17 June 2012

Boy, That's a Good Read!

by Leigh Lundin

What do boys read? In Criminal Brief, I complained that males don't read. Okay, they read sports scores and they might read page 3 in the UK, but men and boys seldom read. Women purchase more than 70% of books and closer to three quarters of fiction. They are the leading consumers of iPads, Kobos, Nooks, and Kindles.

On Friday, Dixon Hill wrote an illuminating article how to get boys to read. He went beyond complaining about the dearth of reading boys, he did something about it.
The Art of Manliness by Brett and Kate McKay
I stumbled upon Kate and Brett McKay's superlative list of 50 books for boys, most of them classics in one way or another. In case you think writing boys books is the sole bastion of manly men, some are written by women and at least one by a girl. The 4th author in the list, Dan Beard, was my distant relative and a founder of the Boy Scouts.

Then and Now

When I was a teen, kids who couldn't yet drive devoured the Hotrod novels by Henry Gregor Felsen, favorites of Stephen King. Many stories of that era moralized but Felsen shared lessons without seeming to lecture.

Are there lessons in Harry Potter? I'm not sure. But I think I'd like The Hunger Games… there's a morality tale.

That's part of the point– books don't have to feature boys for boys to enjoy them. Lewis Carroll's Alice stories and Frank Baum's Oz stories can delight anyone. The most famous bad boy in the English language, Peter Pan, is seen through the evolving eyes of Wendy Darling. To know something about the opposite sex, boys should read a bit of what girls read. Take a break from The Hardy Boys (written by male and female authors) and try a Nancy Drew (written by many of the same male and female authors).

As luck would have it, I have no sisters or daughters, but I did have parents who took reading– including their children's reading– seriously. Many of the following recommendations come directly from them.

Where do we start? I was raised on classics so naturally classics come to mind. Let's get cracking.


Foremost, I think of Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of 26 Tarzan novels and another 50 exploration adventure stories, mostly interplanetary and 'lost world' series. Two other great authors in the exploration adventure genre are Arthur Conan Doyle and H. Rider Haggard, considered to have originated the modern 'lost world' genre.

I recommend several books by the popular and prolific Robert Louis Stevenson including Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, his short stories, and a book of poetry, A Child's Garden of Verses. (While Kidnapped is fiction, it was based upon a historical case.)


Along with A. Conan Doyle, I add Agatha Christie, and the Lord Peter short stories by Dorothy L Sayers. As for American writers, we have Edgar Allan Poe and I recommend the Continental Op series by Dashiell Hammett.

Mystery Romance

Wait… don't flee in terror. Wilkie Collins, friend and colleague of Charles Dickens, is considered to have originated the modern English mystery novel. He combined romance in his most popular novels, creating a gothic genre furthered by Mary Roberts Rinehart, credited with the 'Had-I-but-known' school of mystery writing.

Science Fiction

If you want to grasp what science fiction is really about, read authors from the golden era of sci-fi, including Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Philip K Dick, Philip José Farmer, and Fritz Leiber. To that list, I add two more modern writers, John Brunner and Michael Crichton. While George Orwell's 1984 is too advanced for most youth, I highly recommend Animal Farm.

Sea Stories

Like Westerns, sea stories have fallen out of vogue, but I read dozens from undersea exploration to lost-at-sea adventures. Titles and authors have long since faded, but my mother was a major fan of C. S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower. I also highly recommend the non-fiction adventures of Richard Henry Dana, Jr. in his classic Two Years Before the Mast.


Westerns are about morality and responsibility. There are many considered classic, but I'll leave this list to John Floyd, himself a writer of several Western stories.

Wildlife Adventure

The master of this genre is Jack London, but the world has largely forgotten James Oliver Curwood, who when he died in 1927, was the highest paid author in the world. He built his own castle in Michigan, where he secluded himself in a tower to write. I know him through two of his stories, Kazan the Wolf Dog and Baree, Son of Kazan.

