One of my goals, as a Children’s Librarian, has always been to expand the experiences of young readers. As is reflected in many of my blog posts, I come from the generation – the first overtly feminist generation – that dressed our children in lime and yellow and worked to make gender stereotypes less restrictive for our children. That applies to reading, too. When recommending books, I am as likely as not to suggest books with strong girls, as well as adventurous boys. In fact, while researching a new shelf in the Children’s department, I discovered that that is actually the easier part of the equation. The tougher job is finding books for boys that are non-normative. Certainly, it’s tougher to get boys to read and, addressing that, writers tend to write stereotypical “boy” books. Books full of gross-out humor, action and adventure, or sports themes are easy sells to most boys. However, there are also boys who might want a less typical book and I want to address this, too, in this list.
Here are some of my picks. Remember, these are not the ONLY books in these categories, but they do represent a good starting place for those of you whose children don’t fit into easy interest classifications:
The Finisher, by David Baldacci.
Fourteen-year-old Vega Jane had a very clear sense that no one would ever leave her village. Wormwood, after all, is surrounded by a dark forest teeming with monsters. But then one day, the unthinkable happens: Quentin Herms, her teacher, disappears into the woods after Vega witnesses a disturbing sight, and leaves behind a message that alerts her to the secrets he tried to leave behind. Vega Jane is a winning new heroine, sure to draw fans to her fantasy world worthy of Middle Earth. (Grades 5 to 9)
The Boy on the Porch, by Sharon Creech.
When a young couple finds a boy asleep on their porch, their lives take a surprising turn. Unable to speak, the boy Jacob can’t explain his history. All John and Marta know is that they have been chosen to care for him. And, as their connection and friendship with Jacob grow, they embrace his exuberant spirit and talents. The three of them blossom into an unlikely family and begin to see the world in brand-new ways. (Grades 3 to 7)
Flora & Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo.
It begins, as the best superhero stories do, with a tragic accident that has unexpected consequences. The squirrel never saw the vacuum cleaner coming, but self-described cynic Flora Belle Buckman, who has read every issue of the comic book Terrible Things Can Happen to You!, is the just the right person to step in and save him. What neither can predict is that Ulysses (the squirrel) has been born anew, with powers of strength, flight, and misspelled poetry — and that Flora will be changed too, as she discovers the possibility of hope and the promise of a capacious heart . (Grades 3 to 7)
The Search for WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi.
When a marauder destroys the underground sanctuary that Eva Nine was raised in by the robot Muthr, the twelve-year-year-old girl is forced to flee aboveground. Eva Nine is searching for anyone else like her: She knows that other humans exist because of an item she treasures—a scrap of cardboard on which is depicted a young girl, an adult, and a robot, with the strange word, “WondLa.” Fantastic illustrations augment this tale of science fiction and adventure. (Grades 5 to 8)
Better Nate than Ever, by Tim Federle.
This is a relatively new series of books about Nate Foster, a pre-teen from Pittsburgh who loves Broadway with a devotion only known to a very few. He and his neighbor/best friend, Libby, share the passion for the stage (with Libby taking the director’s role). Therefore, when Libby finds an audition for the new Broadway cast of E.T., they just know Nate has to go, even if it means running away from home, getting lost in Times Square, and staying with an errant aunt in New York that Nate has never met. (Grades 5-8)
One Dog and His Boy, by Eva Ibbotson.
The passing of Eva Ibbotson took away one of the true shining lights of children’s fiction. In this non-witchy book (most of her books are fantasy) Hal wants a dog but his parents say no, until his parents discover a rent-a-pet agency. Hal bonds with funny looking Fleck never knowing that the dog is not his to keep. The only way that he can keep him is to hatch a plot to run away with his pet where no one can find them. (Grades 3 to 7)
The View from Saturday, by E. L. Konigsburg.
Noah, Nadia, Ethan, and Julian compose the sixth grade Academic Bowl Team led by Mrs. Olinski. Mrs. Olinski deals with her physical problems after an auto accident, in part, by creating this team of misfits and making them so cohesive a unit and so smart that they are able to beat even the seventh and eighth grades. How a team is build and how they support each other, even their coach, is the stuff of a wonderful, emotionally gratifying story. (Grades 4 to 7)
Savvy, by Ingrid Law.
