Boy Book of the Month





Boy reading
For your reading pleasure...

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(How many 'book recommendation' sites can say that?)


July Boy Book of the Month
Switch
By A.S. King 
COMING SOON.

A. S. King has done it again! The master of writing books for young adults (and those a tad younger than young adults) continues to write books that are increasingly more difficult to explain, and yet that much more difficult to put down. Start with the minimalist cover of a house turning itself upside down, gradually, and you have a sense of... well, most A.S. King YA books, but this one in particular.
You see, it starts during this weird era in America where time has somehow kind of stopped. It's not the COVID-19 Pandemic era, per se, but of course it is. If there's anyone who can make sense of a time period that most of us haven't even begun to consider how to make sense of, it's King.  And she does it so well that it's both desperately intimate to us and stunningly unfamiliar at the same time. (Notice the cover: it looks very familiar, doesn't it? But both instances of the letter I are in italic, aren't they?) I know it might not be sexy to say, but this is a book so much about setting, rather than plot. Oh, and of course, what all the best writers do best (really, all of them): character.
Here, the character we fall in love with (and are sometimes frustrated by) is teen protagonist
Oops, I've already started giving it away.  Stay tuned for more...

June Boy Book of the Month
Learning About Shorebirds (Dover Little Activity Books)
By Sy Barlowe 
First of all, I'm not saying these are the best books ever written (or that this is the only one worth choosing). What I am saying is that parents and other big people often make the mistake of believing little kids need stories (and then, reverse that trend by requiring older ones to read nonfiction). In fact, little kids (6-10 for this series, I'd say) learn a lot about the world around them and engage their imagination when they "read" activity books (yes, there are stickers here, and don't roll your eyes). So go out there and find any of these (usually cheap, compared with the revered $18 picturebooks) activity books on a subject that the young person at your hip shows any interest in. Then pay attention and discover how many minutes that person spends on an individual page, searching for the shark among the fish, identifying the puffin among the penguins, or any number of things that these highly underrated books provide for kids. 

May Boy Book of the Month
The Theory of Everything
By Steven W. Hawking 
Okay, yes, I chose this one because I wanted to have two months in a row with the same book title, but that doesn't mean it's not worthy.  And yes, this is in no way a book for children.  But I'm also tired of the assumption that just because Young Adult literature exists as a genre, this means teenagers couldn't or shouldn't read books that are for everyone.  I personally know many young men (and women) who are absolutely enamored with the sciences, and are more qualified to engage with the deepest considerations of scientific theory than most adults are.  (Quick, parents, when was the last time you discussed cell structures, or did calculus?)

That being said, Hawking's writing, I have found, is some of the most lucid about some of the more profound questions of existence, and his The Theory of Everything is one of his finest works.  Is the reader going to understand all of it? No. (I didn't.) But it doesn't make for an unworthy reading experience.  Reading of any sort is supposed to light a flame of interest in readers (or stoke the fire, if it has already been lit).  This book will do that. (For the record, I would also suggest this one over his more popular, but more dense, A Brief History of Time. (And for younger kids, the work he did with his daughter Lucy in books like George's Secret Key to the Universe, is also worth a look.)

April Boy Book of the Month
The Theory of Everything
By J. J. Johnson 
Firmly entrenched in the category of young-young-adult literature (perfect for high school freshmen), J. J. Johnson’s The Theory of Everything tells you a lot about itself from the graphics on the back cover, dedication and first chapter. It screams 2012 YA in the way that people who loved the genre at its most recognizable (some might say best). It has loss and redemption, in the extremes, and reads satisfyingly from beginning to end. Those who don’t like their literature to solve its problems in one novel will object to the lesson-learning, but there is something to be said for that motif, for it did, after all, define the YA genre in its…let’s call it 21st century heyday.
Fifteen-year-old Sarah’s best friend died last year, and she is struggling to deal with the guilt. That pain, and its aftermath, has led to her putting up emotional walls between herself and the people around her…to the extent that her sarcasm has pushed away all the people who care about her. In the Romantic YA tradition, another accident occurs that sets in motion Sarah’s path to redemption, or at least emotional health. You will know if this is a book for you within a few pages, but either way it is written by someone who has mastered the genre.

 


March Boy Book of the Month
Ashes
By Christopher de Vinck 
 
World War II literature quietly has had a foothold on the imagination of today's middle-grade and young-adult readers, and for good reason: there are many stories from that period, most of which either don't get told because American history classes for young people don't often even reach that time period, or because history class in high school has always been a mile wide and an inch thick.
That being said, writers like Brian Falkner (The Program), Elizabeth Wein (Code Name Verity), and Philip Hoose (The Churchill Club) in the past decade have provided engaging, exciting, informative stories that have captured young readers’ imaginations. Christopher de Vinck’s Ashes, a slow-burn paean to friendship, strips away the layers of prejudice to tell one of those important (and overlooked) stories based on true history. It also falls right in line with Wein’s and Hoose’s work. Anyone remotely interested in this time period will find the narrative of Simone (daughter of a Belgian nationalist) and her Jewish best friend Hava. 
The story begins in 1940, when Belgium is invaded by Nazi Germany, and their families flee Brussels. The true-life events that de Vinck painstakingly provides as backdrop for the tests of the girls’ friendship are as realistic as any I’ve read, and as a result they make the relationships between the girls that much more credible, as well. In short, readers will like and care very deeply about Simone and Hava, and root for them in the face of their struggle to survive in a world that is tearing people apart. Maybe somewhere along the way, they will also learn a few very important lessons about how the personal mustdefeat the political if humanity is to survive.
Spoiler alert:
This is a powerful novel for appropriate high-schoolers only, for it does not sugar-coat reality.

