Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Books for young boys who read at a high level

Updated January 24 I made this list for the son of friends--he is 8 and already reading young adult books, long past Lewis's Narnia and Rowling's Potter. A request for titles included asking for some suggestions of books from earlier eras, so there are quite a few older books. 

Please add your own thoughts about books you loved as a boy or girl in the comments. You might think also do something similar and consider books that seem just right for some particular child you know. And please think about the age--after ferreting about, I have concluded that there is not a good list online for boys--or girls--who are desiring more challenging reading but are still quite young. That is the focus here. I'm particularly interested in the idea of the young child who does not wish for books powered by gore, violence, and sex but who wants books that are adventurous and well-written.

The list has a rough, rather higgledy-piggledy organization with realistic and "low fantasy" books toward the top, mythic and fairy tale material midway, fantastical work toward the bottom, and many of the additional comments from others at the bottom (sometimes elsewhere, if more suited to the sort of books elsewhere.) Maybe some day I'll go alphabetical, after comments quit appearing. Or maybe I'll just leave it as a joyful hodgepodge.

Help build the list!

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Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. There's a whole series of the Wolves books about two girl cousins and a goose-boy who must outwit the scheming Miss Slighcarp.

Robert Louis StevensonKidnapped. I still love Stevenson and reread Kidnapped not long ago. The flight in the heather is wonderful. Treasure Island

Rudyard KiplingThe Jungle Book. An interesting coming-of-age stories.

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi. Wonderful! The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Diary of a Campaign That Failed. Huckleberry Finn. 

Farley MowatLost in the Barrens. Two teenage boys, survival story.

Johann David WyssSwiss Family Robinson. Four shipwrecked boys and their ingenious parents. I have often found myself putting characters into trees, and I think it's partly the fault of this book.

Eric SevareidCanoeing with the Cree. Wish I had known about this one for my boys. Have not read it--Eric Sevareid and a friend graduate high school and go on a 2,250-mile canoe trip. Sounds marvelous, so I couldn't resist adding it.

I have not read these but was looking for books that would please a fantasy reader whose parents wished he would attempt something else occasionally. I read a lot of the author's fantasy as a child and later. with my own children Check out Lloyd Alexander's Holly Vesper adventures? A Victorian girl, age 16, ranges the world with her guardian Brinnie, or Professor Brinton Garrett. "She’s Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes (minus the violin playing, the bees, and the cocaine), and Nancy Drew and Richie Rich." --Mari Ness

Jack LondonThe Call of the Wild, White Fang.

Marjorie Cowley, Dar and the Spear-Thrower. Go back in time 15,000 years and be an orphan boy in France! Coming-of-age tale. This one appealed to a son of mine who was not a devoted reader. 

If you want a child to experience something that conveys the excitement of learning to read and how important it is to possess written language, the early part of Frederick Douglass's autobiography that tells how he learned to read as a slave child is thrilling.

"Do boys still read G. A. Henty? suppose not, and they are the poorer for it. Men who were boys when [I] was a boy will thrill even today to the very names—With Wolfe in Canada, and With Kitchener in the Sudan, and With Hornblower at Riga. Yes, most of all With Hornblower at Riga. No other book ever written (save perhaps its un justly neglected sequel With Hornblower in Nicaragua) so evokes the smell of tar and salt." --Thaddeus Holt, NYT, 13 June 1971. Holt pans C. S. Forester's Hornblower series as missing the great mark of Hornblower, but Hemingway and Churchill both praised the Forester Hornblower books.

E. B. White, The Trumpet of the Swan.

Laura Ingalls WilderFarmer Boy. Set in Malone, where my husband Michael grew up. The house is now restored and can be toured.

Jean Craighead GeorgeMy Side of the Mountain. I don't think that I read this one but had a son who liked it. (And William Parsons, who worked on our dining room chimney and is now going to be working on Edith Wharton's Berkshire house, recommended it. That's good enough for me!)

Leon GarfieldSmith. A boy pickpocket sees dangerous things he should not and eventually rises in through muddling accident, merit, and heart. Victorian gritty. Gorgeous story of finding a home in a dangerous world. The rare book that feels truly Dickensian, though the term is bandied about quite often. I like some other Garfield books, but Smith brings tears. Rare! It is the last book I read to all three of my children at once, and I have to say they were transfixed. A while back, FSG's Robbie Mayes edited some beautiful reprints of four of Garfield's children's novels that can probably be picked up used, and there's a newer edition from NYRB.

