Books for a self-declared 12-yo non-reader
November 26, 2012 12:39 AM   Subscribe

My step-son is 12. I challenged him to read one book in 2013 and his response was "John, I don't read. You know that. I read for school and class. But, otherwise, I don't read." I have started him on comic books as a primer but I am looking for a short fiction or non-fiction alternative. Also, maybe a writing club of some kind would be amenable but I don't want him to be Dudley's lone scout of the 826 model. He loves cooking, sci-fi, Adventure Time, Minecraft, architecture, and animals. Nothing with nightmares, please.
posted by parmanparman to Shopping (45 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Novelizations of sci fi movies he likes might be worth a try, the better ones expand a lot on the script by offering characters' internal dialog and backstory. In a similar vein, some movies/tv shows have spawned shelves-full of stories with secondary characters in the original story now starring as protagonists in their own stories.
posted by jamaro at 12:54 AM on November 26, 2012

Comic books -> graphic novels -> actual novels! (maybe.... we can hope)

Here's a list of graphic novels for young adults that you could use as reference.

One that I think is a great coming of age novel especially for teen boys (probably have to be at least 14 to appreciate though) would be The Perks of Being a Wallflower. What about the classic Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? If he likes sci fi, that book has a tone that no movie or TV could replicate the experience of.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:01 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

One other idea for an animal lover... James Herriot is really good, and since every chapter is generally a different vignette in these books, they can be good for the short of attention span.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 1:04 AM on November 26, 2012

Perhaps something like the Encyclopedia Brown books? Each one has about ten short mysteries that the reader solves along with Encyclopedia. I was obsessed with them when I was a year or two younger than your stepson.

I wonder if he might enjoy reading some non-fiction? There's a lot of really great illustrated books for kids his age on things like how spaceships work, the human body, animals, etc. Dorling Kindersley is one well-known publisher, but perhaps you could take your stepson to your local bookstore or library and let him pick out a couple that interest him.

Also, if he likes cooking, why not some cookbooks?
posted by Georgina at 1:05 AM on November 26, 2012

Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad
Glen Cook's The Black Company
Brian Daley's Requiem For a Ruler of Worlds
David Eddings' Pawn of Prophecy
Raymond E Feist's Magician Apprentice
Keith Laumer's Retief Series

I read for school and class. But, otherwise, I don't read.
Check to see if his teacher is mostly suggesting 'Problem Books', wherein the young protagonist learns to deal with {his parent's drinking / some struggle involving self-identity, being bullied, etc}. As opposed to books wherein the young protagonist has an adventure. (And is actually fun to read)
posted by sebastienbailard at 1:47 AM on November 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

A Minecraft adventure book? (I have no idea if that is any good).

My younger brother enjoyed these adventure-story series when he was about the age of your stepson
- The Ranger's Apprentice
- the Redwall books: there's now a graphic novel you could start with (this might be a good one for the love of animals aspect: all the characters are animals).
- the Artemis Fowl books, also now with a graphic novel version
- the Alex Rider series (now a movie), now with graphic novel version
posted by jacalata at 2:07 AM on November 26, 2012

I have had a great time coaxing a reluctant 13 year old boy to read, and have a number of suggestions that involve creating an environment where it is rewarding to spend time with a book, without adult intervention. I used two tactics -

1) heavily visual books that accompany a particular passion, in this example it was soccer, but say it's WWE and wrestling sets his heart ablaze. Dorling Kindersley publish excellent visual encyclopaedias on a range of topics, this is the one on wrestling. Something about being able to look up things that interest you tend to shift the place of books. I got him a few of these, including the cross section DK books which he had scattered about his room, and would occasionally pick up.

2) The Shaun Tan books are surprisingly effective - they don't have words, so allow for the reader to spend time engaging with what's going on, and feeling comfortable with the idea of independent reading as something OK to do. This one in particular, The Arrival
Toby frequently brought to me and asked if we could look at it together.

This then leads to comics/graphic novels and general delight, but at his own pace. And can I say on behalf of readers everywhere, what a great step-dad you are.
posted by Augenblick at 2:13 AM on November 26, 2012

At almost 200 pages it's longer than what you might be looking for, but My Side of the Mountain is a great adventure story, with animals, about a kid who's around that age and written for a kid around that age.
posted by jon1270 at 2:23 AM on November 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think sebastienbailard might be right - people I know (including myself) didn't like books until discovering the ones that schools and teachers don't do.