                  


February Boy Book of the Month
Bye-Bye, Blue Creek
By Andrew Smith 
 
Sam Abernathy is probably my favorite voice in middle-grade literature today. The kid can talk about anything and make me fall in love with him. He's gentle and smart, sensitive and real, funny and heartbreaking, all at the same time. I'm not sure anyone can not fall in love with him.
This is the third time we're seeing him in Andrew Smith's work, the second time he's telling a story, and, for someone who doesn't generally like sequels, I hope I hear more of him. He first surfaced in Stand-Off as a foil to Ryan Dean West (stick with me on this) in the sequel to the tour-de-force YA novel, Winger. Smith fell in love with him while writing that book, so gave him his own novel, a middle-grade prequel of sorts, called The Size of the Truth. There, Sam learned the archetypal lesson of "Don't judge a book by its cover," as his and the towering James Jenkins's worlds collided. It was a remarkably fresh take on a common motif, primarily because of Sam's and James' likeability.
In this sequel to The Size of the Truth, Sam returns with a new set of preconceptions about his friends, and most particularly, the classic haunted house motif. What really goes on in the Purdy House, is the classic kids' romantic notion here, and, again, while this is nothing new, a) what IS really new about literature, and b) the best fiction is all about characters. Smith's characters are laugh-out-loud funny, and sometimes just read-out-loud-to-your-friends perfect. (Smith also loves hyphenated phrases and footnotes, so that's all good, too.) He is a friend to his young readers, and he writes like he's sharing his inside jokes (like his dislike for the Houston Astros, for example).  He gets that from being a teacher, and it shines in his work. He might not be administration's favorite teacher, but he is his students' favorite teacher.  He may not be a teacher or librarian's favorite writer (though he is to many of them!), but he is his readers' favorite writer, because he is writing for them, and remembers what it's like to get lost in your worries, to have a constant running dialogue in your head about that haunted house, your best friend, the girl next door who you suddenly find yourself thinking about a little longer (and continually deny having feelings for). 
I never like paraphrasing Smith's stories, usually because they avoid paraphrasing, but in his middle-grade work because they exceed what the storyline provides. In short, Sam is in the final weeks of summer before high school (and who among us can forget the angst of the end of summer, especially the end of summer before high school). There is time for one more adventure in his middle-school life forever, and best friend Karim and Bahar (the classic triad of friends!) try to take the sting away from the sense of endings as they try to discover the mysteries of the Purdy House and the Monster People that move in. Karim is delightfully hypersensitive and a drama-king, Bahar is that voice of reason that completes the three-way friendship (and makes it easy to see how Sam can have a crush on her). When she babysits Boris, the Monster People's possibly cannibalistic child, they all find entry into the world of myth and mysticism. But my favorite part happens to be Sam's love of cooking (I'm a sucker for boys who love food), his cardamom-rosewater pancake recipe (delicious; I've tried it),and the ongoing saga of the Princess Snugglewarm pajamas (no, I'm not telling). 
Smith leaves Sam right up against his entry to Pine Mountain Academy, where he will meet Ryan Dean, and it's exciting to think how Smith might bridge the gap between middle-grade and YA (generally, middle-grade doesn't feature high school protagonists, but Sam is younger than your average high-school freshman), and how he might marry Ryan Dean's story from Stand-Off to Sam's own freshman-year experience. It's likely to be heartbreaking, because it was hard not to feel for Sam even when Ryan Dean was regularly overlooking and undervaluing him the first time around.

January Boy Book of the Month
Look Both Ways
By Jason Reynolds 

 

Jason Reynolds writes best when he writes about characters: real people with real voices who live in real places. Look Both Ways is another of those books that gets you to fall in love with the characters that you'd swear he was writing about from his own memory.

 

Similar to the way he created the amazing (and, for him, sad) Long Way Down (which takes place over the course of several elevator stops from a fifteen-year-old Will's  apartment down to the street, in which he is possibly going to avenge his brother's murder), this is a collection of stories told over the course of ten blocks. While Long Way Down was told in economical poetry, this is Reynolds' best voice... kids speaking extemporaneously about this, that, and the other thing over the course of their walk home from school one day.

 

I want to say it's powerful fiction (because it is), but that would turn people off to what it really is.  What it really is is the voice of everyboy and everygirl.  It's the conversations we have with best friends and frenemies, about the problems that confront each of us, large and small. It's about the interests we have, important and fleeting. It's funny and it's heartbreaking.  And somehow the ten blocks worth of stories all come together in the end. Why, because Jason Reynolds is that good a writer. He writes with love, and that's what connects all these stories. Without writing down or oversimplifying, Jason loves his characters enough to make them complex and challenged, who speak the way kids speak, about the things kids speak (boogers, anyone?), and he redeems middle-grade literature with a handful of other writers who recognize children's literature doesn't mean, "Let me, an adult, preach to you about what you should think and feel, in order to be indoctrinated into society in a way that we will accept you."

