When choosing books my son’s inclination is to gravitate toward books for younger readers. This is only natural seeing as how he enjoys the company of – and is very popular with – younger kids. As parents, Merran and I are of course happy to encourage his continued youthful outlook since no parent we know is eager for their kids to grow up too fast. But when he was looking for books to read as part of his 7th grade reading assignments I felt the need to point out that NERDS: Book Two: M Is for Mama’s Boy, while an entertaining confection, was a little on the young side.*
This is a problem not only for school work but as school work I felt the books on his list should be more challenging. To this end I went back to a list of the ten best young adult books provided by the American Library Association via his Language Arts teacher.
You may remember that I was recently bitching and moaning about the definition of Young Adult fiction and I’m happy to say the American Library Association has a pretty good grasp of the books that actually belong in this category. I did a quick survey and checked the availability at our local library of books that I thought would hold some interest for him.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein seemed like a good candidate. While the story focuses on young women in wartime (two subjects that are, for our son, unfathomable and unsavory respectively) it is about an aviator and a spy (two subjects that are deeply fascinating to him). It’s on the short-list for now.
The other title that jumped out at me was Every Day by David Levithan. It’s about a character “A” who wakes up every day in a new body living a different life. It struck me that this one, like all of my favorite fiction, takes a fantastical element and uses it as a metaphor. Adolescence is a time of such radical change that the idea of waking up as a different person every day makes a certain kind of sense. And the emotional connections you make give you the motivation to make sense of those changes and hold on to the parts that will help you to grow up. My son is working on this one right now and so far it’s going very well.
When we picked up Every Day from the library we also grabbed a copy of Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith. It’s about a young African-American woman during World War II, a trifecta of subjects you would think might be difficult for our young white male pacifist to relate to; but it has something that trumps all other subjects – it’s about pilots and flying. When flight is involved all other concerns drop away. It could be about an anthropomorphic tortoise who pilots a Zeppelin and he would be drawn to it. Actually, he would love that particular combination beyond all reason.
While it’s good to have a starting point, an area of interest, that helps with the selection of a book I think it’s important to push kids out of their comfort zone once in a while. It doesn’t have to be One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich** but they should try new genres as much as possible so they can judge fairly what they really enjoy. Our daughter didn’t know she would love sad and dramatic books until she was forced to try a few by our library’s Global Reading Challenge. You don’t want to turn them off by sitting them down with books that are too much work but an enjoyable challenge will broaden their horizons and young adult fiction these days provides many excellent opportunities.
*It should be noted here that the other book he is currently reading is The World of Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse. This is a boy who, starting at around age 8, has been trying on and off to read Moby Dick because it is the favorite book of the character Bone from the comic books of the same name. This literary dichotomy has been one of our son’s defining characteristics.
**Which our son is interested in reading after the question, “what is an oligarchy?” led to one of my rambling mini-history lessons, the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, and gulags.