In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Action and intrigue

Dear Annie,

As you know, I get to know customers at the toy and book store fairly frequently.  Then their children progress beyond toy store age, and most of them kind of fade out of the crowd.  So this week when a Scandinavian mom I've always liked popped up, I just figured I hadn't seen her in a year or two because her son is now 15 or 16.  "Hi!," she said, "we're living in Moscow now."

When her son was around 10, she was worried that he wasn't interested in reading.  I can't remember if I introduced him to the action/thriller genre, which at that point I didn't know much about, or if he had already read the
Alex Rider series
by Anthony Horowitz, the Basic Text of middle grade action books.  Her commitment to ferreting out more books that engaged him led me on an interesting odyssey through a genre that I wouldn't have gravitated to naturally.

Alex Rider is a 14 year-old who is recruited into the British spy system after his uncle, an agent, is mysteriously murdered.  All the books (there are nine of them) are full of action and high-tech gadgetry and the kid hero outsmarts everyone.  They've been wildly popular.  There's no magic, which is quite important for some readers of action thrillers.

The first book I found after that was by Andy McNab, which is apparently the pseudonym of a real former British special forces guy.  He's done a series, the first of which is
, about a teenager whose grandfather is a rogue intelligence agent.  High-tech, action, kid smarter than grown-ups.

I don't understand why so many of these books are by Brits, but another series with some staying power is called Danger Zone, by David Gilman.  The first book, Devil's Breath, gets even further into the realm of the preposterous, with three teenagers trying to track down an eco-villain in Namibia who has kidnapped the main character's father.

And there's the CHERUB series, by Robert Muchamore (British) which I haven't read but have the impression may be better than most.  CHERUB (Charles Henderson Espionage Research Unit B) is, in these books, a unit of the British secret service which recruits kids younger than 17 to be special agents.  In the first book the main character is an 11 year-old budding juvenile delinquent.  

I wonder if you run into this genre much with your high school students.  They're so all-action-all-the-time, and many of them with a depressingly simplistic view of world politics.  Yet I became sort of fond of them because they kept this one kid reading enthusiastically.

What made all this research so interesting was the intense conversations I'd have with the reader's mother.  She cared so deeply about finding books that would engage him, even though she herself had no interest in the genre.  He rarely came to talk about books himself, but was clearly open to what she brought home.

He's still reading thrillers now, although the ones I talked about with her this week were mostly titles he already knew.  He's expanded his taste in literature, and has recently been reading novels with more reality-based protagonists -- many of them much more interesting and better-written books than the spy ones.  He and his mom have been feeling frustrated again with what can they find for him to read in Moscow.  So when she made plans to come visit friends in Washington, he said to her, "Go back and talk to that toy store lady -- she'll have something for me."

Next time, I'll explore his current taste.




  1. Hi: I am your newest follower. I happened to come across your discussion of fairy tales. I am introducing fairy tales as part of my curriculum for archetypal criticism and I thought your analysis was excellent. Thank you. I invite you to follow me as well.

  2. If the boy is 16, he could be reading Josephine Tey, or Charles Dickens, or Ursula Le Guin, or Sherlock Holmes, or, if he's based in Moscow, what about Martin Cruz Smith?

  3. @JJ -- Welcome! I'll be interested to see your thoughts on fairy tales as archetypes.

    @Mom -- Josephine Tey! Great idea.