An immediate bestseller when first published, Pay It Forward captured hearts all over the world, became a wildly popular film, and spawned a generation of increased altruism. This anniversary edition includes a new introduction by the author. It takes an inspiring and moving tale of a young boy who believed in the power of kindness and brings it to a new generation of readers.
Twelve-year-old Trevor McKinney accepts his social studies teacher’s challenge: come up with a plan to change the world. His idea is simple: Do a good deed for three people and ask them to “pay it forward” to three others in need. He envisions a vast movement of kindness and goodwill spreading beyond his small California town and across the world. The project, however, appears to falter. Jerry, a bum who receives some allowance money from Trevor, returns to a life of dissolution. Trevor wants his pretty, hardworking mother—a woman who raised him lovingly despite struggles with alcoholism—to marry his teacher, Reuben St. Clair. Reuben is a scarred, bitter, untrusting man with a disfiguring injury from Vietnam. He seems to come alive only when in front of his class. For a time that matchmaking brings nothing but problems. Ultimately, though, unusual things start to happen. Crime rates dip across the nation, and nobody seems to know why. Then a journalist tracks down the source: an epidemic of random acts of kindness.
Anyone who has ever despaired of one person’s ability to effect change will rejoice in Trevor’s courage and determination to see the good in everyone.
This reading group guide for Pay It Forward includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Trevor McKinney was not an exceptional student. In fact, as the child of a single mom who worked two jobs and battled alcoholism, he had more strikes against him than most of his classmates when it came to succeeding in school or in life. He was never going to change the world, or achieve anything close to that. But things aren’t always what they seem. An ordinary social studies extra-credit assignment provided the inspiration for Trevor to unleash the seeds of hope and compassion that had taken root in his heart, and nothing was ever the same again. Pay It Forward is the compelling story of one boy’s journey to hang on to hope for change in the world, against all odds.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What was your favorite part of Pay It Forward? Describe.
2. If you were a student in Reuben St. Clair’s class, how would you have responded to him in light of his physical appearance? How did you feel about Trevor’s response to him? What do you think Trevor saw? Why do you think children often can see what’s really true about a person? What do you think happens throughout our lives that often changes our ability to see?
3. What human desire does Trevor’s project connect with in each person who hears about it throughout the story, regardless of their place in society? Do you think all human beings share this desire? Why or why not?
4. How are Reuben St. Clair and Arlene McKinney similar in their approach to life? How are they different? What do you think they are drawn to in each other?
5. At the beginning of the story, Trevor writes about a story he heard on the news about a “little kid over in England who has this, like . . . condition. Nothing hurts him. . . . Sometimes I think my mom has that condition, too. Only on the inside. . . . Except, I know she hurts. But she still has her hand on that hot stove.” Describe what you think Trevor is saying in this diary entry. Give examples from Arlene’s life that support Trevor’s hypothesis. How do other characters in the book also illustrate this “condition” of building walls to protect themselves from pain? How effective are their walls?
6. What did you feel when Jerry relapsed? Do you think someone like Jerry can truly change? Why or why not?
7. How does Sidney G.’s story illustrate a major theme of the book?
8. Why do you think Arlene took Ricky back when he reappeared after his unexplained absence? What beliefs about herself and about others kept her in a cycle of addiction and unhealthy relationships with men? Do you think her character experienced growth and transformation throughout the story? Explain.
9. How was Trevor’s motivation for the project different from the other students who participated? What do you think contributed to his unique motivation?
10. Was Reuben St. Clair a great teacher? Was Trevor McKinney an exceptional student? Explain.
11. One of the major themes of the book is the contrast between external image or appearance and internal character and motivation. Pick one character in the book and describe the contrast between their external image and their true character. What does this exercise reveal about the process of forming relationships?
12. Who was your favorite character in the book? Explain what you were drawn to about them and how they contributed to the overall theme of the book.
13. Who was your least favorite character in the book? Why?
14. Do you think it’s possible for one person to change the world? Explain.
15. How do you feel about the way the story ended?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Think of an idea for world change, and put it into action. Discuss your ideas and actions at your next book club meeting.
2. Experiment with Trevor’s project. Pick three people and pay it forward and invite them to do the same. Discuss your experience at your next book club meeting.
3. Rent the movie Pay It Forward and compare/contrast with the book. Discuss at your next book club.
4. Challenge your assumptions. When you meet people, suspend your first impressions based on image/appearance and look for what is true about the person. Journal about what you see and discuss your observations at your next book club.
Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of twenty-five books, which include Where We Belong, When You Were Older, Walk Me Home, When I Found You, Don’t Let Me Go, The Language of Hoofbeats, and Take Me With You, among others. More than fifty of her short stories have been published in various literary magazines. Following the success of Pay It Forward, Catherine founded the Pay It Forward Foundation and served as president until 2009. She lives in California with her dog, Ella, and their cat, Jordan. To learn more about the foundation and other forthcoming books, visit CatherineRyanHyde.com.