When you go into the Young Adult section of your public or school library, does it seem like all the books are for girls? Are The Clique and Gossip Girls threatening to overwhelm you with their glossy, lip-sticky covers? Well, never fear, Best Boy Reads are here! Believe it or not, there are some great books out there for the teen-aged males of the world who like a little more testosterone in their paperbacks.
Boy Meets Book
Secrets. We all have ‘em. But at Illington Hall boarding school in Yorkshire England during the Vietnam War, the very air is rife with them. Every student there is concealing something that is at the very least embarrassing, and at the very worst, life threatening. Jenny’s American boyfriend is a solider in Vietnam. Or is he? Oona’s hiding a pretty big secret something from her best friend Sarah, while hunky Nico believes that no one knows about his secret sexy crush on the new teacher. Luke’s private obsession with a local “townie” could potentially put him in the hospital, while Percy’s public obsession with movies and films springs from a private sorrow that is surprisingly close to home. Penelope is always looking for the wrong kind of love and she would rather die than say why, while Brenda’s sneaking out for secret kisses that could lead to the same kind of trouble her sister’s in. It’s not just the bad food at Illington Hall that’s making everyone queasy, but the effort of holding in all those secrets! It’s up to Jenny to take a chance and tell the first truth…if she dares. This spicy, shifting narrative strongly reminded me of the bold, honest Doing It by Melvin Burgess. The ever-changing point of view from one character to the next made this book a rich if occasionally challenging read. I for one definitely needed the names at the beginning of each chapter to keep track of who was who. However, Canadian author Marthe Jocelyn’s briskly paced dialogue is so authentically British that I had to double check and make sure she didn’t grow up in the UK! A perfect read for spring as you shed all your physical and psychological winter layers. Coming to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you April 2014.
“When you’re Gavin and Opal’s gay kid, you always feel like someone is looking at you.” Rafe Goldberg is tired of everyone always looking at him. Ever since he came out in the eighth grade, he’s been “that gay kid.” Which would be fine, except it seems like that’s the only thing people know about him. He also happens to like soccer, “the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and taking photographs of nuns on Segways.” But all people ever seem to care about is who he wants to date. So Rafe convinces his parents to send him to an all-boys boarding school, where he plans to be “openly straight.” Instead of standing out and speaking up, he just wants to lay low and blend in. And it works…at first. But then Rafe starts to get close with Ben. Big sweet Ben who likes to talk both sports and philosophy. Rafe thinks he might be in love. But how can he admit that to Ben when he’s worked so hard to convince everyone how hetero he is? This well-executed leopard-changing-spots story realistically explores what it means to refuse labels, and makes you think extra hard about the folks who don’t have a choice when it comes to hiding part of their identity. Plus it has the sweetest love scene (for me, at least) since I read Forever. If you like this one, be sure to follow it up with Pink by Lili Wilkinson.
World-weary traveler Willem is lost. But not in a GPS sort of way. He knows exactly where he is geographically. But ever since his father’s sudden death and his mother’s consequent withdrawal, he’s been wandering lonely as a cloud, drifting from one European destination to the next, trying to find an emotional anchor. And then for one day in Paris, he does. He meets the charming Lulu, an American girl on vacation who needs a distraction from her life as much as he needs one from his. They spend an amazing twenty four hours together. And then he wakes up in an emergency room, battered, bruised and barely able to remember the girl of his dreams. All he knows is that he wants her back, and he will do anything to find her. Except where does he start when he realizes that Lulu isn’t even her real name? Told in Willem’s brave, tender, tragic voice, this extremely satisfying sequel to the beautifully wrought Just One Day will satiate salivating fans who have been dying to find out what happened to Lulu’s mysterious Dutch crush. If you haven’t encountered Willem and Lulu before, you’ll want to read their twinned accounts back-to-back to get the full experience of their long distance love story. A Just Wonderful romantic adventure for the lucky-in-love and brokenhearted alike.
