10 Books for Teaching the Hero's Journey
The hero's journey has always been one of my favorite units to teach as an English Language Arts teacher. It is extremely versatile and adaptable to classrooms of all ages as well as a number of teaching standards. The hero's journey can be used to teach plot structure; examine character development; determine theme; or study the subtleties of foreshadowing, irony, and other literary devices. Best of all, it is a lot of fun! What group of students doesn't enjoy a good hero's tale?
There are innumerable novels that you can use to teach the hero's journey in your classroom, but if you're stuck on what to choose, check out this list for some inspiration.
For Elementary Readers
1. Poppy by Avi
A young, timid deer mouse named Poppy goes on a mission to save her family from starvation and to defeat the cruel owl that rules over them, Mr. Ocax. This is a great read for younger kids who are often more engaged in stories about animals. In addition to teaching the hero's journey, this novel can also be a great way to discuss concepts such as responsibility, bravery, family, and even death (fair warning: Poppy's boyfriend is eaten by Mr. Ocax at the start of the book).
2. Pigs Might Fly by Dick King-Smith
Another great option for animal loving readers, this novel by the author of Babe is great fun for elementary readers. It follows a pig named Daggie, a runt with deformed feet who is danger of being taken away from his litter by the Pigman. Daggie dreams of flying, but ends up discovering that his strange conformation grants him a whole different set of special abilities that will help him save the day.
3. Faith and the Electric Dogs by Patrick Jennings
You may have a bit more trouble getting your hands on this one, but it is one of my absolute favorites. This story is told from the perspective of Eddie, a stray dog in Mexico who is adopted by an American girl named Faith. Faith is desperate to escape Mexico and return to her hometown in California. After constructing a makeshift rocket fueled by pig fat, she takes Eddie along with her on an exciting misadventure. An added bonus to this novel is that it includes a number of words and phrases in Spanish, as well as provided translations for readers. It's a great way to not only introduce the hero's journey but also a new language.
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
You likely will have a number of students who are already familiar with this story, but that might actually be to your benefit if you have more reluctant readers or readers that struggle with retention and comprehension. This series works for both elementary and middle school readers and is rife with opportunities to discuss theme, mythology, character development, setting, and about everything else you can think of (can you tell I'm a fan?).
For Middle Grade Readers
5. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Elementary readers benefit from more obvious hero and adventure stories, but middle school is a good age to introduce the concept of the everyday hero. Your students will need to look a little more closely to find each element of the hero's journey in Auggie's story, but his transformation from a hidden boy with a deformed face to an open and celebrated member of his community has a very clear arc. This is also a great novel for discussion character development and point of view, since the story is told by multiple characters.
6. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This novel has been a lifesaver when it comes to my 7th and 8th graders who aren't usually too enthusiastic about reading assignments. I've had a number of students read this novel who have complained about the lengthy chapters, but come to me the next day apologizing for reading too far ahead and letting slip some spoilers to their peers. Katniss's story is fantastic in many ways. She is an introduction to strong female protagonists; her journey includes the excitement and danger many kids crave without being overly graphic; and she opens the door to discussions about how our society mimics the one laid out in the novel. This is another novel primed for in-depth character study, especially since so often you aren't sure which characters are genuine and who is just another fake.
7. Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
One of the greatest features of Esperanza Rising is that it is a wonderful tie-in to other content: history, social issues, language, culture, and many others. Esperanza is a young girl whose family is forced to flee their privileged life in Mexico and settle in a labor camp in California. The novel takes place during the Great Depression and is a great lens through which to discuss this point in history as well as issues such as gender roles, class, immigration, and discrimination. Given current events there are also ample opportunities to have students draw connections between the novel and their own knowledge or experiences. Ask students to compare and contrast Esperanza's journey as a heroine with the real stories of figures from history or present day.
For High School Readers
8. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
This classic needs little introduction, especially since the first film was released in 2012. However, you likely won't have too many students that have actually read the entire novel. This is a great one for teaching the hero's journey at a high school level as the writing is quite complex (and, let's face it, a bit archaic) but very clearly follows the conventional structure of the hero's tale. This is also a great novel for delving into a more complex study of language and literary devices.
9. The Odyssey by Homer
If you want a real classic, this one is for you. Ancient epic poetry is daunting for most high school students, so studying it through the lens of the hero's journey can be a helpful way for students to ground themselves in what they are reading. Even if they feel thrown by the language, they will be able to identify the hero and discuss how each step of his journey fits into the framework. If you want an even more approachable version of this classic (or if you want a good resource for non-native speakers) there is a great graphic novel version you can purchase by Gareth Hinds.
10. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
I love this novel, and I haven't met many high schoolers who don't love it, too. The voice of 14-year-old Junior is incredibly natural and relatable. Alexie also has a unique ability to blend humor and an informal tone with heavy topics such as alcoholism, poverty, racism, and death. Like Wonder, this is a great novel for introducing the concept of an everyday hero and inviting students to examine their own journeys in the story of their lives. This novel also addresses many of the issues that high school students are facing, particularly in today's world. There are innumerable thought-provoking questions it poses: How does a hero navigate between two disparate worlds? Does pursuing opportunity also mean betraying the people you love and leave behind? How exactly do you develop a sense of identity when it seems like everyone else has decided your identity for you? Even if you don't choose to teach this novel, I highly recommend you make it available for your students to read on their own time.
What hero's journey novels have you enjoyed reading or teaching? Share them in the comments!