A Beautiful Novel About Survival, Resilience, and Belonging
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd is an excellent young adult book choice for an all class read or independent choice in the high school classroom! All grade levels, but specifically freshmen and sophomores, will connect to the powerful message about growing up and finding a place to belong.
This post contains affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link.
The protagonist in The Secret Life of Bees is Lily, a white fourteen year old girl. Lily’s mother died when she was four and Lily knows that she is responsible for her death. Lily lives with her abusive father, T. Ray, and is raised primarily by Rosaleen, a Black woman that T. Ray hired when Lily’s mother died.
Set in the Deep South during the Civil Rights Movement, the story follows Lily’s journey as she embarks on a quest to uncover the truth about her mother’s past. Along the way, she finds solace and acceptance in the company of three Black beekeeping sisters, who become her surrogate mothers and teach her about love, loss, and the true meaning of family.
One of the most compelling aspects of The Secret Life of Bees is its depiction of the complex and often tumultuous relationship between mothers and daughters. Lily struggles to come to terms with her mother’s tragic death and the secrets that she left behind.
Through her interactions with the beekeeping sisters – August, June, and May Boatwright – Lily learns about the strength and resilience of maternal love, and begins to understand the importance of forgiveness and acceptance in healing old wounds.
The Secret Life of Bees is also a poignant and thought-provoking exploration of the themes of race, identity, and belonging. Set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, the novel grapples with the realities of segregation and racism in the Deep South, and the ways in which these issues continue to shape the lives of the characters.
As Lily grows and learns, she becomes increasingly aware of the privileges and biases that she has always taken for granted, and begins to question the societal norms that have been imposed upon her.
This is a beautiful bildungsroman tale that my ninth graders enjoy, however be aware there are some curse words, and a few uses of an offensive racial slur.
Using The Secret Life of Bees in the Freshman Classroom
I first read this book when it was released in 2002. At that point in my life I was still in college, and was not planning on using this in the classroom. In my career I have seen other teachers successfully teach it, but it was not until recently that I felt it was the “right” book for my students. One of the many things I love about today’s students is their deep interest in social justice. This novel is an excellent choice to give our youngest high school students a better understanding of the importance of the Civil Rights movement and more confidence in knowing how to talk about sensitive issues in the classroom.
I love teaching this book so much. I think it is an important story, one that my students really connect with and can comprehend. It is accessible for most freshmen and the first two chapters are action packed. There is so much in this book to focus on that I don’t ever feel like I have enough time to do it the justice it deserves, but here are a few places where I feel this story really shines:
First, Lily is looking for a place where she belongs. At home with T. Ray, she has no friends and no mother. T. Ray is abusive and angry. She has gathered the few items of her mother’s that T. Ray did not destroy, and has to bury them in her peach orchard in case her father finds her with them. Lily is desperately looking for some love and positive reinforcement. When her teacher tells her she should be a writing professor when she grows up, Lily says it took her months to get over the fact that someone thought she had potential.
However, she does have Rosaleen. Rosaleen is her mother figure, and as much as they disagree, they love one another. And then, for the first time in her life, Lily finds herself a part of a real community at the home of the Boatwright sisters. This community is transformative for Lily; everything changes for her when she leaves the abusive home and finds safety and love at the pink house.
So many of our students feel like they don’t quite fit, just like Lily. I hope this novel helps these students to feel like they are not alone, and also helps others be aware that their peers may be feeling this way.
Next, the setting is South Carolina in 1964. Lily and Rosaleen are running from the law after Rosaleen angered some white men on her way to register to vote. They end up at the home of the Boatwright sisters (three Black women) and find a place of solace.
The injustice of racism is subtly present throughout the novel, and it is the catalyst for Lily’s growth as a character in many ways. This novel is an excellent starting point for discussing racial inequality before we move on to To Kill a Mockingbird later in the year. It is essential in this day and age that our students are able to discuss race using correct and respectful language. In my classroom, The Secret Life of Bees is where we begin that discussion.
Also, at the beginning of every chapter there are quotes and lessons about bees. The bee symbolism is prevalent throughout the story, and it easily leads to student centered research on bees, hives, and beekeeping.
This is my students’ first introduction to using our online databases. They are expected to do some guided academic research, and then connect pieces of what they have learned to the novel. The freshmen like this assignment. It makes them feel capable and mature, finding this information on their own that others may not know, and then making abstract connections.
Survival and Resilience
Last, there are strong themes of survival and resilience. All of the characters (and I do mean ALL) are survivors. And honestly, I think the reason why I love teaching this story so much is because of the strength and resilience the characters show. Readers can learn a lot from the way every single one of the characters in this novel perseveres and moves forward amidst unfairness, hardship, and tragedy.
The characters use various methods to deal with their troubles, such as beekeeping, writing, the wailing wall, etc. We as readers love these women and the strength that they show, and our students are unknowingly being taught coping methods that they can use as they continue their own coming of age journeys.
Can you tell how much I love this novel? This may not be the perfect choice for everyone’s students, but for my students this year it is a winner!
Here are a few quotes that my students chose as particularly meaningful:
“The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters” (Kidd 147).
“After you get stung, you can’t get unstung no matter how much you whine about it” (Kidd 167).
“All this love coming to me. I didn’t know what to do with it” (Kidd 243).
I am happy to talk more about how I use this novel in the classroom!
Check out this teaching guide that has a ton of good information as well.
If you enjoyed this post, please check out this one about some of my picks for independent reading for freshman students.
Check out the lesson planning template that I use for creating and organizing my lessons here!
Purchase a copy of The Secret Life of Bees here.