 

Instead, like all his work, Look Both Ways, is a story for boys and girls first and foremost, done in the most legitimate voicing that makes the reader say, "Why can't all writers be like this?" Truth is, it takes a special talent, a real sensitivity, and love of one's readers, to accomplish what looks so freakin' easy!  Jason Reynolds is that writer.


December Boy Book of the Month
Long Story Short
By Lisa Brown 

 

Don't discount the value of simple books, or graphic ones. Can you think of something that's a more simple, attractive way of getting young people to at least be introduced to some classic works of literature than providing them with three-panel drawings of them?  I can't. It's a genius idea.

 

Will readers get the whole story of Moby Dick from the cover that you see here? No. Of course not. But there's humor in each of these cartoons, and that's enough to get any reader to at least have a foothold into the classic pieces of literature that we, rightly or wrongly, believe everyone must know. (Hint: some still have value, some don't).  That being said, I was the kind of kid who would have loved Lisa Brown's book, memorized a number of pages and thought to myself, "Hmm, one day I might read the book that this cartoon is about; it looks funny/exciting/scary."

 

This book should be in any home where there's a hope that good stories can find a way into the minds and hearts of young readers. I can't recommend it more highly.


November Boy Book of the Month
The Octopuppy
By Martin McKenna 
 
I'm a big fan of the unusual, the imaginative, the uncanny, especially in picture books. There are enough instances in a (very) young person's life where they will be indoctrinated into the "you musts" and "you shoulds" and "this is the way things are" in life. Allowing children to expand their imagination in sometimes-surreal ways is exactly what they need to see life as an ever-expansive, everything-is-possible place with a multitude of experiences.  The Octopuppy is my favorite picture book in this respect since Billy's Bucket. (You can look that one up on these pages, too.)
Sweet and silly, laugh-out-loud funny and sure to get lots of "read it to me agains," Martin McKenna's The Octopuppy is one of those books where the cover tells you just about everything you and your toddler needs to know. Jarvis the Octopus is young Edgar's pet.  Sure, he wanted a dog, but in the best tradition of the ridiculous, he gets Jarvis instead. Like a real octopus, Jarvis is brilliant and adaptive, and does his best to fill the role of dog in Edgar's life. But in heartbreaking ways, Jarvis remains a not-dog in Edgar's eyes for a lot of the time.
Also in the best tradition of the quirky, it's hard not to fall in love with Jarvis, as McKenna sweetly reinforces the narrative (no spoilers here) that every one has something worth recognizing, loving, and celebrating, not necessarily in that order. 

October Boy Book of the Month
The Book of Odds: From Lightning Strikes to Love at First Sight; The Odds of Everyday Life
By Amram Shapiro, Louis Firth Campbell & Rosalind Wright 
 
For better or for worse, there are a lot of nonfiction books out there with a myriad of information for young (and not-so-young) readers. Also for better or for worse, young readers are often initially influenced (positively and negatively) by the presentation of the information: there's a reason that certain series of nonfiction books (you know, the ones with the crisp white pages and glossy pictures) enjoy such popularity.
Shapiro, Campbell and Wright's The Book of Odds takes a popular topic and presents an abundance of information (there are lots of chances of lots of things happening in the world out there!) in an accessible fashion.  That is, it's easy to pick this book up, open it anywhere, and find yourself in the middle of an interesting concept. 
Not a children's book, per se (there are odds about disease, death, divorce and other bad things that begin with D), the book reminds me of the 20th century Book of Lists that my friends and I as teenagers loved to read and share aloud--yes, including those verboten topics like sex (you have been warned). But because it's treated seriously, even the risqué subjects (honestly, there aren't that many) indoctrinate readers into realities, not fantasies. That being said, do not discount the value of facts, stats and probabilities to adolescent readers--especially boys, who, like it or not, are still being encouraged to focus on realities more than fictions. The Book of Odds is a winner. We could do worse than have our teenagers walking around with books like this in their hands, sharing their latest discoveries with each other, exciting them to find more information about any number of subjects.

September Boy Book of the Month
How to Fight a Bear...and Win
By the Bathroom Readers' Institute 
 
Okay, first of all, the Bathroom Readers' Institute is less an institute than it is a publishing phenomenon. Uncle John's Bathroom Readers have been published for 25 years as books to be left in bathrooms and picked up there for brief reading interludes. How to Fight a Bear builds on the same concept of providing a book chock full of trivial facts, this time dedicated to wilderness activities.

Second of all, please don't discount any book that isn't presented in narrative format (that is, stories, fiction or otherwise).  Reading is reading, and especially for young people, the sooner we learn that a book, any book, contains information that is worthwhile for us, in any way, shape or form (yes, even video game cheat code books), the better.  This is just such a book that can be opened anywhere to see what weird little fact might appeal to us. As a result, it's a very satisfying read.  
In particular, this nonfiction book boasts a myriad facts about living, working, exploring, surviving and thriving in the wilderness.  It also suggests, in its dry wit, that it "might even make you want to avoid anything resembling the wilderness forever." The book is not like those various yellow How to Survive books (which are also recommended). Instead, it focuses on thinking outside the box of traditional survival motifs: like starting a fire using a car battery instead of sticks (it works better) and navigating rough terrain in creative ways.