Alexandre Dumas, pèreThe Three Musketeers.

Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain. The silversmith's apprentice dramatic story--a boy's coming-of-age tale set in eighteenth-century Boston. Newbery medal, 1944.

Writer and photographer John O' Grady had a suggestion: "The only book I'd add is Lad: A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune. (I'd probably also throw in his Wolf and Gray Dawn.)"

My blog-friend George left some titles in the comments that I am passing on here with a bit more information--I think these are interesting choices, though I think the first may be more appropriate as a read-aloud with a parent for a younger child who may have questions. My target age of around 8 is awfully young! Commander Edward L. Beach, Jr.Run Silent, Run Deep. That one's definitely heroic, as submarine Commander Edward J. Richardson tells the events that led to his receiving the Medal of Honor. Includes a figure whose character is wayward (bit wild and risky in his actions, unfaithful to his wife) but changes in the course of the book. Jean Lee LathamCarry On, Mr. Bowditch. Biography of sailor-mathematician Nathaniel Bowditch. Newbury medal winner. The true story of a boy's rise from chandler's apprentice to captain and Harvard grad. An American dream saga. Great choice. Mark TwainRoughing It. I thought about this one but was not sure--but why not give it a try? And here's another one I thought about but wasn't sure, recommended by George: Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Two Years Before the Mast. I don't think I read that until my early twenties, but if sea books take, it might work!

Mabel M. DodgeHans Brinker, or the Silver Skates. I remember this story of the Netherlands from childhood--the story of a boy's mature sense of sacrifice and honor. Hans repeatedly sacrifices what he loves and wants, either for a better future for his family or for a friend in need. It was a bestseller in 1865, exceeded only by Dickens's Our Mutual Friend.

Alan Garner, The Stone Book Quartet. Cheshire setting near Alderney Edge. Each book features a child of a different era, drawn from Garner's family history in Cheshire.

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, Little Men

Kerstin Green, who runs Oak Hill Nursery School near Cooperstown, says: The Shakespeare Stealer  [by Gary Blackwood] and Shakespeare's Scribe [the sequel.] Also anything by Avi. [I also mentioned Avi. Crispin: The Cross of Lead was especially liked by one of my children.] She also recommended the William Ritter Jackaby series as one her son liked and compared Ritter's books to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Moving into fantasy, her children liked Cornelia Funke's Inkheart trilogy, Thief Lord, and Dragon Rider.

A smattering of the legendary and mythic: I liked Howard Pyle's Robin Hood and Arthur stories, but they may seem a little more dated now. Kevin Crossley-Holland (UK) has an Arthurian trilogy that has won awards, and I think he has a Norse myths book as well. I've only read one of his books and that was long ago, but I think it would be a safe choice. Neil Gaiman also has a new Norse legends book which I've read and would add. Leon Garfield's The God Beneath the Sea won Carnegie and Greenaway medals but I've not read it--according to what I have read, it is more adult than his other work, and he was concerned about that, which seems sweet of him, given that anything goes now in y. a. I read Nathaniel Hawthorne's retellings of myths early on.

Folk and fairy: Alan Garner has folk tale collections from his native Cheshire. I was a re-reader of the Grimms' tales in childhood. In addition, I'd recommend the Lore Segal and Randall Jarrell translations in a two-volume set wonderfully illustrated by Maurice SendakThe Golden Book of Fairy Tales (with illustrations by Adrienne Segur and some translations by Marie Ponsot) Also: The Fairy Tale Book (with illustrations by Adrienne Segur.) I pored over my copy of TFTB many, many times. Has a version of E. T. A. Hoffmann's Nutcracker story, "The Snow Queen," lots more. I know so many women writers who were entranced by one or both books when they were girls, but there's plenty to like for boys as well. Andrew Lang's Blue Fairy Book, etc. Oh, and Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale collections, of course.

And for gentler fantasy, try E. Nesbit and Edward Eager. Lots of books by each.

