I spent two summers facilitating boys book clubs and some of the winter in between. Book clubs are a great way to encourage boys to read and a great way for boys who do read to make new friends. I would have loved to have had that kind of opportunity in fifth or sixth grade.
However, not all good books are good book club books… at least not for this facilitator. A book could be a fun read but prove tough going when you talk about it, and an unpopular book can lead to a great discussion, when kids get excited to tell you what they didn’t like about it. I won’t include any of those on this list, but I will include a short list of the selections I felt were a hit with the boys and generated great discussion. Incidentally, Guys Read groups don’t have to be about novels — many boys like to read magazines and non fiction — but mine were.
This series of anecdotes is just a blip on Paulsen’s amazing career, but is a bona fide book club hit with middle-grade boys. Why? Because the book is about stunts, dares, and misadventures. Boys can’t wait to share their own. This makes it a perfect first book to discuss with a new group. There’s no better ice breaker than, “what’s something stupid you did that nearly got you killed but if you had to do it over again, you would anyway?” On top of that, there are youtube videos of people wrestling bears and using makeshift parachutes that are a fun way to finish the session… if you can get the boys to stop talking about their skateboarding mishaps to watch.
Bud’s sense of humor makes a grim story set in the Great Depression fun to read and fun to talk about. The surprise came when the boys talked about the back pages, where the author describes the real-life inspirations behind the story, including photographs. I thought kids would be bored by the story-behind-the-story material, but it was their favorite part. They liked knowing how Curtis came to write the story, and the fact that the characters were based on real people made it more important to them. Lesson learned. A book club facilitator can often search out and find similar source material for other historical novels.
This is a real winner with boys and an easy book to talk about — I started by generating lists of all the stunts and tall tales that are in the book (frog baseball, anyone?). Kids have fun trying to remember them, and then marvel at the list when it’s done. My book club was a diverse group in Crystal, Minnesota, so the boys were confused by the theme about segregation and disinclined to talk about it. It just didn’t feel relevant or real to them. I took that as a good thing. They were still able to connect emotionally to “Maniac’s” search for a family and loved the book’s humor.
Circque Du Freak, by Darren Shan
I had a “book group” that met during the school year, and only one kid was a regular attendee. He was a big fan of science fiction and fantasy, so that’s all we read: Rick Riordian, James Patterson, Chris Paolini, and Darren Shan. I dreaded this one because I am as sick of vampires as anyone, but actually quite liked it. It’s an interesting book club selection because the story is written as if it is all true; the main character is named Darren Shan and the writer’s name is Darren Shan. I never expected to be talking narratology in a boy’s book club, but this one opens the door — we talked about how Shan’s technique and confessional tone quickly built an alliance with the reader, and give a far out story a feeling of immediacy and verisimilitude. I don’t know if the kid learned anything, but I did.
This one hits the trifecta for things boys like to talk about — their pets, their experiences with bullies, and their favorite sports that usually nobody writes about. We also had a good discussion about a questionable decision made by the protagonist — and one which I think was a huge mistake even though things turned out OK. It’s an easy framing of an important moral question: do the ends justify the means? I think Sneed must have had book clubs in mind when he wrote this one.
A great way to start a discussion about a book is to list all the ways the main character nearly got killed, and this book has enough to sustain the discussion. It’s about a Mexican teenager’s attempts to enter the U.S. so he can work. The kids responded well, and analyzed each situation and the decisions the hero had to make. It was a very provocative discussion, especially since a couple of kids in the group have family members in Mexico. One understood the sentiments in the book but also wanted to tell the other kids that Mexico isn’t as bad as the book made it sound, which I thought was a fair critique. He still liked the book.
It’s great to talk about a book that begins in your own neighborhood. Vaguely described as the western suburbs of Minneapolis, the kids could pretend it was their own home town. Like Under the Wire, this is a survival story, and it’s easy to talk about the dangers that a hero comes across and how he or she overcomes them. Also like Under the Wire, this has political subtext, but it’s trickier to unpack. It’s about an apocalyptic scenario and a family’s attempt to survive by fleeing to the Minnesota wilderness. We were able to talk about camping and the end of the world all in one book club session.
Kurtis Scaletta is the author of the middle-grade novels Mudville and Mamba Point, both published by Knopf Books for Young Readers. He offers free virtual visits to kids book clubs — see http://www.kurtisscaletta.com/visits for more information.