In the fourth grade, I noticed friends Tina and Diane reading The Black Stallion (recommended by the McKays). Walter Farley's title character isn't exactly wildlife, but it is feral and Farley wrote 20 in the series as well as another half dozen books.

Forgotten Classics

Charles Major was an Indiana lawyer who started writing rigorously researched historical romances. His first novel, When Knighthood Was in Flower, proved so popular that it became a Broadway hit and Major gave up his law practice to write. Other historical romances proved popular, but he became known for children's stories, especially The Bears of Blue River set in pioneer times.

Booth Tarkington, another Indiana writer and two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, wrote collections of stories about Penrod, a boy some compared to Tom Sawyer, but who's similar to Dennis the Menace. The stories were turned into twenty-some movies and plays. The three books are Penrod, Penrod and Sam, and the 'notted detective' tale, Penrod Jashber.

And Finally

Mark Twain always entertains and sometimes manages to educate. Read anything by Twain.

The Distaff Staff

Okay, I understand Twilight, but without sisters or daughters, I'm otherwise clueless. What do you recommend for girls?


  1. Wow, Leigh. I had no idea you were related to Dan Beard.

    Back when I was a teenager, my scout troop (201) used to spend a week, every summer, at Camp Geronimo in northern AZ. One year, I was given the opportunity to join a special “trial” program at Geronimo, started by the old guy who maintained the facility. That program was called the Geronimo Pioneers — and the fellow who formed it told us he wanted to name it the Geronimo Beard Pioneers, but too many people who heard the name asked how a boy could possibly grow a beard. This is the guy who first told me about Dan Beard and his pioneer program.

    Earning the Geronimo Pioneer badge was tough. It took a lot of hard forestry work, performed in rough back country, working long hours after climbing pretty far up the Mogollon Rim each day. The program culminated at the final Geronimo campfire program, where each boy participant was awarded the right to wear the leather pocket-hanger he’d custom-fashioned in the camp leatherwork lodge. The old man gave us the leather ovals, and we worked on them in the evening hours, after working all day and climbing back down the ridge — only to get up the next morning and do it all over again.

    The only rule concerning the pocket-hanger design, was that it had to include the letters GP (for Geronimo Pioneers). Though the old man did encourage us to add the initials DB, he didn’t make that a requirement — out of anger at those who asked about boys growing beards, I think.


    PS A lot of teen girls I know love to read Manga books, and similar novels — mostly translated from Japanese.

    PPS As a boy, I LOVED history books! Read nearly every one of them held by both my grade school and high school libraries, plus a lot from the local municipal library.

  2. Good column, and thanks for the link to the list of 50. I have read 14 of them.

    A Separate Peace (on their list) has a special place for me because when we were assigned to read it in 8th grade the teacher pointed out that, based on where they were standing, it was much more likely that Phinny shook the branch than that Gene did. It was my first introduction to the concept of the unreliable narrator, and more broadly to the idea of looking behind the text.

    Some favorite boy's books that didn't make your list or theirs:

    Asimov, I ROBOT
    D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths
    Wojciechowska SHADOW OF A BULL

  3. Perhaps one of the reasons I didn't become an electrical engineer like my father was because hidden under my desk in
    5th Grade math class, were open books such as ROBINSON CRUSOE (Robert Louis Stevenson), THE THREE MUSKETEERS (Alexander Dumas) or SCARAMOUCHE (Raphael Sabatini). Adventure was a lot more fun than running dry numbers through my head.

  4. Leigh;

    Briefly read your column. In my early childhood, my parents read stories to me before I went to sleep. Most were the standards with a moral point. I read a lot while in High School and some in college, however as I got older (after 34) I find myself reading less. My focus of course over the years has changed. Starting with Ray Bradbury and many fictional books when in school to a very informative book ”My First Car!” The reason I read this were unknown at the time but way before I got my first car.