Wilmington Star reviewer Ben Steelman says, "Robert Heinlein's juveniles may be getting a tad dated, but they're still fun. A sentimental favorite for me is 'Citizen of the Galaxy.'"

Writer, poet, and secret singer Roderick Robinson added some specific E. Nesbit recommendations--"the adventures of the Bastable family (The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, The New Treasure Seekers"--and you can see his remarks in the comments.

Claire Youmans, my no-doubt very distant cousin of some sort, all Youmanses in this country being descended from four brothers who came over before the Revolution, reminded me of her The Toki Girl and the Sparrow Boy series which "keeps growing up as the children do. It's historical fantasy-adventure, fun and sophisticated, suitable for 8 year olds, and with a following among college students and adults."

Lucy M. BostonGreen Knowe. Tolly goes to stay with Mrs. Oldknowe and meets the people who once lived in the house in earlier centuries. Six books in the series, I think. Boston makes the world feel enchanted. The Sea Egg. This lovely little book was recommended to me by Robbie Mayes, back when he was an FSG editor. Two English schoolboys discover an egg with a triton inside.

T. H. WhiteThe Once and Future King. Arthur! Robin Hood! Being a bird! The first section--"The Sword in the Stone"--about Wart and Merlin is enthralling for a boy.

John RuskinThe King of the Golden River.

Nancy WillardThe Firebrat.

Roald Dahl, James and the Giant Peach. It's hard to decide which one to pick with Dahl.

Lloyd Alexander, The Chronicles of Prydain, Time Cat, the Westmark books, etc.

Terry PratchettThe Wee Free Men and A Hatful of Sky. A strong-minded young witch. Somebody in the house loved The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. If a boy gets addicted to Pratchett, he'll stay busy a long time.

Richard AdamsWatership Down. My high school English teacher (the woman to whom I dedicated Catherwood) gave me the rabbit-saga when it came out, and I wish that I still had the copy with her inscription.

Lewis Carroll's Alice books. I can't say how much those meant to me. Alice for all, girls and boys!

Otfried Preussler, Krabat and the Sorceror's Mill. Brilliant little book. Scary. Maybe shouldn't be on this list, but it is so good! A parent ought to check this one out first, as children vary in what they find frightening. Eh, save it till he's older! A beggar boy is captured by a great sorcerer and made to work and learn his mysterious arts. A girl and an Easter hymn promise him more. This one is from The New York Review of Books children's collection, and I highly, highly recommend browsing through it to find some interesting books.



George MacDonald: the short stories were published a while back by Eerdmans in two volumes as The Gifts of the Christ Child. A lot of them like "The Golden Key" are beautiful and aspiring. Little violence. Ruth Sanderson just did a gorgeous scratchboard-illustrated version of that story, also from Eerdmans. Some of his other stories have been Sendak-illustrated books like The Light Princess. Try The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. I loved At the Back of the North Wind as a child, but I expect that one may feel pretty dated now.

Madeleine L'EngleA Wrinkle in Time.

Norman JusterThe Phantom Tollbooth.

Another fantasy writer I liked when young was Alan Garner, whose children's fantasies were set around Alderney Edge. He was in the reread category for me--particularly The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. 

Franny Billingsley, The Folk Keeper. Corinna in disguise as the boy Corin, who must keep down the Folk in their labyrinthine home. 

Gary D. Schmidt, What Came From the Stars. We judges for the 2012 NBA-YPL swapped books, and I swapped one of my mine for this one--and liked it. This tale of Tommy Pepper and the dangerous Valorians is well-written, boy-friendly, and adventurous. (What book did we pick for the Young People's Literature Award? William Alexander's Goblin Secrets. A lovely, surreal creation.)

My eldest son adored the Brian Jacques books. If a boy likes one, there are a zillion more. 

My daughter Rebecca's favorite fantasy writer was Diana Wynne Jones (an author who had three sons, so she knew boys!) Try the Chrestomanci books--magic and lots of boys. Some of her fantasy is rather cerebral in structure, but there are a number of books for younger readers. Rebecca loved Howl's Moving Castle, which was transformed in its migration to a Miyazaki Studio Ghibli film. I recall thinking that Aunt Maria gave Rowling the structural basis for her third Potter book. She has a long bibliography and more books that would work for a young reader who wants something challenging.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, LOTR. LOTR is terrifically sad for an adult, but I think it tends to be less so for younger readers.

