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
High school freshman Travis Ray Coates is dying from incurable cancer when doctors tell his family there’s one last chance for survival—as long as Travis doesn’t mind having his neck separated from his torso. It seems there’s a new cryogenic technology that will allow Travis’s head to be detached and frozen until doctors can find him a donor body to link it to. There’s only one little glitch—the technology isn’t quite there yet. So Travis goes to sleep before the operation to remove his noggin, not knowing when or even if he will ever wake up. When he does comes to, five years have passed and he has a new body that is in way better shape than his old one. Being alive is obviously better than being dead, but Travis quickly discovers that starting life over is much more complicated than he ever imagined. First of all, he is still technically sixteen and has to finish high school while everyone else he knows has moved on to work or college. Next, his girlfriend and love of his life Cate Conroy now has a fiancée. A fiancée! And if all that wasn’t enough, there’s also the little matter of skinny jeans.
“’These are pretty tight,’ I said, walking out to model a pair of jeans for my mom.
‘It’s the style.’
‘I don’t understand. I can hardly move…are these girl jeans?’
‘No, Travis. I told you. It’s what everyone wears now. Boys and girls.’”
Suddenly, being back isn’t all that great. “I thought if I woke up at all, it would be in a hundred years to a brand-new world full of new people. But instead there I was stuck in this mutated version of my old life where everyone had grown-up just enough to forget about me…I came back from the dead for this? Joke’s on me.” This fresh, funny novel about losing your life in order to find your place is hands down the most original story I’ve read in ages. Travis’ voice is sweet and folky, full of a bewilderment that anyone who’s ever found themselves in a fish-out-of-water situation can relate to. I was an unabashed fan of Corey Whaley’s debut novel, and I’m happy to say that his sophomore effort more than meets my sky-high expectations. There’s something just a little bit genius about using a decapitated head as a symbol for teenage identity formation, and I urge you to sample the genius for yourselves. Heads will roll in a library, bookstore or e-reader near you April 2014.
“Something you should know up front about my family: we believe that Jesus is coming back…I don’t mean metaphorically, like someday in the distant future…I mean literally, like glance out the car window and, ‘Oh hey, there’s Jesus in the sky.’”
Young Aaron Hartzler accepted his parents’ literal belief in the Bible and their strict rules about what pop culture he could consume without question. But when his parents talked about the Rapture, that moment when Jesus would return to Earth and take all the Christians up to Heaven, Aaron couldn’t help but hope that Jesus would hold off until he had a chance to live a little. “There are so many things I want to do before I go to heaven, like drive a car, and act in another play, and go to the movies.” And as Aaron grew older, tasted freedom at summer camp and started to see how other people interpreted the Bible, he began to wonder if he could continue along the path his parents set him on, especially when it came to his future. “The problem is, I don’t want to surrender my talents to God. What if he makes me use them as a missionary or Christian schoolteacher? That isn’t the life I want for myself.” Soon, Aaron is questioning everything, and though he deeply loves his parents, he is beginning to find their narrow view on religion stifling. “There are all sorts of Christians with all sorts of different rules, not to mention other people who believe in other religions. What about all of the people on the other side of the world who believe as strongly in their God as we believe in our God? Are they going to hell because they were unlucky enough to be born in the wrong place?” How Aaron resolves his dual life, comes to terms with his sexual identity and manages his parents’ expectations forms the basis of this simply told true story that rings true whether you believe in the Rapture or not. Aaron Hartzler’s moving memoir about growing up in a conservative Baptist home where Jesus was considered a member of the family hit me hard in the heart muscle. Although the evangelical Christian lifestyle may seem peculiar to some, Hartzler’s physical and psychological struggles to make his family happy while still trying to follow his own dreams are universal and will be completely understood by anyone who’s ever tried to figure out where their family role ends and their individuality begins.
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.