    I totally ignored it's message and did everything stupid is as stupid does. I don't think reading makes us any less intelligent but what we use the and learn from reading is the most important. Some people can read a book and remember and glean great things. When I read “Winning Through Intimidation” I learned NOT to go into Real Estate Sales!


  5. Dixon, even more amazing is that my Dad's relatives were related to Mark Twain. Sadly Clemens went broke backing a fancy printing press… the competition succeeded. I'm glad Dan Beard is still remembered.

    Rob, I haven't read the last two books on your list and I still have many to read on the McKay's list. I confess I avoided Lord of the Flies during its heyday as several friends complained it was too depressing, but there are many I should add to my reading bucket list.

    RT, I too loved the adventure novels. My brothers and I read everything Edgar Rice Burroughs and A Conan Doyle wrote and lots of stuff besides. I even devoured John Norman's Gor series without realizing it was supposed to be a bit kinky.

    Steve, I know what you mean… some books exist so we learn what NOT to do!

  6. Great column, Leigh, and some really good suggested reading.

    As for my favorite Western novels, they're probably Lonesome Dove (Larry McMurtry), Hombre (Elmore Leonard), Hondo (Louis L'Amour), and Shane (Jack Schaefer). I remember discovering Shane in high school, and thought it was the best book I'd ever read.

  7. The very first book I ever read completely through was "Smoky" by Will James. Certainly not a classic, but I loved it and quickly moved on to "Toby Tyler Joins the Circus" (I don't even remember the author's name. Those two books hooked me on reading, and to some extent, writing.

    So while the classics and the great writers are the backbone of literature, there are lesser writers who do their share.

  8. SHADOW OF A BULL was a Newbury winner and I think it is exactly the kind of book the Art of Manliness members was looking for. I remember giving a book report (in the character of the protagonist!) in sixth grade. The hero is the son of a matador who died in the ring. Everyone is eagerly waiting for him to grow old enough to take up the cape and he is beginning to realize he doesn't want to.

    MAD SCIENTISTS CLUB was a collection of short stories, many of which appeared in Boys' Life. Anyone who proposed a children's book like it today would probably be arrested for inciting terrorism. These small town kids terrified tourists with artificial sea monsters, broke up a parade with an apparently suicidal guy (actually a mannequin), etc. If you google it you will find an excellent website by the author's offspring.

  9. John, I knew you'd come up with a better list that I could. Thank you for mentioning them.

    Herschel, you raise an important point that children's literature builds a foundation for everything else. I see children's authorship a high calling and I'd like to try one some day. I had to look both books and can announce both are still in print, the mark of children's classics. And I learned the author of Toby Tyler is James Otis.

    Rob, I see Brinley and Greer's Mad Scientist Club is still in print too, outliving a publisher who went bankrupt. Those books would have been perfect for me!

    Boys' Life (the magazine, not the movie) was a treat. One series that had at least 3 or 4 in it was about a time-traveling boy with a friend from the past and another from the future.

    I recall a Boys' Life story about bravery that made a crucial point that might be tricky for adults. A boy had been selected for some important purpose. He was set upon by a bully who promised he wouldn't beat the kid up if he licked his shoe. The boy did and the rumor spread that the boy was a coward, an accusation he bore in silence. The story revealed that the boy considered the greater purpose and reluctantly chose to submit to the bully, so that he could accomplish his higher goal. I know adults who couldn't grasp that lesson.

  10. I think every teenager should read James Thurber's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", mainly because every teenager IS Walter (or Wallis) Mitty. And Thurber's "My Life and Welcome To It". Hopefully it will open new vistas of humor...

  11. I read a lot of L. Sprague DeCamp's work when I was in High School. Hadn't heard of the Mad Scientist's club but I remember the time machine stories in Boy's Life.

  12. I hate hearing that men don't read, especially when those percentages are used. If you take away category romance, men read more fiction than women.

    It isn't our fault that category romance novels make up more than forty percent of all novels, and that women read them by the bazillion.

    Men read a LOT of fiction, and keep several genres going pretty much on their own.


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