I think Jules Verne could work well as a read-aloud, as would Dickens (Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist) or Blackmore's Lorna Doone. (I love the narrator of the last one in the same way that I love the first narrator of The Moonstone.) I did not read King Solomon's Mines as a child, but I knew boys liked it.

Louis Untermeyer's The Golden Treasury of Poetry. Via eBay or abe.com or library, I guess. Wore mine to pieces. Boy-friendly, definitely! 

James Weldon Johnson, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. This was one of the few single-author poetry books I owned as a child. Great swing, inspired by what Johnson saw as the "folk sermons" of his childhood.

Randall JarrellThe Bat-poet. 

For non-fiction, there are lots of interesting choices, but one that appealed greatly to me was the Foxfire series that came out of the Rabun Gap - Nacoochee school (edited by Eliot Wigginton), not far from me when I was in high school in Cullowhee, North Carolina. I pored over those books and have continued to occasionally look at them. Whenever I passed the school on trips to Georgia, I longed to be a student there.

I've left out Avi, Nancy Farmer, and so many others who wrote books that my children loved. But maybe it's time to let other people tell me what they like...

Note: Be sure and come back later, as I will keep adding in suggestions from twitter, facebook, and messaging!

Via writer Susan Henderson aka @LitPark on twitter: "When my boys were that age, they loved The Mysterious Benedict Society." And another: "Oh, and Terry Pratchett's Maurice and His Educated Rodents. Not long after, they got into Pratchett's Tiffany Aching series." [I read one of the Benedict books in the year that I read 316 children's books for the NBA-YPL. And I liked it. Author: Trenton Lee Stewart.] Henderson is also in the comments below.

Writer Kim Beall put in a vote for Tolkien's LOTR in the comments, and I think what she says reflects what I said above: it's a different narrative for a child than for an adult. One of Ellen Kushner's Sound and Spirit episodes muses on that thought as well. LOTR pops up here and there in her series. And there is a show on music inspired by LOTR (episode 5048.)

Peter in Wales: "Some violence in [Hergé's] Tintin, of an adventurous kind, but certainly NO sex. YA wasn't definite genre in my day, but other read-them-all favourites at 8+ were Arthur Ransome, Hugh Lofting, Asterix, Tove Jannson. And I know Clive would add Alan Garner. Too young for Pullman?" [I would suppose so, at least for the third volume of the trilogy.] "The trilogy's the thing with Pullman. [Note: One of my children read the trilogy and liked the first two books but not the third. The complaint was that the third should have been two books and that it had too much anti-Christian axe-grinding.] Lofting wrote Dr Dolittle, a very different person than either of the film versions. A rarer favourite were 2 children's books by Eric Linklater - Pirates in the Deep Green Sea and Wind on the Moon. None yet re-read with modern sensitivities."

Writer and book reviewer Nancy G. Pate: Great list with many of my favorites. My [Untermeyer's] Golden Poetry, like yours, is falling apart. Smiled at that pic. I’d add Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. Still reread it.

I thought about Susan Cooper and dithered about whether The Dark is Rising books were the right age. (She was on our 2012 NBA-YPL judging board, and I liked her very much and reread the whole TDIR series after we met.) Maybe that's because I was older when I read them. I guess that's one where I would think about my child, and whether they might enjoy them more at a slightly older age.

Writer and professor Jessica Hooten Wilson: "I was glad to see Roald Dahl—I’ve been reading his books aloud to my 3 and 4 yr olds."
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22 comments:

  1. I read The Lord of the Rings when I was 9, so it might also be appropriate. OK, it took me 'til I was 11 to finish it. That stuff going on in Rohan was pretty tedious to me at that age, but I slogged through because I wanted to get back to the stuff about Frodo and Sam.

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    1. "Mirabella Bunce" is a great name. I love the collision between the two parts!

      And I stuck it on because I meant to do it and forgot. Ditz-me. Thanks!

