grandmother was just the most awe-inspiring, independent character. I love her!

    1. In college, I took Creative Nonfiction, and one of my classmates shared The Glass Castle with us when we were asked to critically review a work in the genre. I will put it on my TBR list. Like I said, I got a million of ’em. I may have to make this book list a first-week-of-July tradition (rather than trying to stick strictly to the 4th since people are busy celebrating then).

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