For generations, the Beaumont family has harbored a magical secret. They each possess a “savvy”–a special supernatural power that strikes when they turn thirteen. Grandpa Bomba moves mountains, her older brothers create hurricanes and spark electricity . . . and now it’s the eve of Mibs’s big day. (Grades 4 to 8)
Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things, by Lenore Look.
Alvin, an Asian American second grader, is afraid of everything—elevators, tunnels, girls, and, most of all, school. He’s so afraid of school that, while he’s there, he never, ever, says a word. But at home he’s a very loud superhero named Firecracker Man, a brother to Calvin and Anibelly, and a gentleman-in-training, so he can be just like his dad.
The Higher Power of Lucky, by Susan Patton.
Lucky, age 10, lives in tiny Hard Pan, California (population 43), with her dog and the young French woman who is her guardian. With a personality that may remind some readers of Ramona Quimby, Lucky, who is totally contemporary, teeters between bravado–gathering insect specimens, scaring away snakes from the laundry–and fear that her guardian will leave her to return to France. Looking for solace, Lucky eavesdrops on the various 12-step meetings held in Hard Pan (of which there are plenty), hoping to suss out a “higher power” that will see her through her difficulties. Her best friend, Lincoln, is a taciturn boy with a fixation for tying knots; another acquaintance, Miles, seems a tiresome pest until Lucky discovers a secret about his mother. Patron’s plotting is as tight as her characters are endearing. Lucky is a true heroine, especially because she’s not perfect: she does some cowardly things, but she takes pains to put them to rights. (Grades 3 to 7)
Surviving the Applewhites, by Stephanie S. Tolan.
Jake Semple seems to be on his way to juvenile detention when he is taken in by an amazingly creative family, the Applewhites. In this household, E.D., who is organized and non-artistic, is the misfit. Jake has to learn to conform to a family in which dad directs a community production of the Sound of Music, while mom works at creating the great American novel. Their different lifestyle even attracts a reality show crew which is another intrusion into their chaotic life. (Grades 5 to 8)
Eliza Bing Is (Not) a Big, Fat Quitter, by Carmella Van Vleet.
In this uplifting novel about determination and the rewards of hard work, a preteen girl struggling with ADHD must stick with a summer tae kwon do class to prove that she s dedicated enough to pursue her true passion: cake decorating. (Grades 3 to 6)
Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vandergard.
Abilene Tucker feels abandoned. Her father has put her on a train, sending her off to live with an old friend for the summer while he works a railroad job. Armed only with a few possessions and her list of universals, Abilene jumps off the train in Manifest, Kansas, aiming to learn about the boy her father once was.
Having heard stories about Manifest, Abilene is disappointed to find that it’s just a dried-up, worn-out old town. But her disappointment quickly turns to excitement when she discovers a hidden cigar box full of mementos, including some old letters that mention a spy known as the Rattler. These mysterious letters send Abilene and her new friends, Lettie and Ruthanne, on an honest-to-goodness spy hunt, even though they are warned to “Leave Well Enough Alone.” Historical fiction and resourceful girls, at their best. (Grades 5 to 8)
The Curtain Went Up, My Pants Fell Down, by Henry Winkler.
Meet Hank Zipfer, if you haven’t already. Zipfer is Henry Winkler’s (yes, THAT Henry Winkler) invention to excise the ghost of his own childhood learning disabilities. In this episode, Hank is failing math, but also wants to be in the school play of The King and I. His dad says he has to get his grades up to participate in extracurricular activities, so Hank turns to his co-star in the play, a brainy girl, to help him learn math. (Grades 4 to 6)
This is a list that only scratches the surface of books that will appeal to the non-traditional reader. However, you are bound to find at least one book, here, that will entice your boy or girl to want to follow up with other books that defy gender.
-Written by Lois Rubin Gross, Senior Children’s Librarian