The next question that came in for me to address ran as follows:
“My 16-year- old son was once an avid reader—read historical fiction, fantasy, and children’s classics over and over again. Then, he fell out of love a few years ago. He says he only wants to read fiction about people his own age or present time. The YA genre is so problematic. Please!!! Can you recommend some books like Gary Schmidt’s (which I gave him recently at your suggestion) for the summer, to put into his hands and restore his love of reading?”
Don’t panic. I’m a firm believer that if he truly loved reading when he was young, he will return to it--as evidenced by his recent enjoyment of Gary Schmidt’s books.
There may be a couple of factors—or a dozen—going on here. I guess I’ll get the most sticky one out of the way first: electronics. Is he spending a lot of time with electronic games or on the computer? The habit is detrimental to reading. It’s hard for young people to get just a little exposure and be satisfied with that. It’s similar to their desire for junk food rather than vegetables. The ease of access and instant pleasure that comes from the passive play of gadgets wins over the more challenging, active, attentiveness needed to read. It’s a tough habit to kick.
But, if that’s not the issue, I think the most likely explanation is the simple one: he’s growing up. The children’s books he once loved aren’t satisfying his need to understand the world he is entering as an adult. Schmidt’s books are light and easy reading, but do tackle some challenging issues most young people face. He is having a need met there. I’m not sure a diet of only healthy young adult (YA) fiction is going to satisfy him too long either. There is a narcissism that is common at this phase of life, and too much of it is also unhealthy.
Perhaps it is just time that he start reading some more adult books. There are plenty of wholesome and engaging books for adults—I certainly hope—to whet his appetite. Sometimes it’s hard for us as moms to realize our “little boy” is on the verge of full manhood and has a longing for more than Lego and Little House on the Prairie. I am sure you are figuring this out, since you’ve written to ask and your son has made it clear that he is longing for something more mature.
Here is a list of some books you could try. Maybe it is wise just to select a shelf-ful, not all of them exactly “Schmidt-like.” He may test the waters in some new genres and discover some new passions that will remind him of his former pleasure in story.
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.
I read this myself the other day with your son in mind. It’s about a boy who is suddenly faced with personal survival in the wilderness after a plane crash in the wilds of Canada. He finds resources within himself to deal with sudden isolation, hunger, and need for shelter and safety. It’s a riveting story without any of the typical crass or vulgar themes of today’s teen fiction. I am curious whether Paulsen’s other books for teen boys are similar.
Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.
The teen boys in my book club enjoyed this book immensely. It is about a family in our time, told from the perspective of one of the two sons, and is definitely not for little boys. This is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in recent years.
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.
This book was written for adults, but appealed to my teen son, not to mention to me. This was the first spy fiction story that has inspired an entire genre of literature in the last 100 years.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
This is another hit of the boys in my life, not that their mothers have any easier time putting it down. The subtle benefit to be reaped in this fast-paced novel is that it is about the world where books are dangerous. Danger always appeals to boys.
Dune by Frank Herbert.
If he once loved fantasy, science fiction might remind him how much. I have not read this book, but it has been highly recommended to me by a fellow homeschool librarian with four sons.
A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins.
This is a true story of a young man who set out on his own to walk the entire U.S. and all the adventures, trials, and people he met along the way.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
He may have read it in those “children’s classics,” but if he hasn’t, here’s a true-to- life in the south of the 1930’s that becomes a favorite of most anyone who has ever read it, not just teens.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding.
This Nobel prize winning book is often a high school literature choice, but I think is an important story for boys to think about. It will challenge his own value system in a positive way, and is a short and fascinating tale.
The Chosen by Chaim Potok.
This takes place in Brooklyn, New York, World War II era, and is the heart-wrenching story of a boy coping with the challenges of his high school years and member of a strict Jewish sect. Potok is one of our favorite modern authors.
Ash Road or Hill’s End by Ivan Southall.
These are both gripping, suspenseful stories of young people in Australia facing life-and- death acts of nature that give them the opportunity to discover their own innate courage and resourcefulness.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba.
This is the true account of an African teen who first faces famine, then grueling poverty, but because of his quest for knowledge and unquenchable habit of tinkering, single-handedly accomplishes the impossible: building a windmill to bring electricity and irrigation to their drought-stricken village. (Your son will love it, especially if he’s prone to take things apart; besides, it’s a book that gives him this idea).
Short Stories: Perhaps your son will find new authors by reading collections of short stories, which require less time and give a taste of an author without the commitment to a full-length novel. I recommend Flannery O’Connor’s, but Ray Bradbury, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald are other good collections to investigate.
For the joy of reading,