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Family Literacy Day: 8 Great Books for Boys

Boy Reading

This year for Family Literacy Day, we're turning things over to an expert. Nathalie Foy, of the 4 Mothers Blog, knows books and she knows boys, and her life is rich with both of them. In this list, she recommends great reads for boys of a wide range of ages. And even better: there's no reason a boy's sister won't love these books too. Which is perfect when the very point is families reading together.  

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One of my greatest joys as a parent is to see my boys with their noses deep into a book or to hear them plead for time to read just one more chapter, one more page, one more word. We are a family of bibliophiles, and I cultivate the love of books in every way that I can. I do not take it as a foregone conclusion that boys would almost always rather do anything but read, or that books are made for boys or girls, or that boys only want to read about boys, or that you have to bribe a boy to sit down with a book, or that you have to settle for less in the literary quality department if you want to match a boy to a book. I refuse to read aloud a book that I will not enjoy myself, and I will not buy books that do not have lasting value. What the boys borrow from the library is entirely up to them, as is what they read in class at school. Between us, we manage to cover all the bases of pleasure, quality, and addictive reading.

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"I do not take it as a foregone conclusion that boys would almost always rather do anything but read, or that books are made for boys or girls, or that boys only want to read about boys, or that you have to bribe a boy to sit down with a book, or that you have to settle for less in the literary quality department if you want to match a boy to a book."

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I am the mother of three hockey-playing, Toronto-residing boys who are all Montreal Canadiens fans, so, almost inevitably, The Hockey Sweater has been a favourite with all of them. The all-consuming love of hockey, the entrenched rivalry between les Canadiens and the Maple Leafs, and the burning shame of having to wear the wrong colours because of Monsieur Eaton’s dreadful mistake, these are all things my boys relish. I adore the tone of Sheila Fischman’s translation, which manages to preserve just enough of a resonance of the original French that we never quite forget that this is a story that was not originally told in English. The illustrations evoke beautifully the long, long winters of the author’s childhood and the endless energy of boys. Now 30 years old, this book is a classic.

My boys were also raised on another picture book with the well-deserved status of classic: The Paper Bag Princess, by Robert Munsch. I am of the opinion that every boy and girl should be presented with this book at birth. The story of a rampaging dragon, a kidnapped prince, and a resourceful princess, Munch’s classic shows that not all princesses await rescue and that intelligence and perseverance, not to mention good manners, will always win the day. The Paper Bag Princess rewrites the classic fairy tale and offers readers of all ages a corrective to the traditional fairy tale plot.

Another picture book on high rotation in our house is In the Tree House, by Andrew Larsen. The story begins with a wish fulfilled: two brothers work with their dad to build a tree house, the kind of tree house every kid (and dad) has dreamed of. The perfect retreat brings the two brothers together, until the older brother finds that he’d rather spend time with his friends. Suddenly, the wish fulfilled feels not quite so perfect to the brother who is left behind. A simple blackout serves as the event required to shake up the brothers’ new routines, and they come together again in their tree house to see out the dark night with flashlights and a pile of comic books. Brothers bonding over books: could there be a better story for Family Literacy Day? Dusan Petricic’s illustrations are a perfect accompaniment, full of energy and bursting with details for the more vibrant sections of the plot, and pared down to suit the mood of the more quiet sections.

After he did a unit on the pioneers in Grade 3, my middle son, Rowan, came home wanting to read more. He had read Ellie’s New Home, by Becky Citra, in class, and he was so taken by it that he wanted to read the rest of the Ellie and Max series. (There are four more books in the series.) Citra was inspired by the writings of Susanna Moodie and her sister Catherine Parr Trail, and in these books, she offers a child’s perspective on what life was like as a pioneer in Upper Canada. Ellie and her brother Max emigrate from England, and they learn to live in their new home while facing all of the expected and unexpected dangers of pioneer life. I think what Rowan liked about the series was that it fictionalized what he had learned about in history, but whatever it was, he could not get enough of these books, and any book that makes a boy want to read more is a good bet.

