Monday, February 21, 2011

12 Great Books for Boys

If you're a reader of this blog you know how I feel about the importance of literature. In just my second post on this blog back in 2007 I wrote on this topic (here). Reading literature, or having literature read to you as a child is an essential foundation for learning and life.
Literature teaches us about the world
Literature helps us to understand the past, the present and contemplate the future
Literature teaches us how narrative works
Literature helps us to learn about ourselves and deal with the issues of life
Literature helps us to understand how language works
Literature expands our world and expands our minds
Literature stimulates the imagination and creativity
I've written previously about the importance of picture books, and eventually, the need for children to move on to chapter books. But don't be in too big of a hurry to do this (read my post on this HERE). When you do start to encourage children to start reading chapter books, parents and teachers will read them to the children. Later you will share the reading with them and eventually the child will take over completely. In practical terms, chapter books offer children:
  • More complex narrative forms and plot development
  • Richer and more complex language
  • New areas of knowledge about their world and the human condition
  • Different literary devices
  • They train your children to be able to sustain longer periods of reading
As well as the above, chapter books will enable you to build an even richer shared literary history with your children. Shared books will become part of your shared knowledge and experience within the family or the classroom, and more broadly, they will help to connect your children to a literary culture that others will share with them.

In this post I wanted to share a dozen great books for sharing with boys. There is great benefit in fathers sharing these books with their sons, but they can also be experienced with mothers, grandparents and teachers. These are not meant to be the 12 first chapter books but rather books that I know will work with boys at different ages. I have other posts about boys (here) and fathers (here) on this blog. 

Great Books for Boys

1. 'Boy: Tales of Childhood' by Roald Dahl (1984)

This is one of my favourite Roald Dahl books. It is a collection of stories from his childhood that draw forth all of the emotions. Some of the short stories are hilariously funny and offer an illuminating insight into the childhood that shaped this wonderful writer. The tales include the Great Mouse Plot that brings undone the dastardly Mrs Pratchett who owns the local lolly shop. But there are also the recollections of a wonderful day in Norway, a visit to a doctor for a 'surprise' tonsillectomy in the days before anaesthetic.
"It won't take two seconds", the doctor said. He spoke gently, and I was seduced  by his voice. Like an ass, I opened my mouth. The tiny blade flashed in the bright light and disappeared into my mouth....
Any boy will love these stories that all keep you turning the page. Suitable for boys aged 7-12 years. 

2. 'Prince Caspian' by C.S. Lewis (1951)

'Prince Caspian' is the 4th book in the 'The Chronicles of Narnia'. While you could read virtually all of the Narnia books to most boys, this one has special appeal. The Pevensie children are back in the land of Narnia but something is wrong. The glorious castle is in ruins and everywhere they look it is silent and empty. A Dwarf arrives and they learn of the fate of Narnia. Civil war is destroying the land under his father King Miraz. Brave Prince Caspian with the guidance of Aslan takes up the challenge to save Narnia and restore freedom and happiness.  Boys aged 8-12 will love this book (and others in the Narnia Chronicles).  

3. 'The Hobbit' by J.R. Tolkien (1937)

The Hobbit is a fantasy published to wide acclaim in 1937. The full (but rarely used) title is 'The Hobbit, or There and Back Again'. It is set in a time "between the Dawn of Faerie and the Dominion of Men". A company of dwarves set out on a quest to gain gold that is guarded by a dragon. Bilbo Baggins, an unambitious Hobbit, is a reluctant partner who shows great resourcefulness along the way as giant spiders and evil goblins are encountered. Bilbo's episodic journey covers many territories as each chapter introduces specific creatures of Tolkien's Wilderland. The book led Tolkien to write 'The Lord of the Rings' as a sequel but this became an even more ambitious project.

It was published on 21 September 1937 to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction. This is more demanding but bright boys aged 8-12 will love this book, of course younger boys will generally need you to read it with them.

4. 'Rowan of Rin' by Emily Rodda (1993)

This was the first book in a series of five books that boys aged 7-12 just love.

To the villagers of Rin the boy Rowan is a timid weakling, the most disappointing child ever. Yet, incredibly, it is his help they need when the stream that flows from the top of the Mountain dries up. Without its water, their precious bukshah herd will die, and Rin will be doomed.

The six strongest villagers must brave the unknown terrors of the Mountain to discover the answer to the riddle. And Rowan, the unwanted seventh member of the group, must go with them. The witch Sheba's prophecy is like a riddle, a riddle Rowan must solve if he is to find out the secret of the Mountain and save his home.

