When I came up with this theme, the idea was to be intentionally thinking, “could this be marketed to a male reader?” Not, “these are ‘boy books,'” because I certainly didn’t like being told, as a girl, “those are boy toys/movies/shirts” etc. I was a huge ‘tomboy’ as a kid: played Little League baseball and ice hockey, had more ninja turtles than barbies, and idolized superstars like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. Had someone told me, “you need to read more girl books,” I would have flipped out! With all that as background, you can see I don’t like categorizing things male/female (and not because I’m being Politically Correct).
In my elementary library, it’s fairly easy to have books that appeal to all readers – fantasy, animal stories, humor… tend to have something for everyone. But as a YA reader in my free time, I’ve noticed there tends to be a split. Realistic Fiction often has themes of relationships and first loves, Sci Fi tracks towards male protagonists, but Fantasy seems to be a middle ground. I see how The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Maze Runner series have a mix of readers, despite the gender of the protagonists. You teachers and librarians who work with this age group probably have even more insight, but I really wanted to put forth a conscientious effort to find a few titles that I could recommend the next time a friend asks what to buy for a teenage boy (happens to me often, considering I would with kids aged 5 – 11…)
The first book that popped on my radar was one I read in high school and remember leaving a lasting impression. I listened to A Separate Peace by John Knowles on audiobook, and for some reason, it irked me. Not the book itself, but the ‘pretend youthfulness’ portrayed by the reader. Besides that, I loved the story as much as I did 12 years ago, and think its ‘coming-of-age’ theme can transcend the WWII era into modern times. Two friends, Gene and Phineas, have different personalities, they’re dealing with the realization that the world is bigger than their little school, and there are many factors that destroy their sense of innocence. It would be a great read for the boy who is interested in WWII, but has perhaps not seen it through the eyes of a young American, naive to the future awaiting him.
“Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him. It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person “the world today” or “life” or “reality” he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past. The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever.”
The second pick was my venture into Matthew Quick’s YA writing. I’ve read several of his adult books (most recently, Love May Fail, which I really loved), and had the chance to see him in person this summer in Manteo on his publicity tour. Lucky me, I’m friends with the teacher who won a gift basket of many of his books, and I plucked up Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock. Leonard is a vulnerable, emotionally unstable senior in high school who has been dealt a rough hand in life. Q provides a raw, painful perspective of a suicidal teenager, yet at the same time, gives a scary picture of what many teens expect adulthood to be like. There were a few passages that struck me as frighteningly true – especially as a teacher. For example, his assistant principal catches him in the courtyard during the school day. Leonard invites him to sit and enjoy the moment, but the A.P. mockingly counts to 3, to motivate an 18 year old to reenter the school building. Leonard says,
I was really trying to make a connection. I would’ve talk to him openly and honestly – no double talk at all – if he would’ve just sat down, taken a few minutes to be human. What’s so important that he couldn’t take five minutes to look up at the sky with me?
Kids reach out so often in sincere ways, but adults are quick to shut them down, refuse to validate their freedoms, and be insensitive to the complexity of their emotions. Leonard, like so many kids (regardless of age), is intelligent, and suffering, and needs guidance. But too often, we get wrapped up in the routine of our days to hear them out.
The next two are longer passages, and worth letting Q’s writing/Leonard’s thoughts do the talking:
I know this will sound wrong, but whenever I wear my funeral suit, go to the train, and pretend I have a job in the city, it always makes me think about the Nazi trains that took the World War II Jews to the death camps. What Herr Silverman taught us about. I know that’s a horrible and maybe even offensive comparison, but waiting there on the platform, among the suits, I feel like I’m just waiting to go to some horrible place where everything good ends and then misery ensues forever and ever and ever – which reminds me of the awful stories we learned in Holocaust class, whether it’s offensive or not. I mean we won World War II, right? And yet all of these adults – the sons and daughters and grandchildren about World War II heroes – get on metaphorical death trains anyway, even though we beat the Nazi fascist a long time ago and, therefore, every American is free to do anything at all here in the supposedly great free country. Why don’t they use their freedom and liberty to pursue happiness?
The whole time I pretend I have mental telepathy. And with my mind only I’ll say – or think? – to the target, “Don’t do it. Don’t go to that job you hate. Do something you love today. Ride a roller coaster. Swim in the ocean naked. Go to the airport and get on the next flight to anywhere just for the fun of it. Maybe stop a spinning globe with your finger and then plan a trip to that very spot; even if it’s in the middle of the ocean you can go by boat. Eat some type of ethnic food you’ve never heard of. Stop a stranger and ask her to explain her greatest fears and her secret hopes and aspirations in detail and then tell her you care because she is a human being. Sit down on the sidewalk and make pictures with colorful talk. Close your eyes and try to see the world with your nose – allow smells to be your vision. Catch up on your sleep. Call an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Roll up your pant legs and walk into the sea. See a foreign film. See squirrels. Do anything! Something! Because you start a revolution one decision at a time, with each breath you take. Just don’t go back to that miserable place you go to every day. Show me it’s possible to be an adult and also be happy. Please. This is a free country. You don’t have to keep doing this if you don’t want to. You can do anything you want. Be any one you want. That’s what they tell us in school, but if you keep getting on that train and going to the place you hate I’m going to start thinking the people at school are liars like the Nazis who told the Jews that they were just being relocated to work factories.”
Leonard, like other teenagers, picks up on adults who seem miserable with their current state. They see work as dull and as oppressive as school. Adults are less spontaneous and less likely to seek joy in their day to day lives. So in Leonard’s broken mind, he thinks suicide before he’s an adult is the answer. Until he meets the right teacher.
It wasn’t an easy read, and I wouldn’t put it in the hands of just anyone. But, it’s important. Like Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why, the protagonist’s voice will haunt you – which is a good thing. It’s imperative that teens and adults hear what it’s like to be suicidal, to find ways to be empathetic and helpful, and books like this one will open the door to more conversations and deeper understanding.
I have a confession to make: I abandoned my 3rd choice. It doesn’t happen often, but I’ve listened to 2 audiobooks this year that I wish I had not wasted my time on, so I decided not to finish The Scorch Trials. I recently read The Maze Runner for the first time this summer, and actually liked it (I had previously abandoned the audiobook version the year it came out! full circle…). The movie was vastly different, but the movie preview to the sequel motivated me to keep with the series. My problem arose when I just couldn’t catch a flow in this follow-up. I was invested in the characters, am anxious to see the movie, and wanted to know more about the series that even my 5th grade students have read… but it couldn’t keep my attention. I’ve seen Dashner in action at the Y’allfest YA book festival and loved hearing him talk about the series. Maybe it was the violence, maybe it was the slow start (chapter 18 and they were just getting out into the Scorch)… and maybe it was just a bad time for me to try to read YA Fantasy. Who knows! Just know that it’s OK for YOU to abandon a book… it’s OK for students to abandon as well.