As a boy, one of my favorite times in school was when we’d get a new Scholastic News book “catalog.” I would pour over the pages picking out which books I wanted and filling out the order sheet. And as soon I got them, I was lying under the covers with my nose buried in a book.
Unfortunately, not all boys have that kind of enthusiasm for reading. For several decades now, boys have scored lower on reading assessment tests than girls. Boys also take longer to learn to read than girls, are less likely to actually read and to value reading, and are more likely to label themselves as “non-readers” (up to 50% of high school age boys consider themselves as such). Non-reading boys do poorer academically and end up as non-reading men (women read almost twice as many books as men).
What’s the problem? Some of it may be biological (boys’ language skills develop slower that girls). But a lot of it is sociological. Boys may see reading as a passive and thus sissy activity. Boys also lack male reading mentors-their librarians and teachers are often female, and it’s mom that reads to them. And in the name of gender-neutrality, teachers are foisting books on boys that they simply do not like.
But parents are to blame too, often trying to make their sons read “important books” to build their character. Dad loved some long tome as a boy and wants junior to come to an equal apprectation of it.
But reading experts all agree that boys need to be allowed to pick the books that really interest them. Of course it’s okay to make suggestions to your son about things he might like-boys very much value the opinion of other boys and men in making their reading selections. So here are 50 books that many boys and young men will really love. We’ve included some classics, but we also threw in some more modern and accessible choices-after all, not every boy has the desire or the aptitude to dive into Dickens.
Finally, while we had boys about the ages of 9-15 in mind when we made this list, I’ve always considered the distinction between adult and young adult literature to be an unfortunate and artificial one. Putting together this list I remembered just how good these books are, and I can’t wait to read them again as a man. Whether you’re 12 or 52, grab one of these books and a bag of cookies and head out to the treehouse.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Pretty much every boy’s favorite book. When the pilot of the small plane of which he is a passenger crash lands in the Canadian wilderness, 13 year old Brian Robeson must survive with only his wits and a hatchet. Utterly alone, Brian must learn to rely on himself. Gripping and vividly told, every boy pictures himself in Brian’s shoes and wonders whether he would have what it takes to survive.
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Set at a boys prep school on the eve of World War II, A Separate Peace centers on the friendship of Phineas and Gene. Phineas’ seeming perfection creates a jealously in Gene that results in a tragedy that will forever change both of their lives. A piercing look at both the light and the shadows of friendship and humanity. Every boy wishes he were Finny but knows he’s more like Gene. This book has stuck with me ever since reading it as a young man and remains one of my favorite until to this day.
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Take Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, replace the jungle with a graveyard and the animals with ghosts and you’ve got Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. The book begins with the mention of the murder of a family, but quickly moves on from there and is not a gruesome tale inappropriate for youngsters. The sole survivor of the murder is an 18 month old baby, who toddles away to a graveyard. Here the cemetery’s ghosts and ghouls adopt the boy, give him a name (“Nobody” as he’s like nobody else in the graveyard), protect him from the still on the loose killer, and teach him the life lessons that only the dead can know. It’s takes a graveyard to raise a child, and the cemetery is a great home, but eventually Bod, as they call him, must deal with the world outside of its borders. Spooky, magical, and engrossing, it’s a must for all boys who like ghost stories (so pretty much all boys). Be sure to check out Gaiman’s other great books like Neverwhere and Anasi Boys.
The American Boy’s Handy Book by Daniel C. Beard
Long before The Dangerous Book for Boys became all the rage , there was the American Boy’s Handy Book. Every father and grandfather should have this on his shelf, waiting there for a boy to pull it off and start leafing through. Dozens of awesome (and unlike another book, some actually dangerous) hands on projects for boys to tackle from how to build kites and forts to how to rear wild birds and trap animals. Originally published in 1882 and still a must for every boy today.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The story of a boy who’s boring life is interrupted by the appearance of something strange and unusual that transports him to a magical place. It’s a premise that underlies a myriad of children’s books, but few are as creatively constructed as The Phantom Tollbooth. Young Milo finds a tollbooth in his room, gets in his toy car and drives into another dimension. Boys will love the strange adventures Milo experiences, while older kids and adults can enjoy the witty satire and clever puns.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
One of the great American novels. Young Huck Finn escapes from his abusive father by taking off on a raft down the Mississippi River. He is joined by Jim, an escaped slave. The two set off on a grand adventure full of close calls and interesting characters. With both wit, action, and fun, coupled with an undercurrent of serious themes, Huck Finn is a multi-layered masterpiece for young and old.
The Last Mission by Harry Mazer
The classic tale of the collision of a boy’s idealistic view of war with it’s ugly reality. Yet the book manages to avoid being a tired cliche. 15 year old Jack Raab lies his way into the Army Air Force and finds himself flying bombing missions over occupied territory. On his 25th mission, his last mission before being sent home, his plane is shot down, and he is taken prisoner in a German POW camp. A fictional story and an easy read, but historically accurate and realistic in its details. Be sure to check out other books by Harry Mazer; his A Boy at War series is a painless way to teach boys some history.
If you have a son in Scouts, he’ll definitely dig this book. Today’s Scout manual is definitely watered down compared to the first edition. The first edition manual is crammed with info on tracking and trapping animals, building shelters from scratch, and sailing. Additionally, it has stories of bravery and adventure that inspire boys to be great men. Something today’s manual is sorely lacking.
Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
Known as a war book, The Red Badge of Courage is really a coming of age story set on the battlefield. Young Henry Fleming leaves his mother to fight for the Union Army. His question of whether or not he’ll have the courage to stand and fight is answered in the negative when he flees from his first skirmish. Fleming resolves to redeem himself during the next battle. A story not only of the tragedy of war, but the struggle to replace pride, weakness, and rationalization with bravery and personal honesty.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
One of my favorite books as a boy-who knew the lives of rabbits could be so engrossing? I’m sure it’s rife with rich symbolism and whatnot to mull over, but it’s one of those books that creates a world so rich and evocative that it’s best to let yourself get totally wrapped up in it instead of constantly searching for deeper meaning. When a prophetic rabbit correctly foretells that their warren will be destroyed, a band of rabbits travel in search of a new home and encounter dangerous and interesting obstacles along the way. Some authors can’t make human characters as interesting as these rabbits.