Each book is a complete story with a classic quest storyline that has a series of riddling mysteries to be solved by the unlikely hero Rowan.

5. 'Merryl of the Stones' by Brian Caswell (1989)

This is a story of time travel and magic that begins in Sydney with Megan Ellison the only survivor of a car crash that takes the lives of her parents. She wakes to dreams and memories that haunt her and seem to be fragments of a previous life. When she recovers she returns to her native Wales and the home of relatives. She feels strange and alone until she meets Em a bright and rebellious boy with nightmares of his own. Together, they discover Megan's true heritage, a secret gift and a duty to right an ancient wrong with an adventure that spans two millennia. This is a fantasy that boys (as well as girls) aged 9-14 will love.

6. 'The Machine Gunners' by Robert Westall (1975)

Chas McGill has the second-best collection of war souvenirs in Garmouth (near Newcastle-on-Tyne in England), but he wants to have the best. As World War II is waged all around them a group of boys build special collections of the fragments of war. His chance comes to achieve his goal when a German plane crashes near his home. A dead German, a broken plane and a fully loaded machine gun; but how would he remove it and add it to his collection? As well, how will he hide it from the Home Guard who find it has disappeared from the plane? 

This has to be one of the best books for boys that I've ever read. Not surprisingly it won the highest British honour for children's literature, the Carnegie Medal in 1975. This is a wonderful tale of adventure that will stir any boy aged 8-14.

7. 'Strange Objects' by Gary Crewe (1990)

This story was inspired by the horrific true story of the Batavia. The ship hit Houtman’s Abrolhos Rocks off the West Australian coast on the 4th June 1629. Most of the 260 passengers and crew survived the wreck and landed safely on the barren islands nearby. The captain left the passengers and most of the crew and headed for Java in an open boat to get help. He successfully returned 14 weeks later only to find that 120 men, women and children had been brutally murdered by members of the crew and the passengers. The Captain tried the men, and supervised the hanging of 7 after first cutting off their right hands. He showed mercy to two additional young men found guilty but who were seen as minor 'players', one a 17 year-old boy Jan Pelgrom and the other a soldier, Wouter Loos. The boys were marooned with a small amount of water, food and supplies and left to fend for themselves.

Crew's story based on these true events commences in 1986 with a teenager Steven Messenger living with his family in a roadside truck stop in the middle of nowhere along the highway that weaves its way up the western coast of Australia. Messenger discovers some gruesome relics in a cave while on a school excursion and his life changes. This begins a mysterious tale where his life is interwoven with the lives of two of the survivors of the Batavia responsible with others for the murder of the 120 people. Like many works of historical fiction, Crew uses the metaphysical encounters of one of his characters to transport us back to another time. A ring found attached to a severed hand provides a vehicle for regular time slips between his life in 1986 and the events that unfolded when Wouter Loos and Jan Pelgrom were set adrift in a small boat that gave then an outside chance of survival. I have written a post on this book that provides the historical background to the story (here).

The book was winner of the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for Older Readers, 1991 and will be well received by boys 10-14 years.

8. 'The Pinballs' by Betsy Byars (1977)

This is a contemporary story of three foster children Harvey, Carlie and Thomas J. who are moved constantly from one home to another. When they come together in yet another new home, one of trio, Carlie a girl hardened by her experiences, suggests that they were just like 'pinballs'.

"Somebody put in a dime, punched a button, and out we came ready or not...and you don't see pinballs helping each other, do you?"

Carlie is closed to the prospect of significant new relationship with a new foster mother and the other foster children. She is difficult, and is always ready for a fight. But Mrs Mason doesn't give in easily and Carlie eventually discovers something special with the other 'strays' that she has found herself with in her new home. This is a funny shorter book that children aged 7-12 will enjoy.

9. 'Watership Down' by Richard Adam (1972)

Watership Down is the fantasy story of a group of rabbits.  The novel takes its name from the rabbits' destination, Watership Down, a hill in the north of Hampshire in England. These anthropomorphised rabbits live in their natural environment with their own language and culture.  The book tells the story of heroic adventures that the rabbits share as they search for a safe place to establish a new warren.  As they journey through woods and across streams, meadows and cornfields, they overcome many obstacles including their own fears before they reach Watership Down. But all is not well, something important is missing.  How can a warren survive without female rabbits? Something must be done.
This will be enjoyed by bright boys aged 8-12.