Summer Boy Books of the Month
Middle-grade and YA High-Low suggestions
Lord of the Fries
by LS Kinnedy
Charlie Thorne and the Last Equation
by Stuart Gibbs 
These two are highly engaging fiction works that should engage readers who don't think of themselves as readers. I especially like fiction that respects readers and treats them intelligently, even when they are reluctant readers. Too many books associate reluctant readers with unintelligent or uninterested readers, and that is often far from the truth.
Caught: Nabbing History's Most Wanted
by Georgia Bragg

Blizzard: Heroism at Sea During the Great Blizzard of 1978
by Michael J Tougias
Two nonfiction books that remind parents (and teachers) that reluctant readers should perhaps be termed "particular readers," because they will be engaged if the story is interesting to them. There's nothing wrong with young readers who aren't interested in the same things as their teachers or parents; we just have to work a little harder to find the things they are interested in, and show them how exciting reading about those things are!

April Boy Book of the Month
Wayside School: Beneath the Cloud of Doom
By Louis Sachar 
 
It's been 25 years—25 years!—since Louis Sachar wrote his last version of the superb, inimitable Wayside School series, so you're all excused if you're not aware of it. That being said, even at that age, the trilogy still stands as intelligent, hilarious, read-out-loud literature for kids of all ages! Yes, it's that good.  But what's better--there's a fourth, and Beneath the Cloud of Doom is as fresh and funny as any of the first three. Mrs. Jewls is still teaching the full cast of surrealistic students on the 30th floor of the accidentally-built-sideways Wayside School, and nothing you expect will come from their adventures. Louis Sachar is a treasure, and the fourth Wayside School installment is a gift for all of us (but don't read it until you've read the others, in order).

But is there a 13th story?

March Boy Book of the Month
Flying Lessons, and Other Stories
By Kwame Alexander, Matt de la Peña, Walter Dean Myers, and Others
 
Some funny stories, some poignant stories, some both at the same time, Flying Lessons is one of those occasional but rare collections from various writers where there are more hits than misses. The truth be told, when you have writers like the above, and Jacqueline Woodson and Grace Lin, and still more, you can trust that these people know how to tell stories.

Yes, this collections was created in the interest of increasing diversity in the literary marketplace for middle grade readers, but that alone does not make it worthwhile. What makes it worthwhile is these are good stories that speak to diverse issues in diverse voices, and in doing so, they are refreshing to just about any reader. It's okay if you don't fall in love with all of these writers; no book with such diversity of themes can claim to do that. But if there is a writer or two or three you do appreciate, the world will expand for you so quickly once you see the myriad of other things that writer has written.  Seek him or her out!

February Boy Book of the Month
Norse Mythology
By Neil Gaiman
 
I wasn't planning on putting mythology books back to back (and, honestly, I'm a fan of mythology, not the biggest fan of mythology), but here you go.

As I said last month, t
he issue with mythology collections is that they are often told by erstwhile scholars who want to "get it right" more than tell stories in the most engaging ways. Neil Gaiman, of course, knows how to tell stories in engaging ways. I, personally, have been looking for Norse myths that would engage me (a reluctant reader), and previous attempts have resulted in a stack of mostly-unread books. (My apologies if there are some good ones I simply haven't had the luck of finding--now that there isn't a legitimate bookstore chain in America--yes, that was a dig). I have recommended a graphic novel version of Norse myths (check out my site's Books for Boys page), but Gaiman's is a book for readers: people who love the sound of words echoing in their heads.
Like Fry's book of Greek myths, Gaiman's Norse Mythology exhibits the simple truth of good storytelling: when done well, stories aren't for children, teens, or adults; they're for everyone.

January Boy Book of the Month
Mythos
By Stephen Fry
 
Classical mythology wouldn't have lasted thousands of years if at their heart weren't good stories. The problem with many collections of myths is that they aren't often told in the engaging fashion that the stories deserve. This is one reason why Rick Riordan's writing has sold dozens of millions of copies; he gets it.
Stephen Fry gets it, too, and his delightful reconsideration of the Greek myths in Mythos exhibits the simple truth of good storytelling: when done well, stories aren't for children, teens, or adults; they're for everyone.

This book is for everyone who can appreciate stories, period, and I heartily recommend it as after-dinner family-time reading. (Those of you who have been following this page through the years know that I believe deeply in such things, and that such rituals become something children of all ages--yes, usually even teenagers--will look forward to). I also suggest getting your hands on the beautiful hardcover version, to exhibit the value of the thoughtfully printed word.
By the way, the visual here is connected to the audio version of the collection. This, too, I highly recommend, for, after all, the stories began as spoken words, and best come to life in that context.

December Boy Book of the Month
How the States Got Their Shapes
By Mark Stein
 
I'm a big fan of the History Channel series, but the six-year-long (and counting) began with Mark Stein's unassuming book. The remarkable thing both do is make complicated ideas easy. On the surface, the book seems to be about--well, the shapes of states. But what it does so lucidly is simplify the complex elements that caused American history--geographic, social, economic, political, infrastructural, and more.

