Book List For Young Readers: Nurturing Literacy In Our Youth

I had a tentative relationship with reading as a middle school and high school boy. I loved it. It was my favorite hobby, a task where I did not need to be physically active or socially adept- admittedly not a great reason to recede into a book, but a common one nonetheless. But loving an activity that others don’t is challenging for socially awkward youth, who are perpetually bouncing into each other, miming other’s clothes, actions, and activities. Very few adolescents have the self-confidence to declare themselves a ‘reader’ in the face of a peer group who, on the whole, view reading in one’s free time as a condemnation. 

So my relationship with reading was robust in my home, but at arm’s length in public. I rarely brought my books out of the house- which I still do not do- something I had done proudly before my awkward teen years. And when I needed to go to my beloved Barnes and Noble to restock on materials that fed my fix, I was excited, but would, inexplicably to me at the time, get nervous whenever I saw another human, known or unknown, adult or young person, in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section that was conveniently tucked into the back corner of the upper floor, as if the builders knew this would be a clientele who would want to peruse in solitude. 

This was my experience on one occasion in particular that I will never forget. I excitedly (inside not out) rode the escalator to the second floor of Barnes and Noble, as if ascending into a heightened state of being, inhaling the fumes of book bindings. And I slinked over to the Fantasy section, only to see someone already scanning the same area where I liked to begin my meanderings. I clammed up, but this was not unusual, the store was open to the public, despite my wishes. 

And when this man turned to see me joining him in our aisle of choice, his eyes filled with recognition. He was the father of a kid I knew in the grade below me, he went to our church, and he knew me just enough to acknowledge me in public (if that). But seeing me in this section of Barnes and Noble, a section I was ashamed to allow other people to see me in, he acknowledged me. He wasn’t embarrassed as the adult who presumably would have ‘grown out’ of his habit of reading science fiction and fantasy. Instead, he smiled, in my memory his arms opened up, not for a hug, but as a gesture towards all the options we had surrounding us, that by association, we both were interested in considering. 

This man I barely knew greeted me, talked to me about what my favorite books were, told me about what he was here looking for, and then spent the next fifteen minutes recommending books to me. He introduced me to two series that I dedicated serious time to in the coming year, one I loved and one, not so much, but that didn’t really matter. 

What mattered to me then, and what matters to me to do this day, as I continue to read (less and less in the science fiction and fantasy section, but I still make my way over there almost every time I visit the bookstore like a weird pilgrimage) was that another person acknowledged how exciting it was to love reading and acknowledged me as an equal because of that love of reading. He wasn’t awkward about reading like I was, he wore it like a badge of honor, hoping to help me find new books- a daunting task, especially for a 12-year-old- in order to foster and grow my love rather than let my embarrassment and peer pressure stifle and kill that tentative relationship. 

I have written a lot about the lack of reading in our country and some of the ills that take hold in soil devoid of healthy literate roots. And I also want to write about what we can do to read more. And I wanted to start by recommending, as that wonderful man did for me, some books for young boys to read in middle school or high school, that engaged me, and might engage them as well. 

Don’t assume some kids are readers and some are not. I am painfully aware of how easily my passion for reading could have been stifled, and also how a simple gesture worked like a bellows stoking my embers into a flame.

Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever Trilogy by Stephen R Donaldson

I wanted to start with the series that this man recommended to me that I loved. I loved it because in my fantasy readings, which were vast for a kid so young, I didn’t realize that the magic could also be human, and the writing could be beautiful. Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever was the series that first challenged me. I didn’t totally understand these books the first time I read them. I got just enough of it to enjoy it. And that was okay. We should challenge our youth to read stuff that is ‘too difficult’ for them. I still practice this rule today, and it brought me from reading simple science fiction and fantasy narratives, to some of the great classics of the world, on my own, no grumbling at all. And I don’t think that young readers challenge themselves naturally. I needed someone to point to a series too difficult for me and say this is both good and worth the effort it will demand. 

The Redwall Series by Brian Jacques

This was the series that started my love of reading and specifically, reading fantasy. Brian Jacques’ series about furry woodland creatures defending their precious Redwall Abbey is filled with action, songs, food, puzzles, heart, and warmth. Everything a young boy needs growing up. Somehow the most human and cliched of actions, lines, and behaviors don’t seem so bad when done by a squirrel or a mole or a mouse. And those guises are just enough to curb the cynicism that starts to take root in young male youth. If your son is looking for a starting place, look no further than right here. 

The Shannara Series by Terry Brooks

I started with The Voyage of The Jerle Shannara Trilogy, but Brooks’ world is so vast and the series so diverse, a person just needs to look around and start wherever. I spent too much time trying to find a sense of chronology, to make this magical world fit in a box. I would advise my young self to not worry about that so much. This is a world where stuff has happened and more stuff will happen. Start reading about it.

The Rain Series by Barry Eisler

If you, or your son, are not into magical worlds, there is plenty for you too. This is a cool-killer novel, that grabbed my attention with a blurb that stated, “If Quentin Tarantino had a crack at the James Bond franchise.” I don’t know about that… but I sure enjoyed the heck out of it when I read it, so maybe. 

Ready Player One by Ernest Clime

This book was not around in my youth, but having read it as an adult, it will be one of the first books I point my son or daughter too when I feel like their reading comprehension ability has caught up. In fact, I probably will read it again with them, and I would encourage you too as well. Nothing supports reading like reading together, and if there is a book that I feel confident most youth and adults would enjoy, it is Clime’s dystopian novel filled with 80s iconography and virtual reality.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

This book was around in my youth, but I didn’t get around to it until I was in college, and what a shame. Even as a person older than its intended audience it had quite the impact on me. It is philosophical and profound, but also filled with fighting and wars and aliens and teen angst, enough for any young boy to relate.

There are plenty more where this came from, but that is the point. Find a way to get our young people started reading. Let the awesome stories take care of the rest.

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If you liked this, you may also like:
[Harry Potter]’s Legacy: Often Imitated, Never Repeated
Personal Top 50 Fiction Book List (Ranked)
Are We Living In An Orwellian State? [1984]
Cli-Fi Literature [The Ministry For The Future by Kim Stanley Robinson]
End Of Year Media Round-Up [2020]
A Very American Reading List
Empathy Through Reading: Recommendations During Racial Unrest

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