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Seven Books I’ve Enjoyed Talking About at Guys Read

Book Lists

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.

How Angel Peterson got his Name, Gary Paulsen

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, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis

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.

Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli

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.

Dog Sense, by Sneed Collard III

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.

Crossing the Wire, by Will Hobbs

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.

Memory Boy, by Will Weaver

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.

32 Comments

32 Comments

  1. sheelachari  •  Jun 14, 2010 @9:19 am

    Terrific list, Kurtis. I like your point about the difference between books that are good for reading and good for book clubs. I’m sure that applies to book clubs in general, and not just boy-centered ones. I’m going to save this list – I’m always looking for books to give to my 10 year old nephew and these sound like good reads, too!

  2. Amie Borst  •  Jun 14, 2010 @9:44 am

    i don’t have boys, but i do have a 10 year old daughter that is all about boyish things (star wars, frogs, adventure stories – you get the picture). she loathes anything girly. so i think these books would be right up her alley! thanks for sharing.

  3. Wendy S  •  Jun 14, 2010 @10:03 am

    Great list! My 10-year-old-son is currently fixed on reading through well-known series books, which is fine, but I like that this list has award-winners as well as other lesser-known but discussion-worthy titles. Summer reading list, here we come!

  4. Laura Marcella  •  Jun 14, 2010 @11:37 am

    Maniac Magee is one of my favorite Middle Grade books! I like the little 4 and 5 year olds on tricycles that call themselves “Heck’s Angels.” So clever!

  5. Yat-Yee  •  Jun 14, 2010 @11:46 am

    Great list! Do you have recommendations for books at the lower end of middle grade? Something along the line of Megan MacDonald’s Stink books, RL LeFevers’ Nathaniel Fludd’s Beastology books, and Alvin Ho?

  6. Kimberley Griffiths Little  •  Jun 14, 2010 @12:39 pm

    Interesting list, Kurtis! Thanks!

  7. Hilary Wagner  •  Jun 14, 2010 @1:00 pm

    Awesome picks, Kurtis! We need more boy books!!!! ;)

    xoxo — Hilary

  8. Melina  •  Jun 14, 2010 @2:22 pm

    What is it with boys? That’s all I have to say.

  9. Karen B. Schwartz  •  Jun 14, 2010 @3:02 pm

    Thanks for this great list. It’s interesting to hear about what works and doesn’t work for discussion in a book club too.

  10. This is a great list and, like Karen, I also enjoyed hearing about what goes over well (or not) in a book club. I’d also be interested in hearing more about how to start, organize, and facilitate your own book club (what you do with your boy groups, not a for-adults-only book club).

  11. Robyn Gioia  •  Jun 14, 2010 @3:30 pm

    This is a great topic. It makes me realize that I need to do more gender groups in reading. Thanks for the insight. And if you have more to add later on, I’d sure like to read it!

  12. Kurtis Scaletta  •  Jun 14, 2010 @3:50 pm

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. I do tend to blog more about books and boys in the months to come, including more about reading groups for boys. Your questions give me good places to start for future posts.

    Melina, yours is the only question I can’t come up with a good answer for!

  13. Jemi Fraser  •  Jun 14, 2010 @5:10 pm

    Wow – thanks so much for this list! I’ve read a few of these aloud with my class. Maniac is always a favourite. I’ve bookmarked this for me to use next year :)

  14. Sneed B. Collard III  •  Jun 14, 2010 @5:54 pm

    Kurtis, thanks so much for the great comments on Dog Sense. I really appreciate your sharing the book, and I’m glad it gave the kids so much to talk about. I’m also glad you gave a nod to nonfiction, which is often preferred to fiction by boys.
    Sneed

  15. Mindy Alyse Weiss  •  Jun 14, 2010 @6:26 pm

    Thanks for this great list, Kurtis. I have two daughters, but often have friends ask me to suggest books for their children, and can’t wait to share your ideas. It’s great to see what works well in your book club–and think it’s wonderful that you offer free virtual visits to kids book clubs.

  16. Donna Gephart  •  Jun 14, 2010 @7:36 pm

    Kurtis,
    Terrific list. Now I have a few more to add to my ever-growing pile of TBR (To Be Read) books.
    All best,
    Donna

  17. June Morgan (chorkie)  •  Jun 14, 2010 @8:03 pm

    Crossing the Wire talks about the boy’s dad and a friend getting killed in South Carolina. I live in the county where this scene actually took place. It was the construction site of a new high school. These guys were hired by the construction company – not the school district. However, unlike the book, the guys were actually boys who were 15 and 16. Hobbs used this event, but changed it for the book. I have used the book in an academic summer camp program along with the actual newspaper articles. It really brought the book to real life.

