School is back in session and we’re craving the sort of books that fill us with awe and inspiration. As the days cool down we want to curl up with a steaming mug and a book that gives us a feast for thought. We’ve got four great books that are brimming with insight, humor and fresh ideas. Check out the grades next to each book to see how we rank our selections in this new column for nonfiction books called Smart Reads.

The Road to Character by David Brooks (Random House, April 2015)

the-road-to-character-david-brooksa+“[The Road to Character is] a hyper-readable, lucid, often richly detailed human story. . . . In the age of the selfie, Brooks wishes to exhort us back to a semiclassical sense of self-restraint, self-erasure, and self-suspicion.” -Pico Iyer, The New York Times Book Review

“The voice of the book is calm, fair and humane. The highlight of the material is the quality of the author’s moral and spiritual judgments.” -Michael Gerson, The Washington Post

“Original and eye-opening . . . At his best, Brooks is a normative version of Malcolm Gladwell, culling from a wide array of scientists and thinkers to weave an idea bigger than the sum of its parts.” USA Today

Brooks opens The Road to Character by saying: “I wrote this book not sure I could follow the road to character, but I wanted at least to know what the road looks like and how other people have trodden it.” In this insightful book, New York Times columnist Brooks challenges us to rebalance what he calls the “resume virtues” (wealth, fame, status) with our “eulogy virtues” (kindness, bravery, honesty, community). He looks at how thought leaders from history approached this problem and creates a roadmap to a richer inner life. Compelling reading.

Grade: A+

A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson (Anchor Books, 2006)

bill-bryson-a-walk-in-the-woodsA-emblem“Bryson is a very funny writer who could wring humor from a clammy sleeping bag.” The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Short of doing it yourself, the best way of escaping into nature is to read a book like A Walk in the Woods.” The New York Times

“Bill Bryson could write an essay about dryer lint or fever reducers and still make us laugh out loud.” Chicago Sun-Times

This beloved classic, first printed by Doubleday in 1997, is still a New York Times no. 1 bestseller after 98 weeks following the paperback release. On September 2 it opened as a movie starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, which sought to capture the humor of travel writer Bryson attempting to hike the entire 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail from Maine to Georgia with old college pal Stephen Katz. Along the way they meet bears, a vast array of interesting human characters and different forms of calamity that Bryson meets with humor and a writer’s keen eye for wonder. You owe it to yourself to give this another (or first!) reading.

Grade: A

The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship by Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown (Harper Perennial; September 22, 2015)

the-social-sex-marilyn-yalomA-emblem“This sweeping, lighthearted, highly readable survey hints that beyond proximity, shared interests, and ‘reciprocity,’ there is still some lovely mystery to what binds the ‘noncarnal union of similar souls.’ Yalom and Brown confirm that ‘the benefits of friendship as an educational, ennobling, and personally satisfying experience’ have been, and always will be, a ‘prized staple’ of women’s lives.” Publishers Weekly

“…an unabashedly affectionate chronicle of what is for many of us, gay and straight, male and female, among the defining relationships of our lives — the one we have with our girlfriends.” -The Los Angeles Times

Women’s friendships mattered so little in early literature that it wasn’t until the 17th century that such relationships made their way into literature. Yalom and Donovan comb history to show how women supported one another and formed the bonds of sisterhood. The richness of women’s platonic relationships makes for engaging reading.

Grade: A

It’s Your World: Get Informed, Get Inspired and Get Going! by Chelsea Clinton (Philomel; September 15, 2015)

chelsea-clinton-it's-your-worldB+“This is a terrific resource for junior activists…almost every kid will find inside it a way to help.” Booklist

“…the information is sound, useful, and timely.” School Library Journal

“Where [Clinton] succeeds is in making even the knottiest issues seem accessible to a bright seventh grader.” -The New York Times

Imagine the dinner table conversation when Chelsea Clinton was growing up. She brings this sort of impassioned and accessible conversation about current events to her first book. This primer will help middle-grade readers get informed and involved in the world around them.

Grade: B+