For example, the most basic question: why are the eastern shapes organically shaped (and small), while the western ones geometric? On the one hand, the answer is simple: the colonies, and states East of the Mississippi were formed when water transportation (and access to rivers) was necessary (and not a simple thing to bride). Therefore, rivers made for easy state boundaries. Once transportation accelerated (trains, especially), larger distances could be travelled, rivers were less vital, and states could grow in size. Of course, there's more to this, and Stein's storytelling style makes for memorable experiences.
Readers who like to empower themselves with easy-to-remember but useful foundational knowledge will find themselves delighted by the wisdom they can acquire in this book (and its subsequent sequels). If we truly want our children to understand the world in its complexity, this is just the kind of book to foster that in them.

November Boy Book of the Month
I Am a Story
By Dan Yaccarino
 
Face it. There are a lot of picture books out there. Most of them are actually quite good. But some have just a little more charisma, a touch more joy, a tad more allure, or tell a more universal story.

Dan Yaccarino's I Am a Story does all of the above in his characteristic colorful style. The story begins with people gathered around a fire and proceeds through cave paintings, clay-tablet carvings, up to today's written and oral storytellings. On its own, it's a simple story, but it's an important one that parents and children share every time they open a book (like this one) together.
It's a sure-to-please hit for 21st-century parents, caregivers, and teachers who still believe in storytelling.

October Boy Book of the Month
Car Science: An Under-the-Hood, Behind-the-Dash Look at How Cars Work
By Richard Hammond
 
Published in 2008, this is old enough to be a classic, but even with the latest advancements in automobile technology, it still shines. Hammond tells the background information about cars with enough genuine excitement about the science that anyone with more than a casual interest in cars will be empowered by delving into this book.
Hammond includes a timeline of automobile inventions and advancements; a guide to modern car science; plenty of photos, illustrations and graphics; glances into the future of cars; current eco-tech developments; and all the while teaching the laws of physics to teenagers before they can get the thought in their head that physics is too complicated for the average kid to learn.

September Boy Book of the Month
All Quiet on the Western Front
By Erich Maria Remarque
Graphic Novel Adaptation by Wayne Vansant
 
The classic novel of war, loyalty, and patriotism so powerful and thoughtful that it was banned and burned by the Nazis is retold and reimagined beautifully (if war imagery can be beautiful) by Wayne Vansant. This graphic novel is itself loyal to the original story but adds a remarkable amount of insight and detail, both textually and visually.
All Quiet on the Western Front traces the wartime experiences of Paul Bäumer and his friends, from their patriotic decision to enlist in the army to their realistic awakening to the realities of World War I in the trenches along the Western Front. After years of fighting, the young men grow distanced and disillusioned from their former selves, and the story reminds us that the biggest loss in war is the young people who often never reclaim the lives they sacrifice for the countries they no longer understand.
A gripping story that reminds us of how the graphic novel format is best utilized.

Summer Boy Book of the Month
Dig
By A. S. King
 
There's only one book you need to read this summer, and it's A.S. King's Dig.  One of her finest stories to date, this is also one of King's most intense (which is hard to imagine, coming on the heels of all her other brilliant stories).  

 

Let me be the first to say it: Dig should be on the short list the National Book Award for 2019, and every other book award, as well. (Honestly, I've been writing this review for months, when I would have been the first.) Dig is that good, and that important. Someone has to tell the story of racism from (various) white points of view, and A.S. King is the one person I trust with the task. In Dig, she does so with frankness, honesty, and integrity.

 

That being said, if that was all this genre-expanding YA novel did, it would be merely a fascinating curiosity. Instead, what King does in this as in all her novels, is quickly get the reader enmeshed in quirky but complete worlds populated by quirky but irresistible characters. Sometimes the reader falls in love with them, sometimes the reader suffers with those characters, sometimes the reader is frustrated by them, and sometimes readers even hate them. What King has always done best is create exquisite characters that are more like real people than almost the entire YA genre combined can muster. That’s why her sizable readership is so faithful to her often-challenging narratives. In short, they are not only worth the effort, but they reward the effort.

 

King excels at humanity in all its beauty and ugliness, sensitivity and harshness, gentleness and passion. And Dig has characters galore: 14 of them, in fact, have significant speaking roles here, and 8 or 9 of them can be called narrators. Readers will not so much need to take notes as they read as want to take notes (and hypothesize on a family tree). 

 

Two short chapters into the novel, adolescent characters identified by their roles (The Shoveler carries a shovel, CanIHelpYou? works the Arby's drive-through, The Freak mysteriously appears anywhere throughout the globe) tell their unique stories of growing up in the shadow of white power and privilege, and the misery of being raised by parents with outdated principles. They are all damaged by attitudes passed down by their parents, grandparents, neighbors, and communities. But as King so deftly does, she imbues each of them with a spark of something that not only gives them hope but gets you pulling deeply for them.