I think he needs a can't-put-it-down experience.
He might be a bit old, but how about either you read to him or you set up an audio book to play for a while just after bedtime (pick something he'd be all over - a sci-fi adventure or whatnot, and one of the ones that you Just Can't Put Down).
Mid way through, when everything is awesome and he doesn't want to stop, switch him to the book.
posted by anonymisc at 2:25 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

If he's twelve you'll probably want to avoid books that branded as "young adult" - kids generally want to read stuff that they perceive as being aimed for an age group 2 years older than their own. By 12, this means adult books.

Not all adult books are particularly challenging to read for a 12 year old who is allergic to reading.

So why not Stephen King's books of short stories. Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected is pretty awesome. Hell, even Judy Bloom books or SE Hinton books.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:29 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Two of my sons were "non readers" who were weaned onto actual books via dross like MAD magazine, the Captain Underpants books, Goosebumps, Paul Jennings and other silly stuff. They both enjoyed Horrible Histories and Horrible Science - they are simple but interesting, with short, easily digested chunks of text. I used to scoop up choose your own adventure books whenever I saw them, and those were good too (especially the Goosebumps choose your own adventure!) Some of their favourite first actual book reads were Hatchet, the Hitchhikers books, Terry Pratchett (Mort is a nice first one), Garth Nix, and the first book in the Earthsea series (which is largely about boys). If he likes manga, you might try the really great Manga Cookbook.
posted by thylacinthine at 2:29 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wonder if Piers Anthony would be a place to look. Much of his stuff is funny, silly, and aimed at this age group.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 2:38 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read a ton of Choose Your Own Adventure, Fighting Fantasy, and Lone Wolf books at that age - my local library had a shelf full of them. Recently, some have been released as iOS and Android apps if that helps get past the problem of paper books being anathema.
posted by liquidindian at 2:38 AM on November 26, 2012

Interesting, informative nonfiction about animals would be a good bet here.
posted by Pallas Athena at 2:52 AM on November 26, 2012

My sister is a teacher, and last week I asked her for children's book recommendations. She gave one for reluctant readers in middle school, and she said the kids (and teachers) all love it: Diary of a Wimpy Kid. She says the first one plus the Do-It-Yourself book encourage writing as well. I believe you can see all 200+ pages here.
posted by Houstonian at 3:38 AM on November 26, 2012

If you like the idea of Choose Your Own Adventure books and want enjoy it as a shared activity, you can turn reading into a game and over-acting masterclass with Tales of the Arabian Nights.
posted by liquidindian at 4:03 AM on November 26, 2012

I didn't read when I was 12. I started in my 20s when I had the kind of boring job where you had to sit around a lot. My point is that you needn't over-worry about his non-reading. Does he see you and/or his mother reading a lot? Does he have friends who read?

That said, let me second Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:22 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Will he read magazines? Titles like National Geographic or New Scientist might get him used to reading (obviously choose something at his level), which can be grown into a full non-fiction book.

Also, from experience, if a person isn't a fiction reader you can't make them one. I worked for several years in my teens to learn to love fiction, and won't ever touch it now. He has to choose that himself, if at all.
posted by Jehan at 4:28 AM on November 26, 2012

He sounds like a well-rounded, nice kid. You could give him Wimpy Kid or Harry Potter, but you could also leave him alone. He doesn't have to enjoy reading the way you enjoy reading. He's required to read for school so if he doesn't want to do it for pleasure, even though I totally agree he's missing out, that's still understandable. He may become a reader at his own pace
posted by DarlingBri at 4:38 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Your stepson sounds hilarious. Have you tried listening to any books on tape or cd together? There are lots of wonderful recordings of great books and short stories. You could give one a shot while cooking together. Who knows, maybe he'll get hooked on a particular story or author.
posted by Lisitasan at 4:50 AM on November 26, 2012

Yes, yes, yes on the "Wimpy Kid" series. And, as mentioned above, yes to "The Wimpy Kid Do-It-Yourself Book."

He might also enjoy "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Lightning Thief: The Graphic Novel," which is quick moving (and can also be subsequently read in the original, along with its sequels).

The audio version of Terry Pratchett's "The Wee Free Men" is FABULOUS, if you're willing to use audio as a bridge to print.

You have a builder? Check out the architectural wonders of David Macaulay (self-link FPP), especially "Building Big."
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:51 AM on November 26, 2012

Get him started on the Artemis Fowl series.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:19 AM on November 26, 2012

How about Anthony Boudain's Kitchen Confidential, or other memoir type books of colorful characters? My brother vastly preferred nonfiction at that age.
posted by snickerdoodle at 5:27 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Artemis Fowl, Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson are all great suggestions.