Winner of the Carnegie Medal in 1973.

10. 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' by Mark Twain (1876)

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the story of boyhood adventures growing up in a small town along the Mississippi River. The story is set in the town of "St Petersburg" and inspired by the town of Hannibal (Missouri) where Mark Twain grew up. In the introduction to the story Twain notes that:

"Most of the adventures recorded in this book really occurred; one or two were experiences of my own, the rest of those boys were schoolmates of mine. Huck Finn is drawn from life; Tom Sawyer also, but not from an individual—he is a combination of the characteristics of three boys whom I knew, and therefore belongs to the composite order of architecture."

Tom is the original boy hero, demonstrating bravado, bad behaviour and boyhood exuberance. Whether he is running away to become a pirate with Huck Fin or being a witness to a murder, adventure (and some troubles) are always close at hand. 

Boys aged 7-12 will love this book. The Walker Books edition illustrated by Robert Ingpen would be a wonderful way for any boy to discover this timeless story. See my review of Ingpen's work HERE.

11. 'A Wrinkle in Time' by Madeleine L'Engle (1962)

Charles Wallace Murry goes searching through a 'wrinkle in time' for his lost father, and finds himself on an evil planet where a huge pulsating brain known as IT enslaves all life.  The story tells of how Charles, his sister Meg and his friend Calvin find and rescue his father. All the while they are accompanied by a trio of guardian angels - Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. This is an exciting science fiction fantasy thriller.  This is a story that will be enjoyed by boys aged 8-14 years.

Winner of the Newbery Medal 1963. 

12. 'The Wheel on the School' by Meindert DeJong (1972)

This is the story of life in a Dutch village and the relationship between people and the natural world. Lina Sendak is one of six school children in the small fishing village of Shora. She writes an essay at school and asks why there are no storks in their village when other places are famous for nesting storks on buildings. The teacher in their small school encourages them to find out. They discover that the roofs on the village's homes are pitched so steeply that the storks cannot find space to nest on the sharp ridges. The solution is to place a wagon wheel on each roof ridge giving storks a place to nest. The task of finding a wagon wheel in the tiny village proves difficult, and the children meet several interesting personalities during their search. This simple, yet compelling story teaches that if people think and ask why, that they might just solve their problems.

This book won the 1955 Newbery Medal and is suitable for boys aged 7-12 years.

Some related links

Getting Younger Readers into Chapter Books (here)
The importance of literature (here)
How to listen to your child reading (here)
Supporting comprehension (here)
Helping children to choose books (here)
The benefits of repeated reading of literature (here)


Patrick Chan said...

Wow, this is a great list which brings back such fond memories (I've only read a few of these books but loved each of them: i.e., CSL, Tolkien, Adams, Twain, and L'Engle). Thanks for posting it, Trevor! :-)

By the way, do you have any thoughts on non-fiction books like The Dangerous Book for Boys (which kinda reminds me of what Roger Ebert says here)?

Thanks again for your helpful posts. :-)

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Patrick,

Nice to hear from you. Yes, I know the book well. In fact I've written posts on the 'Dangerous Book for Boys' and also one on the 'Daring Book for Girls'. Cheers, Trevor

Bonnie Zimmerman said...

I enjoyed reading about some books boys may enjoy reading. As a new teacher, I was wondering how you approached the subject of boys reading about guns, war, violence, etc. I know many boys are interested in this topics, but I also know adults who don't. Thank you.

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Bonnie,

Thanks for your comment. I have no problem with boys reading about war and even books that have some violence in them. But all parents and teachers should make sure that they know about any such books before giving them to children.

Some of my favourite books for children aged 10-14 have themes that deal with war (e.g. Robert Westall's 'Machine Gunners'). Rarely is the violence explicit in such books. I wouldn't give children books with too much explicit violence in it too early.

Having said this many Fairy Tales are full of violence but children can deal with this as part of fantasy. There is a difference between this type of violence and that included in the realistic narratives of some teenage books.

War and the consequences of war are part of life so kids need to be slowly introduced to the reality of what it is.

One of the greatest challenges for parents and teachers is that much violence can be met through film and gaming. In the case of the latter, they can be very violent and yet often access to it is uncontrolled. You could of course make the comment that gaming is gaming not reality too, but there are conflicting arguments about this.

Sorry not to give you a definitive response. Hope it helps.


jojozep said...

For the last couple of years my year 5 class have been reading "Hatchet". The response has been extraordinary: bell for recess rings, the kids don't want to leave the classroom.