When Gerald was little, his parents signed his family up to take part in a reality television show called Network Nanny. Instead of helping, the show only exacerbated the issues in Gerald’s home—namely that his oldest sister Tasha was a psychopath who terrorized Gerald and his sister Lisi, and that their mother never did anything to stop it. In retaliation, little Gerald did the only thing he could to get back at his big bad sister: he took televised dumps on her most treasured possessions, earning the charming nickname the Crapper. His parents, unable to face Tasha’s disturbing behavior, blamed Gerald instead and the actress Nanny, the only one who ever called Tasha on her conduct, gave up after Gerald punched her in frustration. Now the Crapper is seventeen years old, and his reputation precedes him everywhere. As a result of his unfortunate television legacy and living under his sister’s reign of evil, he has developed a serious anger management problem that causes him to cut himself off from feeling anything so he doesn’t end up hurting anyone. Because lashing out is the only way he knows how to express himself: “The broken arm in freshman year. And nose. And that time I tried to crush a kid’s neck last year. I memorized the walls of the middle school principal’s office. I memorized every inch of the high school’s in-school suspension room.” But then he meets HER, the one girl who understands how he feels and can maybe even help him turn his life around. But will he ever be able to pull the layers of plastic wrap off his battered heart and learn to trust again? A.S. King’s latest is emotionally exhausting and blisteringly real, unlike the staged shows it’s based on. The story unfolds in a series of little ephiphanies as Gerald slowly comes to realize that he can reclaim his life and even fall in love if he’s brave enough to face down his past and confront his parents. The short chapters and spot-on dialogue make the pages fly. After closing the cover, I felt like I’d been through the psychological wringer—in the best possible way. This is one reality show that tells the truth. For more smart stories of savvy teens who learn to see through adult BS, you’ll want to check out King’s other outstanding titles.
Dinah is a worrywart with a big heart who just wants everyone to get along and everything to be okay. She can’t bear hearing bad news and tries to stay positive even though sometimes she is just so sad about her best friend Skint she can’t take it. Skint is teenage cynic who is angry most of the time about all the bad things that happen to good people, but mostly about the bad thing that has happened to his good family: his smart, generous father is suffering from dementia, and Skint can’t do anything to stop it. When Dinah and Skint befriend a little boy who’s suffering in a way they both recognize all too well, their act of kindness towards him turns out to be a bomb that nearly detonates their friendship. The greatest strength of this character-driven book about real teenagers and real adults with real problems are its long, smart riffs of rich dialogue that just zip off the page, reminding me of some of my favorite titles, like this one, this one and oh, yeah, this one too. The Whole Stupid Way We Are is a sometimes sad, sometimes funny and always moving story about doing the best you can with what you have.
This last volume of the splendidly gruesome Monstrumologist series depicts sixteen-year-old Will Henry rebelling against the authoritarian rule of his mentor and sometimes nemesis Dr. Pellinor Warthrop more than ever before. Through the last three books, Will has continued to spiral down, down, down into a personal darkness from which he believes there is no salvation. Now a stone cold teenager, Will Henry has to fight to feel anything at all, except when it comes to his childhood sweetheart Lilly Bates. When they meet again as teens, he is instantly smitten, and not pleased to be distracted from his courting by Dr. Warthrop’s new obsession with yet another believed-to-be-extinct monster. But Will can never forget the secret that has dwelled in his blood since the beginning, which casts a shadow on his current bond with Lilly. Soon he is embroiled in a convoluted scheme that ends up turning all his relationships to ash, including the one that has defined him his entire life: his complicated connection to Warthrop. After breaking apart in the most spectacular manner, Will and Warthrop meet one last time, each uncertain about his life and legacy and if the world is big enough to contain them both. This concluding title of the Monstrumologist epic is disappointingly thinner than it’s predecessors in plot and page numbers. The beginning is a bit confusing, as it shifts forward and back in time from the events that lead to Will and Warthrop’s break to their final meeting. In addition, Warthrop’s attempts to secure his latest biologically aberrant prize initially devolves into a shaggy dog mystery that is sometimes difficult to follow. However, once yet another beloved character is killed off, the plot becomes clearer and Yancey pulls off a neat slight of hand identity trick near the end that left me both impressed and very, very relieved. And while the ending feels a little too neat, it also feels absolutely true. I am deeply sorry to see Will Henry and Dr. Warthrop go, as this is without a doubt one of my favorite book series of all time. To follow their horrific adventures from the beginning, start here, go there and there and end here when The Final Descent comes to a library, bookstore or e-reader near you.
There are two sides to every story, and stupendously talented author/artist Gene Luen Yang elevates that saying to a whole new level with Boxers & Saints. In this double volume, graphic novel masterpiece, two teenagers become caught up in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1898 on opposite sides, fighting to retain their identity and hold on to their hard won religious values.
Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, the youngest son in a motherless family of farmers from a poor village. When a Catholic missionary priest smashes the statue of one of his village’s gods in front of him, he is devastated, especially since the opera stories he sees during the spring fairs make him feel as though the ancient gods are his close friends and allies. As he grows into adulthood, he begins training with a kung fu master in order to join the rebellion against these foreigners who have their own army and refuse to respect the native Chinese ways. Soon he is heading up his own small army, each member fueled by the angry spirits of the old gods. But as the “Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fist” marches closer and closer to the capital of Peking to “eradicate the foreign devils” once and for all, Little Bao begins to question his rock solid faith as the number of bodies of innocent people build in his violent wake.