I also like The Hunger Games, if he's into that sort of thing. I literally let dinner burn because I was so engrossed in reading it, and I really don't /like/ dystopias to begin with.
posted by Tamanna at 5:52 AM on November 26, 2012

I'm assuming he's in sixth grade, so I'm thinking about sixth grade me, who did like to read. Tragically, that's why I think the Hitchhiker's Guide might be a bad idea. I didn't quite get all the jokes, at least until I got going. (I have a clear memory of asking the friend who lent me the book what was with the guy being nailed to the tree references.) It's also one of the last books I read that contained words I didn't know or couldn't deduce from context.

At least one Piers Anthony book has some mild sexual content that sixth grade me found so mortifying I stopped reading. My brother, who's probably read all his books, has no idea what it could have been. It's unlikely something you'd object to your kid reading--I'd borrowed the book from my sixth grade teacher--but it put me off Piers Anthony for life.

So now that I've rubbished people's suggestions, what can I come up with? I was reading a lot of Star Wars novels in sixth grade. Of course, this was right after Star Wars was re-released, but Star Wars novels were probably some of my first 'adult' books. (My friends and I definitely looked down on the Young Jedi Knights series, by the way.) At the end of the day, I don't read much sci-fi, but my friends read I, Robot and whatnot around this age, I think. I went on a Mark Salzman kick in sixth grade--I borrowed The Soloist from the teacher at random, which lead to Iron and Silk, which I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to a random kid (whereas The Soloist was probably a weird choice for a 12 year old).

I read it much later, but I found Lucy to be really readable. There is a somewhat tedious section about teeth, though. It's the one thing I can really offer in the 'animals' category. Well, not quite. 12 was roughly the age (though it may have been a bit older) where I started reading Dick Francis. I've never been really interested in the horse bits, but I really like the detail about various occupations (even the horse-related ones). Decider features an architect, though admittedly not that much about architecture. Comeback features a veterinary practice, but has a gory bit. (The Sid Halley books in particular have some violence and flashbacks to it that make me squirm, but not nightmare territory, I shouldn't think.)

I think it was seventh grade where I got into John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Stephen King (though he might have been eighth). They don't exactly skew towards short books, though. Anyway, sixth grade was probably the last gasps of reading 'children's books' for me. I never read YA.
posted by hoyland at 6:00 AM on November 26, 2012

Kitchen Confidential is not for any 12-y.o. I know.

You might explain that many books have good stuff that movies leave out, and then have him see such a movie that's made from a book. The LoTR movies might work here, for example, or the upcoming Hobbit movie.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:02 AM on November 26, 2012

At his age I loved the Adrian Mole books - they are written as satire for adults, but the first couple of diaries I related to a lot as a kid. However, seeing as they were written in a) Britain and b) the 1980s, chances are some of the references will be off-puttingly unfamiliar. There are also references to him measuring his penis, which was interesting to me as a nine year old girl who was just realising boys had them, but might be potentially embarrassing.

Why not give Hitch-Hiker's Guide a go? It's sci-fi, it's funny, and it's perfectly readable for a tween. Sixth grade is 10/11, right? I read it when a little younger than that and loved it. For reference, I read The Hobbit at the same age and found it a slog.

I loved Judy Blume at his age but I don't know if his peers would see it as 'girly'. Paula Danziger is funnier if I remember correctly, but a similar 'teen with problems they need to solve; tone - there is one of her books about a family having to move to the moon which I loved. I think it was This Place Has No Atmosphere. Charlie Higson has also written some interesting sounding books for teens about a plague that kills off anyone over 14, but that might not qualify for 'no nightmares'.

My Family and Other Animals has been on my mental list of what to read for a while - that might be worth a go.
posted by mippy at 6:16 AM on November 26, 2012

Cooking, ey? Bourdain is pretty gamey. Instead try Hotel Bemelmans and When You Lunch with the Emperor. Well written, very funny.

For page-turning goodness, Rafael Sabatini still holds up.

(We're talking small doses of writing in each case, BTW. Sabatini does gripping short fiction.)
posted by BWA at 6:32 AM on November 26, 2012

Kitchen Confidential is not for any 12-y.o. I know.

Oh, it was totally inappropriate. That's why he liked it. I had qualms, but it was well written and interesting for him, which meant he actually finished it and wanted to talk about it.

