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14 Back-to-School Books That Will Inspire Readers of All Ages

These stories of overcoming challenges and prejudices will make any reader think fondly of their school days—past, present or future.

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  • Photo Credit: Washington University Libraries, Henry Hampton Collection

The leaves may not have started changing yet, but that back-to-school feeling is already in the air. No matter how long you’ve been out of school, it’s impossible to escape—the thrill and the anxiety alike. These back-to-school books capture some of the most inspiring stories we’ve ever read and will remind you of the immense power of education. Whether you’re gearing up for a fresh start or just looking for your daily dose of inspiration, these books are sure to hit the spot.

back to school books


By Tara Westover

This #1 New York Times bestseller has received widespread recognition for a reason, and according to Bill Gates, “It’s even better than you’ve heard.” Tara Westover was raised by survivalists in the isolated mountains of Idaho, and didn’t step foot in a classroom until she was 17 years old. But once she did discover the power of learning, she was hooked. This is her memoir about fleeing a dysfunctional family dynamic in search of an education, a pursuit that would take her to Harvard and Cambridge and through an emotional journey to reckon with her traumatic upbringing.

Related: The 16 Best Autobiographies To Change Your View of History

A Special Education

A Special Education

By Dana Buchman

At age 35, Dana Buchman was an Ivy League-educated clothing designer with a perfectionist streak. Convinced that there was nothing life could throw at her that she couldn’t handle with confidence, she was forced to rethink things when her toddler daughter began to exhibit signs of a developmental delay. She knew she would have to acquire a new skill set to advocate for her daughter. This “heartfelt and inspiring memoir” traces Buchman’s journey as a mother to a daughter with learning disabilities, including how she got her child the intervention she deserved and the upward battle against stigma that they faced (Booklist).

Liberating Minds

Liberating Minds

By Ellen Condliffe Lagemann

Studies have shown that prison inmates who earn a college degree during their incarceration are far less likely to reoffend. With more opportunities for employment, they also have a better shot at successfully reintegrating back into society and supporting their families upon release. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann presents a strong empirical argument in favor of offering college courses in prison—but “her most powerful supporting evidence comes from the anecdotes of former prisoners who have become published poets, social workers, and nonprofit leaders” (Publishers Weekly).

The Water Is Wide

The Water Is Wide

By Pat Conroy

As a young man, Pat Conroy arrived to teach on South Carolina’s Yamacraw Island. There, he witnessed the troubling effects of racism and generational poverty. Isolated from the mainland and with few resources, his students—many of whom were descendents of slaves—had been woefully neglected by the public school system. Conroy was determined to provide them with the education they deserved, but he never expected the profound lessons the children would impart on his own life.

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Yale Needs Women

By Anne Gardiner Perkins

By the 1960s, the existence of coeds at U.S. colleges was widespread. But many colleges–especially Ivy Leagues–resisted allowing women to pass through their doors. The existence of the Seven Sisters allowed many Ivies to put off making their school co-educational, claiming that women had access to education of their own. In 1969, nearly three decades after their biggest rival, Harvard, Yale began allowing women to join their ranks. But it wasn’t easy sailing from there, as shown by Anne Gardiner Perkins’s well-researched and fascinating book. Perkins interviewed many of the 575 women who were in that first class, finding out what it was like then and where they are now.

The Past That Would Not Die

The Past That Would Not Die

By Walter Lord

In 1961, James Meredith decided to apply to the University of Mississippi. The only problem with his college of choice? They had not accepted a single Black student, despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. Undeterred, Meredith filed a lawsuit against the university, and in 1962, an injunction was issued to force their hand. Walter Lord draws a clear picture of the riots and mayhem that ensued as the Air Force veteran with 60 transfer credits registered at his college of choice. 

Related: 29 Facts About Black History That You Might Not Know

A School of Our Own

A School of Our Own

By Samuel Levin and Susan Engel

In 2010, young Samuel Levin found himself frustrated with his junior year of high school. Irrelevant curricula, uninspiring teachers, and disaffected classmates were making school a chore. So Levin proposed something different: the Independent Project. For a semester, he and his classmates ran their own school—and they saw amazing results. This story of this inspirational project was written by Levin and his mother, Susan Engel. 

The Lucky Ones

The Lucky Ones

By Mae Ngai

At the heart of this fascinating generational saga lies a landmark Supreme Court case. Ngai follows the family of Joseph Tape, who immigrated from China to San Francisco at age 12. 21 years later, his seven-year-old daughter, Mamie became the center of the Tape v. Hurley case after her exclusion from the Spring Valley School caused chaos in the San Franciscan school system. Echoing the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, Tape v. Hurley claimed that separate, equal school systems for “foreigners”—as all Chinese- and Asian-American residents were termed—was sufficient. The Lucky Ones continues to chart the Tape family as they integrate, assimilate, and gain access to America through both its schools and its communities.

Related: 5 Fascinating Times Supreme Court Cases Were Overturned

The Game Changers

The Game Changers

By Jeff Miller

Texas and football have had a long and mostly harmonious history. The Game Changers recounts a tumultuous time in their relationship, as two Black football players attempted to join the North Texas State College football team. Although the college had accepted Black undergrad students, the visibility of Black students on the football team presented new challenges for the pair of players, Abner Haynes and Leon King, as well as their teammates and their coaches. This singular story illustrates how one team’s experience reverberates with the larger Civil Rights movement.

Related: Game On: 10 Best Sports Books Ever Written 

Sugarcane Academy

Sugarcane Academy

By Michael Tisserand

Hurricane Katrina continues to be remembered as one of our nation’s most devastating natural disasters. Although the images of a drowning city remain vivid, the realities of the aftermath are less visible. In this moving memoir, discover a group of parents, children and one teacher who banded together to make the most of their education, even if it meant a one-room schoolhouse. 

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I am Malala

By Malala Yousafazi with Christina Lamb

The youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize tells her own story in this galvanizing tale of a young woman’s attempt to make the most of herself. Malala Yousafzai was on her way to school in Pakistan when she was shot in the head by the Taliban. The young woman miraculously recovered and went on to become one of the world’s most well-known activists for the education of women and girls.

Related: 30 Biographies of Remarkable Women That You Need to Read 

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A Girl Stands at the Door

By Rachel Devlin

Ruby Bridges. Elizabeth Eckford. Lucile Bluford. You may know some or all of these names, but the vital contributions of the young Black girls and women who were often the first to desegregate white schools across the country are hardly fully understood or recognized. This fascinating book is based on hundreds of interviews with the women who once were children expected to do an immense and draining duty.

Related: 7 Facts About Black Women Who Shaped History

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Reading Lolita in Tehran

By Azar Nafasi

In 1995, Azar Nafisi invited some of her former students to her home to discuss Lolita, a novel whose discussion was forbidden by Nafasi’s employer, the University of Tehran. Over the next two years, Nafasi and the young women she had mentored met weekly to continue their English literature classes—free from the restraints that would have been created by the university. Nafasi’s moving memoir shows how literature speaks across cultures, genders, languages, and religions and opens the world for its readers.

back to school books

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

By Katherine Boo

A National Book Award Winner, Katherine Boo’s exploration of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, is populated by many fascinating and real characters. One of the most compelling is a young woman named Manju, who is working towards becoming the first woman from Annawadi to graduate from college. Old and new India come together in this dramatic and highly readable tale, which takes place over the course of three years.

Related: 16 Travel Books That Will Feed Your Wanderlust 

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Featured photo of Little Rock Nine courtesy of: Washington University Libraries, Henry Hampton Collection