For middle-grade readers addicted to graphic novels, Rowan would like to recommend The Three Thieves series, by Scott Chantler. There are currently five volumes in the series (Tower of Treasure, The Sign of the Black Rock, The Captive Prince, The King's Dragon, and Pirates of the Silver Coast), with the final two set for a 2016 publication. The fantasy adventure features pirates, smugglers, the King’s Dragons, a moving island, and a race to reunite twin brother and sister, Jared and Dessa. Dessa is a determined and resourceful girl who does everything it takes, including dressing as a sailor boy, to find her brother. Rowan has read and re-read these five books endless times, and he asks regularly if he can check on the publication date for the next one. (Unlike the moving island in the book, the publication dates stays stubbornly in the same spot.)

Another book that features the theme of girls dressing as boys in order to achieve their ends, The Breadwinner, by Deborah Ellis, was a big favourite with my eldest when he read it in Grade 7. Set in Afghanistan when the Taliban take power, the story is about the change in fortunes in Parvana’s family, as her mother loses her job, the girls and women are confined to the house, and her father is imprisoned. Parvana must dress as a boy to go to the market to make what money she can to support her family. She does this by reading and writing for a fee, and literacy, which we so take for granted, becomes a currency. Because Griffin enjoyed this book so much, I read it too, and I was moved by how Ellis portrayed how the abuse of power hurts not only the population under Taliban rule, but the soldiers themselves. There is a scene set in the market in which Parvana helps an illiterate Talib soldier read a distressing letter from home that still haunts me. With one subtle shift in power, Ellis so deftly makes the soldier human in our eyes and makes him a victim of the totalitarian regime as well. I really enjoyed the discussions we had after reading this book about human rights, power, right and wrong, and the grey areas in between.

If you have a tween or teen boy addicted to post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction, I can recommend Moira Young’s Blood Red Road highly.  The first in the Dustlands trilogy, this series is also about a girl setting out to rescue her brother. After Saba’s twin brother Lugh is captured by four cloaked horsemen, she rides after them, enlisting the help of a gang of revolutionary girls, the Free Hawks, and a charismatic daredevil, Jack, along the way. Readers might struggle at first with the first-person narration in the drawl of a cowboy (nuthin, haveta), but this is a page-turner for sure. The sizzling chemistry between male and female lead does not hurt.

If your young reader spends a lot of time in his own head, Think Again, by JonArno Lawson, may be a perfect fit. A collection of poems that captures beautifully the ways in which teens and tweens can get stuck in mental ruts, this book puts words to the often inexpressible feelings of being out of place and misunderstood. Each poem is a quatrain, so the poems are efficiently packed with expression and emotion and, since they are quickly read, they invite the reader to take the time required to unpack them. The illustrations of a boy and girl by Julie Morstad add a new level of meaning to the poems, which with this accompaniment, read as a dialogue between two people rather than the monologue of one. The poems offer no easy answers to the problems of being a teen, and for this alone I think they are worth recommending to your young reader.

Nathalie Foy

Nathalie Foy is the mother of three boys, 13, 9 and 6, an avid reader, and a former instructor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. She and her husband and sons live in Toronto, and Nathalie lives online at 4mothers1blog.com.

More on Family Literacy at 49thShelf:

January 27, 2015

Books mentioned in this post

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The Hockey Sweater

by Roch Carrier, illustrated by Sheldon Cohen, translated by Sheila Fischman
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover Hardcover
  • age: 7 to 9
  • Grade: 2 to 4
tagged: hockey, classics

In the days of Roch’s childhood, winters in the village of Ste. Justine were long. Life centered around school, church, and the hockey rink, and every boy’s hero was Montreal Canadiens hockey legend Maurice Richard. Everyone wore Richard’s number 9. They laced their skates like Richard. They even wore their hair like Richard. When Roch outgro …

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The Paper Bag Princess

by Robert Munsch & Michael Martchenko
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
  • age: 4 to 7
  • Grade: p to 2
tagged: humorous stories, classics

Readers the world-over have fallen in love with this classic story of girl power.

When the fiercest dragon in the whole world smashes Princess Elizabeth’s castle, burns all her clothes, and captures her fiancé, Prince Ronald, Elizabeth takes matters into her own hands. With her wits alone and nothing but a paper bag to wear, the princess challeng …

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In the Tree House

by Andrew Larsen, illustrated by Dusan Petricic
edition: Hardcover
also available: Paperback eBook
  • age: 3 to 7
  • Grade: p to 2
tagged: boys & men, siblings

An evocative story about two brothers who are growing up (one faster than the other), an unusual summer night and a special tree house that proves childhood is not just a time but also a place.