There are tons of memoirs about animals too. There's one about saving the animals at the Bagdhad Zoo, and a couple by animal trainers. At that age, cool people doing interesting/shocking things were a big hit.
posted by snickerdoodle at 6:43 AM on November 26, 2012

I have a 12-year-old who will read most anything. I have a 9-year-old who is a "reluctant reader". He reads but he is picky.

Here are some books that your son may like:

Guinness Book of World Records 2013

Top 10 of Everything 2013

My nine-year-old recently read and loved Wonkenstein. and My Life as a Book.
posted by Fairchild at 6:58 AM on November 26, 2012

Although fantasy isn't on the list, the M.Y.T.H series of books are funny, short, feature a boy who in an alternate universe is a powerful magician, and had groan-worthy puns. I enjoyed them greatly in middle school, and might be a nice "next step" once he gets into comic books or graphic novels.

Update: A ha! The Wiki page linked above notes that there was a graphic novel adaptation of some of the books, so you might be able to bridge your step-son from the graphic novels to the actual books once he became familiar with the characters.
posted by absquatulate at 7:00 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I will just describe the method my 6th-grade English teacher used to solve this exact problem -- you'll have to adjust the author to meet your "no nightmares" criteria but in general it worked like a charm:

She read aloud from Dean Koontz novels in class, and edited for content, in a way that was somehow both obvious and not hey-look-at-me. This led to lots of moments like:

"The gruesome beast raced toward them, leaped with claws ready to rip their entrails... hmm... okay, we'll have to skip a few bits... okay, here we are. They stood over the lifeless body of the animal..."

"Exhausted from the chase, they fell into each other's arms and... hmm... okay... [turns 3 pages]... When they woke the next day..."

25 years after the fact, it's almost embarrassing how readily we all took the (obvious) bait. Kids (especially boys, who tend to be delayed in reading at this point in school) would run like mad to find the books and read all the nasty bits she had left out. She was very firm, with the parents who inevitably complained, that the whole point was to get kids to realize that reading was an activity people could do for fun, and that everything else (like quality of material) was a distant second.
posted by range at 7:16 AM on November 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

It's possible that he's reading online, sorta, kinda, and that he's just fine with the amount of reading he's doing. Yes, you can encourage him (but Wimpy Kid is way too young for a 12 year old, I think.) but you might also think about other things to do with him that he'd enjoy and invite him to see how a specific book has influenced your own life. My son wasn't an enthusiastic reader until late teens, largely because everyone kept jamming it down his throat and the more we all pushed, the more he resisted.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:33 AM on November 26, 2012

Have somebody he really looks up to give him an enormous book as a gift, like the entire Hitchhiker's series in one bound volume. No mention should be made by the giver that he doesn't read, and it should be presented as if it's a given that of course he'll read the whole thing and love it. Wait six months.

That worked for me with my younger brother-in-law who, at the same age, was in precisely the same situation. He read it and loved it. The following Christmas I gave him the complete works of Mark Twain. He read those, too. Ten years later he graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in English.
posted by waldo at 8:50 AM on November 26, 2012

I'm 3 times his age, but my interests run along those lines, though I wasn't into cooking when I was that young. If I had been, I probably would've been interested in something like Alton Brown's cookbooks (obviously not the same thing as a book, and yet...), but I would suggest cooking-science books like "What Einstein Told His Cook" by Robert L. Wolke which is a collection of newspaper columns offering some scientific clarity to questioning readers, or Jeffrey Steingarten's collected columns as Vogue's food writer in books such as "The Man Who Ate Everything."

Another angle might be a biography on someone he looks up to, perhaps an actor or other famous person.

I like the idea of the Hitchhiker's series-- if he balks, you can probably get ahold of the radio series, play an hour or so of it, enough to get him interested, and then put the book in his hands.

On that note, have you tried audiobooks? Does he already have an mp3 player grafted to his body, or is he too young for that? The local library can probably provide a free first taste; after that, perhaps an subscription if the library comes up short.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:28 AM on November 26, 2012

Another vote for the Artemis Fowl series; also Brian Jacques's Redwall series. I have a stepson who is not quite a nonreader but definitely is a seldom-reader in a family of serious readers, and those were the books that really grabbed him at that age (literally--we'd give him a book, he'd do nothing but read for two days, he'd be done, and that would be all he wanted for the next six months to a year). His interests sound quite similar to your stepson's, so these books might be a good match.

(And for the future--Redwall seemed a natural bridge to Watership Down. I gave it to him when he was 16 or so. Same exact thing happened.)
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:28 AM on November 26, 2012

Dude, you guys. My six year old is finishing up the Wimpy Kid series. Yes, I know there are a few pages here and there that are too old for him, but it's really way too young for a 12 year old.

