8 socially conscious books to gift your friends and family

A great book accomplishes many things: It should tell a powerful story, make you reflect on the subject at hand, and maybe even start a thoughtful conversation with other people in our lives. Around the holidays, especially leading up to the New Year, is a great time to kick back and treat our minds to some thoughtful and engaging prose.

Modern American literature is rich with a diverse set of stories from men and women across the political spectrum, sharing their takes on the art of living. And if you want to go deeper, our shared human history has a nearly endless abundance of tomes on how to live our best lives, in the most meaningful sense that transcends frivolous trends in popular culture.


But a great book, especially one with a socially conscious edge, should challenge our ways of thinking, not just reaffirm that which we already know and believe. So, here is a list of 8 of our favorite books that meet this criteria. No one will be entirely satisfied by our list, and that's the idea! These books are meant to educate, provoke, inspire and even cause debate. If you're thinking of starting a book club this year, put down the Harry Potter and Game of Thrones and pick up one of these. You'll be thankful for it and can proudly display any one of these on your bookshelf or around the office water cooler.



Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

You may truly never find a book full of more tragedy leading directly to direct inspiration and as the title affirms, meaning for life itself. Frankl was a successful psychiatrist in Germany before being sent to a concentration camp during World War II. Surrounded by death and despair, Frankl used the mental notes from a book he was working on to form the basis for logotherapy, a treatment that helps patients find meaning in their lives, something Frankl believed was essential for personal growth and emotional development. The short book (this paperback edition is 192 pages) is nearly evenly split between Frankl's Holocaust memoir and a latter exploration of his breakthrough therapy. It has sold well over 10 million copies and become a trusted guidebook for mental healthcare professionals, member of 12-Step communities and virtually anyone willing to dig a little deeper for meaning. If you're looking for the answer to what life is all about this a book that is quite literally full of answers both large and small.



Heart Talk: Poetic Wisdom for a Better Life by Cleo Wade

Only 30-years-old, Wade is already being called "the Millennial Oprah" in some circles. Starting her career as a poet and activist, Wade gave a Ted Talk in 2017 "Want to change the world? Start by being brave enough to care" that quickly went viral. The incredibly accessible book is full of illustrations, affirmations and images shared by Wade on living a life full of personal and spiritual fulfillment. We often equate wisdom with age but Wade has shown that even younger voices can tap into a timeless quality, remixing tried and true secrets for success into a brilliant and engaging read for people of all generations.


Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin

A new generation of readers is discovering the literary brilliance of Baldwin, especially through the groundbreaking recent documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Often overlooked in modern American historical texts, Baldwin was an essential figure in the Civil Rights Movement, right alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The fact that Baldwin was also gay, makes his place all the more significant. Though told through the lens of his breakthrough novel, "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is a masterclass if race, sexuality, coming-of-age struggles and class warfare. Like so many of Baldwin's public lectures and essays, the pages of this novel feel both out of time and deeply resonant in any time. You'll not only find the novel impossible to put down, but don't be surprise when you go down the Baldwin rabbit hold before, during and after you finish this one-of-a-kind story.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

What if the president was Indiana Jones? OK, we already got that in the Harrison Ford film Air Force One but this Pulitzer Prize winning book is the real deal. Chronicling Roosevelt's life right up until he becomes president, "Rise" is jam packed with adventures, wisdom and inspiration. Yes, Roosevelt was born into privilege. But unlike so many others, including our current president, TR chose to run away from his inheritance and make a life on his own as a rancher, a soldier and eventually a politician. He made so much history it's hard to keep tabs on it all. This is the man who literally inspired the creation of the Teddy Bear. And along the way he helped launch the modern conservation movement, fought the corruption influence of money in politics, and embodied one of the many phrases attributed to him, "Speak softly and carry a big stick." And oh yeah, he swam with sharks. No really. He may not have been the most important president in history but he certainly was the most badass.



I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Write what you know. The cliched advice to aspiring writers is both well-worn and often true. And Maya Angelou proved it's wisdom in her debut memoir. Angelou went on to have a storied career in the letters and social activism but it's hard to overestimate the importance of this book when it seemingly came out of nowhere. As James Baldwin himself said at the time of the book's publication in 1969: "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity."



Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

With great power comes great responsibility and at the time there was no one more powerful in the world than the Roman Emperor. With the weight of the world on his shoulders, it's amazing that more than a thousand years later, Aurelius might best be remembered for his small book full of life wisdom and reflections. Simply one of the most important and useful books ever written, "Meditations" is full of advice on getting along with others and one's self that is just as relevant today as it was nearly 2,000 years ago. There's a reason the philosophy of Stoicism has become so trendy again in recent years as we search for depth and purpose in our modern lives. There's a lifetime of wisdom in these 256 pages -- lessons you'll want to return to time and again throughout your life. Meditations also makes for an incredible gift for just about anyone: the young student headed off to college, someone grappling with loss, or just anyone looking to drive their intellectual and spiritual curiosity. The wisdom of the ages is here for the taking.


Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates may be the most important writer on social justice and racism in modern America. "Between the World an Me" is the book that catapulted him from the somewhat obscure world of essay journalism into international acclaim, something he has discussed at fascinating length in interviews and his writing. At times scathing, tragic and always heartfelt, Coates' book explores race in American as he struggles to come to terms with his own philosophical leanings while passing along lessons to his young son. In more recent years, Coates has found a way to bridge his revolutionary writing into mainstream popular culture, penning several Black Panther comics and serving as a consultant on the blockbuster Marvel film of the same name. That makes his more serious writing the perfect bridge for someone who was interested in the themes touched upon in that film and those comics but wanting to go deeper with an unmistakable voice that will not be denied.



God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens

Looking for something controversial you say? Well, have we got the book for you! In the last decade of his life, Hitchens became best-known for his support of the War on Terror and his contrarian viewpoints that fit most comfortably alongside the American political right. But Hitch was nothing if not complicated and brilliant. Amongst his core beliefs was a lifelong support of socialism and a career as one of the world's most prominent Atheists. His belief in non-belief is poured into a concentrated blast in "God Is Not Great" which systemically goes through the world's largest religions, heroes and icons -- dismantling the arguments in favor of organized religion. Yes, some of the arguments may prove difficult or even offensive for devout believers but Hitchens thrived on (mostly) cordial debate. That makes this book equally worthwhile for Atheists and believers alike. After all, if we cannot stand by our beliefs under duress, what good are they really? Stick around till near the end when Hitchens anoints Martin Luther King Jr. as one of the few icons worthy of saintliness - but not for the reasons you're probably thinking. The world was a better place with Christopher Hitchens in it -- he made intellectual thought and debate entertaining for the masses. We could sure use his wit and integrity in today's world.



The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by the Dalai Lama

After all that shock and awe, let's wind things down on a peaceful note. The Dalai Lama has spent his current lifetime expanding the reach of Buddhism's teachings in a way that has proven historically accessible, fresh and new. Ancient wisdom has never felt so cutting edge and integral to our world. Like so many other authors on this list, he has experienced personal and transformative loss and yet has found boundless meaning and purpose in the face of adversity. After all, the Dalai Lama is almost always smiling in videos and photos. His book is one that practically invented the cottage industry of self-help books for those looking for greater happiness and meaning in their lives. When in doubt, go to the source. You will not be disappointed.


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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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