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Ellie's New Home

by Becky Citra
edition: eBook
  • age: 9 to 12
  • Grade: 4 to 7
tagged: pre-confederation (to 1867), farm & ranch life

Ellie and her little brother Max find themselves moving from their grandmother's comfortable home in England to Upper Canada. Their mother is dead, Father wants to start over again, and in 1835 there are many opportunities for settlers in British North America. Despite the strangeness of this vast new world, Ellie is sure things will turn out all r …

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Tower of Treasure

illustrated by Scott Chantler
edition: eBook
also available: Paperback Hardcover
  • age: 9 to 12
  • Grade: 4 to 7
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As an acrobat in a traveling circus, 14-year-old orphan Dessa Redd flies through the air with ease. Still, she is weighed down by troubling memories. But when her ragtag circus troupe pulls into the city of Kingsbridge, Dessa feels a tickle of hope. Maybe here in the royal city she will finally find her twin brother -- or the mysterious man who sna …

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Sign of the Black Rock, The

illustrated by Scott Chantler
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover
  • age: 9 to 12
  • Grade: 4 to 7
tagged: boys & men

Young readers (and adults, too) will feel transported by the clever, intricate plotline and superb, sweeping illustrations of this second title in the Three Thieves series. The action resumes as our three goodhearted fugitives stop at a roadside inn during a ferocious thunderstorm. Narrow escapes ensue as Grig, the scheming and selfish innkeeper, e …

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Captive Prince, The

illustrated by Scott Chantler
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
  • age: 9 to 12
  • Grade: 4 to 7
tagged: boys & men

Book three of the acclaimed Three Thieves graphic novel series begins with Dessa, Topper and Fisk, still on the run from the Queen's Dragons, stopping to make camp for the night. While collecting firewood, Dessa happens upon a kidnapping and manages to boldly rescue the captive boy and bring him to safety. Once out of harm's way, the boy reveals th …

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King's Dragon, The

illustrated by Scott Chantler
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover
  • age: 9 to 12
  • Grade: 4 to 7
tagged: boys & men

In this fourth installment of the Three Thieves fantasy adventure series of graphic novels, Captain Drake's quest to find Dessa, Topper and Fisk has led him to a remote healing monastery where he believes they have gone to tend Dessa's broken leg. While pursuing his quarry, Captain Drake finds himself beset by memories of his early days as a young …

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Pirates of the Silver Coast

illustrated by Scott Chantler
edition: Paperback
also available: Hardcover eBook
  • age: 9 to 12
  • Grade: 4 to 7
tagged: boys & men, pirates

In this fifth book in the Three Thieves series of graphic novels, Dessa convinces the smuggler Quinn to transport her, Topper and Fisk to the mysterious Island of Astaroth. Dessa is convinced her twin brother, Jared, who was abducted years earlier by the Queen's chamberlain, is being held on the island. However, soon after setting sail, they are ov …

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The Breadwinner

by Deborah Ellis
edition: Paperback
also available: Paperback eBook
  • age: 10 to 14
  • Grade: 5 to 9
tagged: middle east, girls & women, self-esteem & self-reliance

"All girls [should read] The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis." — Malala Yousafzai, New York Times

The first book in Deborah Ellis’s riveting Breadwinner series is an award-winning novel about loyalty, survival, families and friendship under extraordinary circumstances during the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.

Eleven-year-old Parv …

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Blood Red Road

Dustlands: 1

by Moira Young
edition: Paperback
  • age: 12 to 18
  • Grade: 7 to 12
tagged: apocalyptic & post-apocalyptic, dystopian

This fast-paced young adult debut novel has it all: smart, savvy characters making their way through an eerily dystopian society, with all the requisite action, adventure and romance characteristic of the genre vividly and at times, chillingly, portrayed.

In a wild and lawless future, where life is cheap and survival is hard, eighteen-year-old Saba …

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Think Again

by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Julie Morstad
edition: Hardcover
  • age: 10 to 14
  • Grade: 5 to 9
tagged: adolescence, emotions & feelings

Make sure that your heart Isn't too well-defended. Your heart is designed To be broken and mended. --- “The Heart”

These quietly beautiful and surprisingly humorous four-line poems reveal the many aspects of first love --- the longing, the frustration and the joy. The poet writes not from a single point of view but instead embraces the duality o …

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