 

As Dig proceeds, King weaves the various stories together and entices the reader to predict how each of these lives intersects with each other. From the outset, you understand that many of these people are related, and are almost certainly descendants of the pathologically selfish Marla and Gottfried, each of whom bears ugly personal secrets that have caused damage to their children, who have, in turn, scarred their children. A.S. King is one of the very few YA writers alive who not only acknowledges adults in her novels, but gives them voices, fleshes them out, and makes them integral parts of the lives of the teenaged characters. She alone seems to understand that adolescence is not lived in a vacuum nor is it immune to family and community.

 

In Dig, there are a half dozen adults who suffer from, in no particular order: inherited racist tendencies, abandonment, cancer, physical and mental abuse, poverty, kleptomania, pride, self-aggrandizement, greed, and another dose or two of racism thrown in for good measure. What’s most amazing is how King can do all this and make it all believable. Her gift to readers is an understanding of the psychology of human beings, and all her characters suffer because they are so well limbed. But virtually all of her characters also have a will to be better than they are, as most humans do. As in all her books, King reserves the most hope for her young characters: who are never irretrievably lost. Even the worst of them here (a rapist) has his moment of awakening.

 

In Dig, teen angst and existentialism extend themselves to the more specific issues of:

• A white girl who always must secretly meet her black best friend because her racist mother refuses to allow the latter into her home.

• Same girl who sells (and takes) drugs in order to gain the illusion of independence from a racist mother whose money she refuses to accept.

• A poor boy who has never known his father and has no friends save the white supremacist neighbor-slash-father-figure.

• Same boy who gets a job painting the house of elitist landowners (Martha and Gottfried) who look down upon him because he is a lowly working class boy.

• A poor loner who creates pretend audiences to pay attention to her whenever she rarely leaves the house, and finds her only joy in fleas and masturbation (yes, really).

• Same girl who endures an abusive (definitely physically and emotionally, possibly sexually) father.

• Another loner who travels the planet watching his father gradually dying from cancer.

• Same boy who is hyperaware of his whiteness, and can’t help falling in love with a Jamaican girl who sells bracelets on a Jamaican beach while his dying father tries to find marijuana to ease his suffering.

• Same boy who recognizes his father is too busy dying to be a father.

• Two privileged brothers who leave damage everywhere in their wake.

• And through it all, the delightful and mysterious Freak, who has special powers, can read minds, and is somehow looking out for all the others.

 

I’m not trying to be coy by avoiding the major plot lines here. In many ways, the story arc is subsumed in the individual characters’ struggles and the reader's desire to see the threads weave together. In any case, even if you don’t always like what you’re reading, Digis a novel to be experienced. Be sure to have a pen in hand to ask questions, take notes, and curse and cry in the margins. And be ready to sometimes enjoy, sometimes worry, and sometimes fear the revelations that occur, as you try to keep one step ahead (or behind) each of the characters. You will unravel the mysteries of their own lives along with them. Once again, King gives the reader the most honest reading experience of any YA writer I know. Dig is a brave and heartbreaking undertaking that resists any summary. 

 

Read it. And when you're done, make sure to give it to your mother or father to read next.


June Boy Book of the Month
The Size of the Truth
By Andrew Smith
 
Smith's first foray into middle grade fiction, this is a safe introduction for uninitiated readers to one of the best writers for boys on the planet. It stars Sam Abernathy, who first appeared (stick with me on this) in the YA novel Stand-Off, Smith's surprising sequel to his tour-de-force Winger. In that book, Sam is an underage freshman at Pine Mountain High School. In The Size of the Truth, Sam is an 11-year-old eighth grader, having just been skipped two grades, though he also flashes back to the three days he spent at age 4 when he fell down a well.

Sam traces a lot of his discomfort with fitting into the world to those days, when he inextricably became The Boy in the Well. At 11, he still believes that is what everyone thinks him to be, and he still believes that the frighteningly athletic and mature-looking James Jenkins was both responsible for that event and devoted to making his life miserable in middle school.
Ultimately, this is a book about perceptions: how easy it is to believe something when you are in middle school, and how wrong your perceptions can be. Keeping an open mind, so you can see the world more as it is and less as you believe it to be, is the primary theme. That may be an unexceptional topic for middle-grade readers, but Smith's ability to create realistic dialogue and character voices make it exceptional. This is a read-out-loud book that really comes to life when you hear Sam's words and thoughts in the airwaves.

May Boy Book of the Month
Haroun and the Sea of Stories
By Salman Rushdie
 
Yes, it's an old story, but it's also timeless, and begins with one of my favorite opening paragraphs of all time: the kind you want to read out loud to friends. 
      Rushdie tells the story here of Haroun, a 12-year-old boy whose mother has left his family, primarily because her husband (Haroun's father) is a storyteller. And what good are stories when the world is in such terrible shape, right? Haroun subsequently rejects his father's stories until the world as he knows it starts to unravel.
     Filled with delightful puns and fantastic animal, vegetable, and mineral characters, this is a fantasy of the highest order. When read aloud, it comes to life in a way that classic stories of this ilk always have. Very satisfying for the 10-12-year-old crowd, male and female.

April Boy Book of the Month
They Lost Their Heads!
By Carlyn Beccia
 
All you need to know about this book is in the subtitle: What Happened to Washington's Teeth, Einstein's Brain, and Other Famous Body Parts. If it sounds gross and icky to you, well, it is. You can decide for yourself if that's something you like, or something that's—well, gross and icky.