Saints tells the story of Four-Girl, a lonely child who is considered a bad luck devil by her family no matter how much she tries to win their approval. The only person who shows her kindness is the village acupuncturist, who is also a Christian. He tells her Bible stories that fire up her imagination, and she begins having recurring visions of Joan of Arc. Soon she decides to become baptized and join the church. She gets a new name, Vibiana, and leaves home to work at a Catholic orphanage, followed by her visions of Joan. When Little Bao’s army comes to her village’s doorstep, Vibiana decides that God is calling on her to be His warrior maiden like Joan of Arc. The tragic, unpredictable result of Little Bao and Vibiana’s final meeting will haunt you long after you close the covers on Saints.
The earthy/monotone palate of both volumes perfectly conveys the rural landscape and hardscrabble life of the peasants, only exploding into vibrant color when Little Bao’s pantheon of Chinese gods arrive on the scene, with their rainbow robes and elaborate masks, or Four-Girl’s golden vision of Joan of Arc shimmers between the trees outside her home. While this exceptional work will no doubt help gazillions of readers understand the complexity behind religious wars and personal freedoms, it can also be appreciated as a swiftly paced adventure peopled with men, women and gods who bring this fascinating period of Chinese history to bloody life. I was blown away by both the richly illustrated package and the timeless message. Read them in the order the title suggests, (first Boxers, then Saints) and then pass them along to everyone you know.
Revenge of the Nerds meets Mean Girls in this high-sterically funny GN drawn by the author of The Adventures of Superhero Girl and Friends with Boys. Charlie is a basketball jock. Nate is a robotics nerd. But somehow they manage to be best friends–until Charlie’s ex-girlfriend Holly proposes using school funds earmarked for the robotics team to instead finance her cheerleading squad’s new uniforms. Furious, Nate decides to try and take over the student council by any means necessary so he can have some say in how the funds are allocated. This incites an all out war between the nerds and the cheerleaders that involves everything from a hijacked scoreboard to copious amounts of weed killer and places Charlie unhappily in the middle. And while it’s not fun being pulled between the two factions, at least it helps distract Charlie from the fact that his divorced parents are making him miserable. But when Nate discovers an original way to solve both funding problems (two words: Robot Rumble) Charlie finds himself in the unlikely role of peacemaker between his best friend and his ex-best girl. Can he find a way to broker peace between his parents as well? This story of high school high jinks crackles with energy fueled by Faith Erin Hicks‘ bold, blocky artwork and Prudence Shen’s chuckle making dialogue. The trash-talking alone at the Robot Rumble had me snorting in my subway seat. You’ll want to throw this in your beach bag pronto. (Want a sneak peek at the panels? Read the webcomic version here.)
Do you remember the first time you realized you were no longer a kid? Maybe it was when your best friend started “going out” with someone and never had time for you anymore. Maybe it was at your middle school “moving up” ceremony when your principal shook your hand instead of hugging you and your parents asked if you would rather get a job instead of going to camp this summer. It’s tricky, that moment. One foot is still on the playground, while the other hovers uncertainly over adulthood. For twelve year old Zach, that moment comes when his father decides the time has come for Zach to retire his “action figures” and throws them away while Zach is at school. Devastated but determined not to show it, Zach tells his two best friends Poppy and Alice that he simply doesn’t have time anymore for the elaborate fantasy game they’ve played for years using dolls and their imaginations. But Poppy can’t let go. She insists that the creepy doll locked in her mom’s china cabinet that has loomed large in their imaginations as the evil Queen of their fantasy land is possessed by the ghost of a girl who needs them to return her to her grave site. Zach and Alice are skeptical until Poppy tells them, “Did you know that bone china has real bones in it?…She’s made from human bones. Little-girl bones.” And the doll does seem to have sack of what looks like ashes inside her. So the three friends go on a quest to return the Queen to her grave, encountering spooky circumstances that may or may not be the result of the dead girl’s ghost. Is there really a ghost, or is this just Poppy’s attempt to keep them believing in magic just a little longer? And what are these new feelings brewing between Alice and Zach? Secrets are revealed between the three that begin to tip the balance from believing that everything is possible to understanding that life isn’t always fair. “I hate that everyone calls it growing up but it feels like dying.” says Poppy passionately, sounding exactly like you, me and any other person who’s been twelve, thirteen, thirty, sixty five or eighty. The feeling that sometimes growing up sucks is universal, and it doesn’t necessarily get any easier as you start hitting the numbers that stop ending in “teen.” Holly Black so gets that in this beautifully melancholy book about endings and beginnings that will speak to readers of all ages. Without a doubt, one of the best books of the year.