How to Use Literature to Process COVID-19

Lindsay Rayner
Lindsay Rayner
Middle School Principal; M.A. in Educational Leadership

As the nation is still recovering from the effects of COVID-19, many of the activities young people enjoy during the summer months are currently off-limits. With pools and movie theaters closed and family vacations canceled, adolescents have more time to read. The right young adult literature can be entertaining while helping them process the crisis itself.

Responding to Crisis

Students might read diaries about how to respond to crisis written by young people going through extraordinary circumstances, such as The Diary of Anne Frank, or Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo.

The Diary of Anne Frank was written by a young Jewish girl hiding in an attic during World War II and the Holocaust. The diary addresses the normal thoughts of an adolescent girl pondering romance, frustration with parents, and sadness and hope about the world outside her hidden confines. Readers will find it easy to relate to the day-to-day musings of the protagonist, as well as her fears and misgivings about adulthood and the evils of war.

Similar to Anne Frank’s diary, Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Wartime Sarajevo is a day-to-day account of an adolescent girl’s life during the Yugoslav wars in the early 1990s. Unlike Anne Frank, Zlata survived the horrors of war, demonstrating that not even war lasts forever, and hope is just over the horizon.

The Diary of Petr Ginz is the account of a 14-year-old boy living in Prague during World War II. The diary tells stories of boyhood pranks at school, while also chronicling the gradually dawning horrors of the Holocaust. The diary ends with Petr being relocated to Thereisenstadt, where he spearheaded an underground newspaper. Like Anne, Petr died in a concentration camp before ever reaching adulthood. Boys especially will relate to Petr’s joys and sorrows.

After reading these diaries, students can keep their own journals about life during the COVID-19 pandemic. These could be published on the web or simply kept for their own sake, helping them to process their feelings about their “new normal”.

Cultivate Adaptability and Resilience 

A classic coming-of-age story about a group of boys called the “Greasers”, The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton, explores the lives of boys growing up on the fringes of society in 1960s Oklahoma. The boys learn to depend on each other to adapt to a world that seems to have forgotten them, or worse, look at them as worthless. When a rivalry with the Socs gets out of control, Ponyboy and his friends must demonstrate mental and physical toughness to survive, while learning that the Socs don’t have it as good as it seems. Readers will relate to Ponyboy’s feelings of confusion and anger, as well as his budding romance with a Soc named Cherry, while admiring his ability to thrive despite obstacles in his way.

Homecoming, by Cynthia Voight, is the first book in a series about the Tillerman family. Left in a parking lot by their mother, Dicey and her siblings must make their way to Aunt Cilla’s where they hope to make a home. Dicey’s independence and problem-solving skills show that with a clear head, even kids can survive tough situations and find love in a family of their choosing.

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, tells the story of Starr Carter stuck between two worlds: the fancy prep school she attends with mostly white students, and the poor, black neighborhood where she lives. These two worlds collide when her childhood best friend is shot before her eyes in a traffic stop. Readers will relate to Starr’s struggle with her own identity and what it means in the context of social justice and activism.

Embracing Laughter and Hope

Sometimes, it’s important to remember that kids are still kids, and sometimes enjoying a little bit of romance and humor is just the remedy to the mental strain of a global pandemic.

The first in a series, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, by Jenny Han, is a romance with hilarious beginnings. Lara Jean loves writing love letters. In fact, she has written one to every boy she has ever loved, with no intention of ever sending them. One day, Lara Jean is humiliated to find out that someone has sent those love letters—every single one of them! Hilarity, romance, and intrigue ensue in this story of modern teen love. It’s a fun, but not silly, escape from everyday troubles.

If you’re looking for good satire, the classic A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, combines science fiction with social commentary. Rescued from planet Earth just before it is destroyed to make room for an intergalactic highway, Arthur Dent embarks on a journey through space with Ford Perfect, an alien writing the titular guide to the galaxy. An escape from Earth right now may be just the vacation young readers need.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, by Mackenzi Lee, is a strange combination of historical fiction, action-packed mystery, and raunchy comedy. 17-year-old English aristrocrat Henry Montagu goes on a grand tour of England with his best friend and secret crush, Percy, along for the trip, as well as his sister, Felicity, who is to be dropped off at boarding school in the South of France. It’s a funny, escapist story that also shows the importance of accepting yourself as you are.

Delve into Dystopian Novels

Dystopian literature offers both escapism and the opportunity to reflect on the dangers of violence, fascism, and economic injustice.

The Hunger Games is the first in a trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Katniss Everdeen lives in the dystopian future country of Panem, where children from poverty-stricken districts are forced to fight each other to their deaths in a televised battle for the edification of viewers in the wealthy Capitol district. The novel follows Katniss through her struggle to win the games and fight for the end of the Capitol’s tyranny over Panem. It’s an action-packed read, with romance and social commentary that make it thought-provoking and timely.

The Giver, by Lois Lowry, is the first novel in a quartet that examines the implications of a government that dictates its citizens’ professions, murders the disabled, suppresses memories, and eradicates the ability to see color. As a Receiver of memories, Jonas rebels against the society that raised him and embarks for a new world and a new life. His story will encourage readers to find their own path and challenge the status quo.

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