Boy Book of the Month

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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.