The best books with characters who find self-identity and learn to build self-esteem under difficult circumstances

Who am I?

I have a passion for the theme of building self-esteem and finding self-identity at middle and high school age because I taught secondary English for 30 years. So many of my students struggled with this issue; reading novels about kids with similar situations offers a way for readers to help themselves work out their own problems. I deliberately chose both recent and classic novels with a wide variety of protagonists, settings and plots, each with a unique author voice to show how universal the need to build self-esteem can be. My own novel, Eaglebait, is another strong novel with a similar theme.


I wrote...

Eaglebait: Can a smart kid survive school bullies?

By Susan Coryell,

Book cover of Eaglebait: Can a smart kid survive school bullies?

What is my book about?

Wardy Spinks has been a loser for as long as he can remember. Freshman year in high school Wardy becomes the victim of malicious bullying. Eventually, his life begins to change. First, a charismatic science teacher becomes his mentor. Then, quiet Meg seems friendly. And Big Vi takes on a life of her own. Wardy discovers his attitude makes a difference in how others treat him. If Wardy doesn’t feel like a loser, maybe he won’t be one.

The books I picked & why

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The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak,

Book cover of The Book Thief

Why this book?

I liked this YA book so much that I recommended it to my adult book club who also loved it. The main character, Liesel Meminger, loses her family during the WWII Holocaust in Germany. Taken in by kind-hearted foster parents, she feels low self-esteem because she is illiterate. Learning to read her stolen books helps her find companionship and acceptance and raises her feelings about her own self-worth. I appreciate the author’s quirky style; his narrator, for example, is Death who claims to be completely objective about his task, and yet, he is concerned about Liesel. The tone is ironic and sometimes humorous in a macabre way. Zusak’s unique voice resonates with me; I know it will with my middle-grade students.


The Fault in Our Stars

By John Green,

Book cover of The Fault in Our Stars

Why this book?

The theme of this novel deals with raising self-esteem in a fascinating way: Two teenagers meet in a cancer survivor support group. Both Hazel and Augustus maintain upbeat attitudes as they face certain death and yet, as romance blooms, they constantly reaffirm each other’s worth. I admire their ability to discover mutual affinities and enjoy typical teenage activities as much as possible rather than dwelling on the dismal future—their support for friend Isaac’s misery, for example. Their discussions of a favorite novel that stops abruptly without a conclusion show Green’s brilliance, foreshadowing Augustus’ demise at the end of the novelan abrupt, unfinished life. Gus recognizes that Hazel is a real girl; readers do, too. Though sad, the novel vibrates with life, not death. What a wonderful lesson for my students and for me.


When the Legends Die

By Hal Borland,

Book cover of When the Legends Die

Why this book?

When Ute Native American, Thomas Black Bull, is orphaned, he’s forced into a white boarding school aiming to “civilize” him by erasing every trace of his heritage, language, customs and culture. The novel is a graphic picture of what happened historically to so many Native American youths, something recently revealed with previously unknown details—a horrifying scenario. My feelings of sympathy, empathy ,and fear for young Tom grew with each page. I felt hopeless, alienated ,and angry right along with him in his struggle to break free and return to his own beliefs. The novel evoked my fury at the attempt to erase a beautiful culture because it is “different.” I love how relevant this book is, though it was written decades ago. It is a perfect way to blend the past with the present for young students.


The Contender

By Robert Lipsyte,

Book cover of The Contender

Why this book?

High school dropout, Alfred Brooks, lives in the inner city. He’s hounded by street kids when he parts ways with his best friend’s involvement in drugs. Alfred finds consolation and hope at Donatelli’s gym where the owner sees potential in Alfred as a boxer. Alfred learns that making the effort can change his life and when he loses he gets up and tries again. Becoming a contender becomes his self-identity. Such an important lesson for all of us but especially vulnerable young readers, my students. I loved Alfred’s determination and Mr. Donatelli’s recognition of his potential and refusal to give up on a troubled kid. I rooted Alfred along with every boxing match and cheered his discovery of his own strengths—both physical and otherwise. The book is brutally realistic but so upbeat, I just wanted to keep reading.


Fat Angie

By E.E. Charlton-Trujillo,

Book cover of Fat Angie

Why this book?

Angie’s life is a mess. Her mother constantly taunts her as “Fat Angie.” High school classmates torment her as a “crazy, mad cow,” when she tries to slit her wrists in a high school assembly. Her heroic sister goes MIA during the Iraq War; her older brother treats her badly. Angie just wants to make it through each day until a beautiful new student arrives and befriends her, seeing the hidden beauty in Angie. I was revolted by Angie’s abusive family life and angry at the peer bullying. Where were school authorities? I was relieved when a warm friendship allowed Angie to become happy on her own. Though it seems extreme, I’ve occasionally observed similar situations among my students; the novel is horrifyingly realistic, but it moves in a positive fashion to its end.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in self esteem, life satisfaction, and Ohio?

5,716 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about self esteem, life satisfaction, and Ohio.

Self Esteem Explore 53 books about self esteem
Life Satisfaction Explore 118 books about life satisfaction
Ohio Explore 40 books about Ohio

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Alone in Berlin, Anne Frank, and A Holocaust Memoir of Love & Resilience if you like this list.