When people talk about getting boys to read, I wonder if they ever explain that books can turn boys into men? I mean that good books, like good food, can provide nourishment that make boys big and strong. Boys want nothing more than to grow up, and to take the world by storm when they do. Although books were an important part of my own childhood, I never talked about them in reading groups in the way that they matter the most — how they helped prepare me in various ways for the challenges ahead.
I’m becoming a father this month, and as I considered books that should make up a reading list for little Byron, I found myself focusing on books that would give Byron a vision of the man he might become. Every book about boys will give a boy a vision of masculinity and become part of his idea about how men behave, but how many are helpful? Here are four I remember well from my own childhood that bolstered my confidence as a young man even without a sword or a magic wand.
Although the idea of financial success looms large in the American psyche, it’s rarely treated in children’s books. These one do it with terrific with and poignancy. Tom is ambitious, charismatic, and conniving. The little brother narrator has a begrudging respect for his big brother’s gift for gain, but compliments Tom’s ambition with a strong sense of justice and fair play. Tom himself is given to surprising generosity and humanity. In a nutshell, these books celebrate everything that’s great about the American spirit. The series also has a lot of realistic, offhand historical lessons–the introduction of water closets to the American home, for example. While there are a few stories that I might skip at first, or talk about later–particularly one with heavily stereotyped Native American characters–the author means well, and the goodness comes out in most of the stories.
The hero is Leonard, a trademark Pinkwater hero: chubby, goofy, and a zest for life unquashed by miserable treatment at school. He meets a kid from Mars and they learn how to wreak havoc at school using mentalist tricks, then slip off on a strange adventure in an alternate world. Alan Mendelsohn features a mid-novel sort-of climax where the boys realize that merely outsmarting the bullies and snobs at the school only brings a moment of shallow satisfaction. It’s not heavily stated at all, but there’s something worth probing: that conflicts aren’t about winning, but about resolving differences. Meanwhile, the real moral of this or any Pinkwater novel is that the real world is full of extraordinary experiences: groovy new neighborhoods, little-known restaurants with good chili, B movies, old records, dancing chickens and new friends — things that make adult life as full of fun and wonder as childhood.
This is a gorgeous story about a boy who becomes entranced by a fox, and in so doing develops an appreciation for nature and country life. “There was a great deal of difference between seeing an animal in the zoo,” its hero says, “and seeing one in natural and free in the woods. It was like seeing a kite on the floor and then, later, seeing one up in the sky.” Many of my favorite middle grade books are about the relationship between children and animals, and this one is pitch perfect, with the quirky dry humor and empathy of all Byars books. This will be a nice one to share on trips to the woods, when wildlife is visible from the cabin windows.
The emotional heart of the novel is the relationship between the small, unmuscled Tom and his tough-as-nails, muscle-bound, gun-toting uncle. Tom is intimidated by his uncle and tries to stay out of his way, but the two are pulled uncomfortably together as Uncle Fred pulls an unwilling Tom into a fox-hunting mission. Tom tries to sabotage his uncle’s efforts, and ultimately succeeds. The aftermath is unexpected; one of sudden respect and understanding between the two men that is surprising and moving.
I loved books with puzzles and wordplay, and could have included any number of them, including the terrific quasi-gothic books by John Bellairs and Ellen Raskin’s brilliant three mysteries. I pick Tollbooth because it’s so canonical, the gags and whimsy so plentiful and memorable. Like Pinkwater’s book, it’s about an open, curious, and active mind can make life into an adventure even when there are no super-villains to vanquish.
This is a short-list of classics because I’m remembering my own golden years of reading. What other books should be on the list? Please let me know in the comments below.
Kurtis Scaletta is the author of the middle-grade novels Mudville and Mamba Point, both published by Knopf Books for Young Readers.