The black-and-white text and illustrations inside are engaging, and the table of contents is detailed enough to let middle-school-aged readers find exactly the story they want to read and decide which ones they might want to skip for now. It's one of those books that therefore allows kids to read it the way they want to, and just about everyone is bound to find a few stories in here that will pique their interest.

March Boy Book of the Month
Attucks! Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team that Awakened a City
By Phillip Hoose
 
Phillip Hoose is one of the finest living nonfiction writers for kids of all ages (yes, even adults). Here he brings to light a story that should be known by everyone but isn't. Oscar Robertson was a famous NBA player in his day but before that he was one of ten remarkable young men who broke the color barrier in 1950's Indianapolis and became the first all-black team to win a racially open national basketball championship. 
     The remarkable achievement is captured here in Hoose's immensely readable prose, but those who don't care much for basketball (including myself) will find the story irresistible anyway. That's the sign of a great story, compelling people, and a great writer.  All three of those elements are present here. It's one of the few books each year that I can almost unequivocally say to almost everyone, "Read this book!" And when you're done, check out the many suggested items that Hoose includes at the end for further reading, as well!

February Boy Book of the Month
Black Wings Beating
By Alex London
 
In a place known as the Six Villages, a place very much like our world and a place also unlike our world, falcons are the central animal in the lives of a people known as the Uztari. Think of a place for kids who grew up on How to Train Your Dragon, only with falcons instead of dragons. If you consider what such a world would be like, you’d only come half as far—or do half as well—as Alex London has done in Black Wings Beating. He has created a world that in every way seems realistic, from personalities to language. If there is a world where humans regularly look to the sky for companionship, competition and war, it will look, breathe and sound just like the Six Villages. London is that good at world-building. 
London is also that good at creating fantasy allegories that eerily pattern our own 21st century (read his magnificent Proxy), for he presents, as well, the Kartami, an extremist religious gypsy people who threaten to purify the Six Villages. Yes, we're talking genocide here.
But more than that, and more engaging than even the eerie realism, Alex London creates characters that readers care about.
Twins Kylee and Brysen soon find themselves at the conflict’s center. Kylee has a “once-in-a-generation gift” for falconry, yet all she wants is to be free of it forever. All Brysen wants is to be with his boyfriend and trainer, Dymian. By selling birds at market, the twins almost earn enough to pay off their late, abusive father’s gambling debts and fulfill both their hearts’ desires. But lovelorn Brysen gets swept up in Dymian’s debts and agrees to capture the dangerous, elusive ghost eagle in order to save Dymian’s life. Kylee secretly follows. The story, told through multiple third-person perspectives, soon reveals that more than just Dymian’s life rests on the twins’ shoulders. With political intrigue, epic battle sequences, jolts of romance, and strong female and queer characters, there’s a lot to pique readers’ interests here. But it’s the unique worldbuilding and beautifully complex sibling relationship that make this a must-read.
It requires careful reading to keep track of the names of the lands and people, but no more so than the average high fantasy. What you get in return here, however, is a fantasy that reminds you that it is the root of the word fantastic. This is a world from start to finish that feels so believable that you want to take your time reading it, Alex London writes adventure like the masters do. It is adventure rich in nuance, depth and three-dimensional characters. This might not be a book for everyone, but it is a book for anyone who likes fantasy. It is also likely to be the kind of book people will talk about for many years to come as an icon of classic 21st century fantasy storytelling.

January Boy Book of the Month
Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill
By Heather L. Montgomery
 

What kid doesn’t see roadkill on the curbside and not want to take a closer look? Many, you say? Well, those aren’t the people this book is for.

 

For the rest of us, Heather L. Montgomery's—er, fresh take at splattered creatures reveals the—well, the inside story of this—um, track of the animal world. It’s an engaging, enthusiastic, storytelling-style examination that begins with a dead rattlesnake she discovered one day near her home. Unable to resist the snake's, um, charm, she digs right in and dissects it (noting, properly, that she made a few bad decisions in touching, let alone examining, the still-poisonous creature). From there, she reveals how her own curiosity led her to discover more about roadkill, and she takes us on the ride with her.

 

Montgomery is a wildlife researcher who shares her enthusiasm at every turn afterward through the southern half of America. Then she takes her show in the—well, on the road across the globe, inquiring of scientists and roadkill fans of their expertise. In Australia, there are biologists searching for the cure to cancer by examining Tasmanian devil carcasses; elsewhere, a scientist who discovered a previously unknown bird species by examining a solitary wing; and even a restaurant that serves up a tasty corpse du jour.

 

Throughout, Montgomery is unafraid to share that science can be gross, and that researchers need to get their hands, um, dirty, to come to any real discoveries. In that, this is a refreshingly honest narrative.

 

I suppose another iteration of this book would have more charts, graphs and—well, maybe pictures, and that would really make this irresistible, but the writing is so good that it's hard to not want to finish each and every chapter.