  18. Joanne Prushing Johnson  •  Jun 14, 2010 @8:50 pm

    Great list, Kurtis. I LOVE Bud, Not Buddy and everything else written by Christopher Paul Curtis. All of my boys (who have varied reading tastes) agree on that one.

  19. Laurie  •  Jun 14, 2010 @11:18 pm

    Thanks, Kurtis. I love boy books, and several of these are new to me. I’m putting Dog Sense on my list to look for at the bookstore tomorrow.

  20. Jennifer Duddy Gill  •  Jun 15, 2010 @9:45 am

    Some of my favorites are on that list as well as some which are new to me. Heading to the library today with new list in hand. Thanks, Kurtis!

  21. Tracy Abell  •  Jun 15, 2010 @11:27 am

    Kurtis, I think it’s very cool you dreaded reading CIRQUE DE FREAK, and then ended up enjoying it. Especially since it triggered a whole new kind of discussion in your group. I think my elder son read it and liked it, too. Both sons have read and loved BUD, NOT BUDDY and MANIAC MAGEE multiple times. Great list!

  22. Tami  •  Jun 15, 2010 @2:36 pm

    Kurtis- I’ve been astounded by the work Jodie Peters and Rob Murphy have done with their Club Bili (Boys In Literacy Initiative), an all boy, all school book club at Francis Hammond Middle School in Alexandria, Virginia. http://www.realmenread.com Jodie and Rob go way above and beyond but their efforts have been rewarded time and time again by boys who go from checked out to fully engaged, reading for fun with their friends. What an inspiration!

  23. Tricia Springstubb  •  Jun 15, 2010 @2:42 pm

    Barbara O’Connor’s SMALL ADVENTURES OF POPEYE AND ELVIS is a true gem for younger, middle grade boys (and girls).

  24. Michelle Schusterman  •  Jun 15, 2010 @3:18 pm

    Great list – thanks for this!

  25. Terry Lynn Johnson  •  Jun 15, 2010 @7:53 pm

    Really enjoyed reading this list. These books sound great. Of course, Gary Paulsen has to be in there! Well done and thanks for putting these together.

  26. brian_ohio  •  Jun 15, 2010 @8:12 pm

    Kurtis,

    This is a perfect list for me. I’m always looking for funny boy books that generate conversation. Especially since I’d like my MG manuscripts to fall into this catagory.

    Brian

  27. Laura Shovan  •  Jun 16, 2010 @7:01 am

    I have a son who’s on the MG/YA cusp. This list is really helpful.

    One of our local librarians (Barb Langridge) has a great webpage on books for boys. Worth checking out: http://www.abookandahug.com/books-for-boys

  28. Kyle  •  Jun 16, 2010 @8:20 am

    Today we meet at the park for our first summer meeting of Guys Read. We will discuss big Nate. I like your list, but the guys seem to lean towards fantasy and action. They loved Cirque du Freak. How do you facilitate your book club? I walk a fine line with this. Some of the challenges i face are the large number of boys that show up. (25-30 grades 3-5 and reading level 3rd – 9th) My objective is to get guys to love reading. I know they read the books becasue I hear them discussing the books, but when it come to our monthly meeting it tends to look a lot like an adult book club: food, laughter, visiting, and a little discussion of the book. Your thoughts?

  29. Deb  •  Jun 16, 2010 @10:35 am

    Thanks for this! I am hoping to start a book club (9-12) at our library this fall. _Very_ cool on the virtual visit!

  30. Kurtis Scaletta  •  Jun 16, 2010 @10:36 am

    Kyle, we never had those kinds of numbers and I am impressed. I’d be disinclined to have such a wide age grouping but it could be awesome if the older kids are cool with it. The truth is that a very capable librarian took care of getting kids into the room; I didn’t have to do much except show up and talk about the book of the week. I do think the “how to get going” question is an important one and hope to address it in a future blog entry.

  31. Susan Kaye Quinn  •  Jun 16, 2010 @3:54 pm

    Thanks for the great rec’s! I noticed these are almost all RL MG books, which is great, because I often have a hard time finding those. Also, I have a hard time getting my boys to read them. They are much like the boy you mentioned – all about the fantasy and SF. But maybe one of these will catch their interest. If not, I’ll check them out for my blog! :)

  32. Laura  •  Jun 26, 2010 @9:08 pm

    This is a great idea for a website. I hope to see lots of books for the lower end….8 & 9 year olds. A lot of these books are too long and/or too intense for this age. As a third grade teacher I’m always on the look out for beginning of the year 3rd grade books that are less than 150 pages and interesting, especially for boys. Many boys want to read fantasy and action adventure, but most are too long and/or too complicated for 8 & 9 year olds who are just gaining confidence as readers.