I'd give him Stephen King's short stories & novellas. Night Shift and Skeleton Crew to start.
posted by peep at 9:44 AM on November 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Came in to suggest Choose Your Own Adventure books as well. Library had a ton of them, and they were always at garage sales & book sales by the boxes.
posted by mittenedsex at 10:00 AM on November 26, 2012

And yes, assuming he is a good reader (reading at 12 year old level, good reading comprehension and grasp of vocabulary), I'd be aiming for adult-level books. At that age, my (female) friends and I were obsessed with John Grisham, Dean Koontz, and some Stephen King (though I don't know if that's something you'd want to subject him to). Easy reading but thrilling. Sorry I can't help withs pecifics, but I know my brothers (who were and still sort of are non-readers) spent a couple of years enthralled with some sci-fi/fantasy series. Maybe others who are more familiar with those can chime in.
posted by mittenedsex at 10:05 AM on November 26, 2012

Sorry last comment! My brothers were GOOD readers, but they just didn't really enjoy it. They also didn't devour books the way I did (slower readers, I think). It was a huge deal for them when they could actually FINISH a novel. Sense of accomplishment and all that. I'd aim for something that isn't an 800-page epic journey as the first book.

I have no clue what the assigned reading list looks like these days, but in sixth grade, A Wrinkle in Time and Tuck Everlasting were really enjoyable for everyone (as far as I could tell).

Oh, what about Ender's Game & The Giver? I first read & enjoyed those in middle school, but they're frequently on HS reading lists because of the themes. Might be good to challenge a little bit if he feels like the books are boring.
posted by mittenedsex at 10:10 AM on November 26, 2012

I would actually suggest just leaving him alone, or making him the deal that you will buy him a subscription to whatever magazine he wants and if he reads that, you will stay off his back about reading anything else outside of school. That's what my parents did when my brother was your stepson's age; and they kept up that deal all through his high school career; and all throughout high school, all my brother read for fun was Sports Illustrated and a single biography of Bob Marley.

And then his first year of college he did a 180 and was eagerly asking us all for books for Christmas -- things like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Dharma Bums and Motorcycle Diaries and James Abbey nature journals and such. He's been reading ever since.

If you want to make someone into a reader, you should avoid doing something that makes reading feel like it's a chore you're asking them to do. Plying him with books may feel that way. But that one magazine deal and dropping it may give him the space to grow out of it. Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:17 AM on November 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would suggest nonfiction on a subject he likes--books based on movies, manga based on anime, 100 Cool Facts About Bugs or Indian Food 101 or whatnot. Then it really isn't about reading, per se--it's about learning more of whatever is cool.

I tried this with my brother-in-law who was 20 and didn't read. Likes cars, video games, and other similar recreational activities, but no reading. So we gave him Fight Club, and he liked that, and after that Snow he doesn't think books are so boring, but they're still not his first choice and I have to accept that he likes cars and videos and he's good at that--those are his hobbies, not reading. I'm good at reading and no good with cars and videos, so reading's my hobby. Hard for me to understand, but that's diversity.
posted by epanalepsis at 12:06 PM on November 26, 2012

Redwall is good. Hunger games is good. I enjoyed Hatchet and Island of the Blue Dolphins (might be girly) a lot when I was younger. Calvin and Hobbes. My Teacher is an Alien. Wayside School series. Enders game is very fun, sci-fi.

I do kinda caution against Piers Anthony because some of his non-Xanth books mention rape and molestation; the Xanth series can make very little sense if you start anywhere after book, say, 5 of 11billinty, and a couple of the later Xanth books seem to have TERRIBLE writing. YMMV.
posted by Jacen at 3:22 PM on November 26, 2012

M.Y.T.H ... graphic novel adaptation

The first part of it is online.
posted by reprise the theme song and roll the credits at 2:19 AM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm still going to make the argument for "Wimpy Kid." My son was a reluctant reader at 7, but as soon as he realized that "Wimpy Kid" had 1) illustrations; 2) large print, and 3) jokes, he was MUCH more amenable to the idea of HAVING to read a book. Turns out that he loves the series. Upon first reading, he would often read bits aloud to get my reaction, and he has re-read the books several times voluntarily (and just today received the latest in the series, which he started reading immediately). Won't argue that it might be too young for a savvy 12-year-old, but there are sensible reasons (from a reluctant reader's perspective) to consider this particular set of books.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:12 PM on November 29, 2012

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