December Boy Book of the Month
Black Flowers, White Lies
By Yvonne Ventresca
 
About once a year, I discover a book with a female protagonist that may be primarily for girls, yet is not written with that kind of language/tone that says to boys, “You’re not welcome in our sorority.” (I am sure there are more, but I find about one a year.)
Yvonne Ventresca's riveting Crystal Kite-winning  Pandemic was one of my favorites, and iBlack Flowers, White Lies, Ventresca proves her broad appeal even as she goes deep into character psyche.
 
In this truly well-written psychological thriller, high school senior Ella Benton has to navigate her new relationship with her new stepfather, a brand-new stepbrother Blake, her too-good-to-be-true boyfriend, and—herself. In lesser hands, the story could be boilerplate fiction. But Ventresca is a fine writer, and she has a few tricks up her sleeve to make the story shine:
 
She introduces the supernatural connection early on, by having Ella keep her trips to her long-dead father's gravesite secret from her mother. Ventresca masters the psychological elements; because Ella has been keeping her own secrets, she is susceptible to mistrusting others, including her mother, who may not have told her the truth about her father’s death. Then, there's the supernatural symbol: a handprint mysteriously similar to the one she leaves on her father's headstone suddenly appears on her bathroom mirror. Is that a warning from her father from the grave, a sign that her boyfriend isn’t all he seems to be? Or the work of a handful of other characters masterfully placed in the novel? And what does Ella do once the signs and coincidences become more menacing? Especially when the evidence builds that none of this is really happening, and it just might be Ella having a nervous breakdown that maybe, just maybe, her father had endured, as well?
 
Boys need not be afraid of stories told by girls. In fact, they occasionally should dive into that world on purpose. They'll find stories as engrossing as those written with boys in mind, and female characters who in fact share the same kinds of feelings they do. They also will find insight into girls that they often are not encouraged to even consider. This story is one of the best for all these awakenings. I can think of few writers better than Yvonne Ventresca in which boys can find a mystery that moves as quickly, scares as easily and keeps readers riveted. Black Fkowers, White Lies is enormously rewarding for the reader who tries to unravel the mystery one step ahead of protagonist Ella. 

November Boy Book of the Month

Nevertheless, We Persisted: 48 Voices of Defiance, Strength and Courage

By Multiple Authors

 

The title says it all. If you’re at all interested, get the book and read the stories that interest you most. Then try to resist reading the rest of them. My personal favorite (*right now. I reserve the right to fall in love with others as I reread them): “They didn’t succeed—I Survived” a story by ninety-six-year--old holocaust survivor Fanny Starr. Where others are not quite as strong, there are those, like this one, that make you understand immediately what persistence really means. It gives perspective to those who do not yet understand the word.


October Boy Book of the Month

Rabbit & Robot

by Andrew Smith

 

It may be Andrew Smith's wildest and craziest book yet, but don't let that scare you. It's also more accessible than some of his latest work, which was wild and crazy but also dense.


The novel takes place on board the Tennessee, a spaceship orbiting a war-torn, ruined earth. Addict Cager Messer has been transported here by best friends Billy and Rowan to get him clean, but the weirdness on board here is as bizarre as any drug trip he'll ever have.


In no particular order, Cager confronts: world destruction; haywire Douglas-Adams-esque spaceships; hyperemotional cannibalistic robots; quirky blue shapeshifting aliens; a bisexual French giraffe (my favorite); pessimistic tigers and self-centered apes with Boston accents; horny robotic personal assistants; enough gender fluidity and artificially intelligent life forms to keep one's head delightfully spinning; and the possibility that he, Billy and Rowan are the last humans in existence (well, until computer programmer Meg Hatfield and her best friend come aboard).

 

This is the kind of book you will want to read if you feel like laughing out loud and reading passages out loud in outrageous accents to your friends, who will then also laugh out loud. And when your teachers show concern that you're having too much fun reading, you'll discuss the ending with them, to show that humor and mayhem are the best ways to confront some of the biggest questions of existence: in this case, what does it mean to be human?


The cover, by the way, tells you a lot about what's inside--a creative conglomeration of stuff all over the place! Only Andrew Smith could write this book and keep it together.


September Boy Book of the Month

Long Way Down

by Jason Reynolds

 

I have read and held onto this book for a while now. See, the thing is: it's not for everybody. It's not for someone who hasn't experienced loss, who has never felt anger, who has never been driven by the need for revenge, or who doesn't care to think about consequences. (Is there anybody left?)

 

Long Way Down is a powerful short novel in verse (don't worry, the poetry is not intrusive). When it opens, teenage Will's brother Shawn has been shot and killed. As it turns out, Shawn's death is the latest in a long string of violence that started years and years ago. But Shawn is determined to get revenge. He gets Shawn's gun, leaves his apartment, and takes the elevator downstairs to enact the rules of the street: no crying, no snitching, get payback. What Will is not prepared for during the long trip down is a series of supernatural visits from victims of violence that have affected his life without him knowing any of it. Now, however, he is going to know the truth. Once armed with the truth, will he remain a pawn in an endless game of chess that has no winners, or will he break the pattern and claim life?

 

Long Way Down is certainly Reynolds' most haunting book yet, but still retains the mastery and beauty of storytelling.



Please see the <Books for Boys> link at the left for the complete list of suggestions from the past 20 years of children's/YA writing.