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    2. LOL it was the name assigned to me 'way back when the Lord of the Rings was first being made into a movie - it was my fan site nickname ;)

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    3. Hi, Kim! Sneaky devil! I love it. Needs to star in a children's book.

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  2. My boys liked Trenton Lee Stewart's Mysterious Benedict Society and Terry Pratchett's Maurice and His Educated Rodents. Also, Pratchett's Tiffany Aching Series.

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    1. Thank you, Susan! (I do remember thinking that one of my boys would have liked Mysterious Benedict Society when I read one in 2012, my YPL-stint year.) Pratchett was a favorite here too.

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  3. This is an excellent list Marly! I'm happy to see my son has read a great number of these, and there's still a healthy amount for us to explore. Thank you!

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    1. Hope you find something new here that he likes!

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  4. My one objection to this list, which I basically love, is that at 8 the last thing I wanted was anyone's list. I had something much better, the library.

    But if someone is stocking an isolated Idaho cabin for an 8-year-old, yes, good list.

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    1. Yes, I agree. Of course, my mother was a librarian... So for much of my childhood, I had freedom in whatever library was hers.

      I like the idea of a stocked Idaho cabin. Probably would get some work done!

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  5. Timidly I offer the adventures of the Bastable family (The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Wouldbegoods, The New Treasure Seekers) by E. Nesbit. But are such Victorian concerns as honour and responsibility out of fashion now? Not to me but then I read about them more than half a century ago. I could, if I had the time, re-read the tattered volume at this very moment, searching out that narrative style halfway between the views of a child and a young adult. Ah Oswald, am I still under your influence?

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    1. I did mention Nesbit in a more general way, but it's always good to have specific recommendations. As a child, I loved her books and read all that were in the library. I wonder if it's hard to read her after being fed a contemporary diet of Rick Riordan, Brandon Mull, etc.

      Is responsibility out of fashion? Defiinitely. Or maybe just in abeyance. I have noticed that U of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson is getting a massive response to his call for young people to take on responsibility, sort themselves out, etc.

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    3. I have been (sort of) archived and feel honoured. Thanks.

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    4. Congratulations on your S. O. A. status!

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  6. A couple of nautical entries: Carry on, Mr. Bowditch, which I read long ago, and then twenty years ago encountered in a book fair at my son's elementary school; Run Silent, Run Deep, which I read in junior high, and then again since. Also, why not Roughing It? I read the other day that R.L. Stevenson sent a copy to his father, who wrote back that he wasn't sure that it was healthy for a man of his age to laugh so hard.

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    1. Oh, those sound good--don't know the first but shall look it up. It's so tricky, looking for books for a very young child who is quite capable of reading adult books but not wanting to bump into certain adult preoccupations.

      Love the Stevenson anecdote...

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    2. The adult preoccupations tend to fly past those who are not ready for them. Roughing It has a fellow mentioned in passing as having had "a dashing helpmeet whom he could have discarded without the formality of a divorce" (quoted from memory, probably mangled): I certainly did not simplify this to "mistress" on my first few readings. There is a footnote in the chapter "How to Read and Be Right" of Jacques Barzun's Teacher in America about his at the age of 11 encountering "a fiercely naturalistic novel by Mirbeau. The behavior of the characters struck me at the time as decidedly odd, but I calmly attributed it to the inexperience of the novelist, not to mine. Most children would respond in exactly the same way."

      It strikes me also that Two Years Before the Mast, which I first read in junior high school, could be appropriate. This must all sound as if I'm an old salt; but I think that I have been on boats or ferries on tidewater about twice.

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    3. I think that's true to a great extent; that's what I meant in the comments about LOTR, the way that adults and children read two different books. Hah, the Barzun comment is amusing!

      My husband and I talked about Richard Henry Dana and "Two Years Before the Mast" as a possibility. Okay, I'll add it.

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    4. p. s. Did you see the G. A. Henty comments (added today)? Did you read him when you were a boy?

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    5. I did see the Henty comments. I read what I think must have been similar books, but with an American rather than a British cast: the commanders were Anthony Wayne or John Paul Jones, not Kitchener or Hornblower.

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    6. Interesting. I think my childhood reading was equally split between the states and the UK, with a good number of books from elsewhere. But then, my mother was an academic librarian...

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.