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, October 5, 2014

The middle school boy challenge

Dear Annie,

I love your family's immersion in dragons and gods and goddesses, not to mention half-bloods.  Your description of Dragon Girl inspired me to order it for the store.

We've put out a call for book queries and and received quite a few.  I thought I'd start with a question from our virtual cousin* Helen, for her son Jack.

Finding books for a middle school boy has been challenging.  Choices seem to be limited to dystopian drama, dragons/swords fantasy or sports. . . .
 He complains that there are so many more books "for girls"...He's read all of the Alex Ryder books, The Lorien Legacies (Pitticus Lore), that dragon series (Eragon), Ender's Game, Maze Runner, City of Ember, His Dark Materials, City of Bones etc.
Setting aside the boy/girl debate, I'll list a bunch of books I hope will tickle Jack's fancy.  Jack's list are all popular multi-book series: spy thrillers,  sci-fi, alien invasion, post-apocalyptic worlds, parallel universes, and dragons.   I'll start with a few not-so-usual-suspect series that fall somewhere along those lines:

-- A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, blogged by us here.  It's about a parallel universe, not unlike those in the His Dark Materials Trilogy, by Philip Pullman.  I would stress to Jack the point made in the blog: the cover makes it look like dreamy chicklit -- it's not.  Ignore the cover.  So far there are only two books in the series in the U.S.

-- A darker but well done series is
The Last Apprentice
by Joseph Delaney.  It's set in a medieval world beset by witches, ghouls and other evil beings.  There's a Spook, who's a sort of exterminator of the occult, hired to root out and eliminate evil characters.  12 year-old Tom becomes an apprentice to the Spook, and is thrown into this creepy shadow world.  One of the other characters is an excellently ambiguous one: the reader is never quite sure which side she's on.

-- Annie and I have both loved the Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness, which takes place on another planet, but explores the shortcomings of human civilization eloquently.  See our blog entry here

-- I haven't read the
Leviathan trilogy
by Scott Westerfeld: second and third volumes are called Behemoth and Goliath.  One of my indicators of a good series is when the sequels sell almost as well as volume one, which is true with this one.  It's steam punk virtual history:  World War I re-imagined with one side armed with huge and complex machines; the other side has genetically engineered animals (the Leviathan is a flying whale).

-- And for the high-tech spy thriller fan, there's the
I, Q
series by Roland Smith.  Two step siblings traveling with their parents' rock band discover a lot of suspicious behavior, which it turns out is part of a much larger international espionage intrigue.  Each book takes place in different U.S. locations: Philadelphia, the White House, Alcatraz and the Alamo, to name a few.

Okay, so there are some series.  Here's more of Helen's query:
  There are so many YA options for him but he does think they are all the same kind of story and would like to find different kinds of stories. He goes through non-fiction phases but nothing recently. He loves history so I would like to find some biographies and historical non-fiction that was suitable for his age (13).
Hmm.  Jack, what do you mean by "the same kind of story"?  I'll take some guesses here, starting with two YA novels that create a contemporary teenager and put him in a fantastic situation.

by John Corey Whaley is one of ten nominees for the National Book Award this year.  16 year-old Travis was dying of cancer, so he and his family agreed that he would be frozen -- or at least his head would be -- until the technology to revive him is invented.  This turns out to take only five years, so he wakes up as a 16 year-old boy with a new, buff body, his best friend and girlfriend graduating from college, and everything different but not totally new.  It's funny and thoughtful.

-- Every Day by David Levithan is the story of a disembodied personality who wakes up each day in a different body.  Blogged about here.

-- And then there's
, by Mal Peet.  It combines magical realism and soccer, all set in the Brazilian rain forest.  It's beautiful, strange, and definitely different.


- Read anything by Steve Sheinkin, who's a fantastic writer.  I've blogged about his bizarre and amazing Lincoln's Grave Robbers.  His
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
about resistance to racism in the Navy during World War II is another one on the National Book Award Long List.  Over the summer, I read Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, which won a Newbery Honor last year.  It tells the story of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, but it also has lots of relatively new information which I hadn't known.  The Russians had spies at Los Alamos who were passing the secrets of the bomb as it was being developed: the story of how they did it reads like a spy thriller.

-- No history buff's middle school years are complete without Left for Dead by Pete Nelson.  The atom bomb, torpedoes, sharks, the movie Jaws, and the search for justice spearheaded by a sixth-grade boy.  Here's the blog entry.

-- Another history narrative, written for adults, is Steven Johnson's
The Ghost Map
.  It's about the London cholera epidemic of 1854, which brought about the birth of the science of epidemiology.  It reads like a mystery: we carry it because it was the store owners' son's favorite book when he was in middle school.

And as long as I'm on the subject of adult books, I'll end with two sports books:
--Blood, Sweat and Chalk
by Tim Layden is about the history and current use of football plays.  For the serious football fan.

-- And last, there's
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game
by Michael Lewis.  It's the story of Oakland As general manager Billy Beane developing statistical measurements of players' abilities.  It's got good plot, a team of underdogs, math and baseball, all in one book. 
A true sports fan can have fun arguing with some of Lewis's conclusions, but it's a good read.

So there you are, Helen and Jack.  I hope most of these are ones you haven't come across yet.  Let me know if any of them are keepers.



* Our families go way back.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the great nonfiction recommendations! I loved Candace Fleming's book, The Family Romanov, too.

    I've linked to you at