Book Recs for Teens Who Hate to Read and Have Emotional Disabilities
November 15, 2014 6:52 AM   Subscribe

I got a lot of great ideas after this question about things to teach my high school English class, but I need more book recs. MeFis are a literate bunch, but I have incredibly specific parameters from which I can work.

It's a class of four teenage boys in a therapeutic high school class. Their reading levels range from fifth grade decoding and comprehension to seventh grade abilities. They are NOT strong readers and all reading we do has to be done in class because they won't do homework.

All four boys have various psychiatric diagnoses: anxiety, oppositional behavior, BPD, features consistent with psychosis. I mention this to explain that at any given moment, these kids are working with severe mental challenges and could give a flying f*ck about reading a book.

What has kinda sorta worked: we started with some essays from "Best American Food Writing" and we read "Maus" together. Those worked pretty well, in the sense that they were able to take some meaning and make some interpretations. But it was a LOT of work.

I need some more stuff for them, but it needs to adhere to some of the following:

* it can't have references to suicide, mental institutions, drugs or alcohol. They're all too triggering.
* the main characters can't be overly negative like Holden Caufield, as they interpret Holden as perfect and all their (mis)interpretations reinforce their own distorted perceptions;
* the stories need to be as literal as possible because these kids just don't comprehend subtlety.

Here's what I've tried and hasn 't worked:

Douglas Adams (they all thought they wanted to read him but the sci-fi nature was just too out there, and they couldn't understand any of it);
Hunter S Thompson (they fixated on the "people are morons" aspect);
The Other Wes Moore (they struggle with perspective-taking and they just didn't care);
Stephen King (became argumentative that the kids in "The Long Walk" should have just run away, therefore the book was stupid and they refused to read it);
a script from "The Office," (the British version was better and we're not going to read this);
"Holes;" (why don't they just run away)
"Gift of the Magi:" (they were both idiots).

I've asked them to bring in whatever they want to read and their response has been that they don't read , there's nothing they want to read, and that's that. Their families offer no support.

I'm losing my mind trying to come up with ANYTHING these kids will read. I am not looking for a Dead Poet's Society moment. I've got terrific activities to do with the gentlemen, but I still need to have them read some things.
posted by kinetic to Education (41 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I realize that this will sound sort of off-the-wall, but I am constantly amazed by how much The Outsiders still resonates with troubled teenagers, even though I find it really silly and dated. I can't tell you how many kids - often kids in real gangs where they don't talk about their haircuts and hug each other - have called it their favorite book.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:29 AM on November 15, 2014 [3 favorites]

Does it need to be "books", can it be very short stories, or poetry?

Something like Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends" comes to mind. Short stories by Mark Twain. A number of books by Farley Mowat might fit, like "Never Cry Wolf", "Little Big Man" by Thomas Berger.

And, yes, "The Outsiders".

Good luck!
posted by HuronBob at 7:32 AM on November 15, 2014

You could also try some books from the Orca Soundings series, which are high-interest/low-reading level titles; some do include the triggers you want to avoid, so you'll need to preview. Their sports titles are particularly popular with my lower level students.

Do they like sports? Tim Green's books are, IMO, very straightforward and written at maybe a 5th-grade level (like most YA, actually), and have kids dealing with serious problems (I'm thinking of Unstoppable, which features a deadbeat and then dead mom, abusive foster parents, and then a cancer diagnosis) with a reliably uplifting ending.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:32 AM on November 15, 2014

Love That Dog and her other books by Sharon Creech is wonderful - the poetry is very accessible and the story is about a boy who is struggling to use words to express himself.

The Sherlock Holmes original canon is great fun to read and Holmes is much kinder in the stories than the films make him out.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:41 AM on November 15, 2014

I'm thinking maybe Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War. Some of his other books explicitly deal with mental institutions, but I don't think that one has anything that should be overly triggering. And I think they might admire the main character's rebellion against both the school and social power structures.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:43 AM on November 15, 2014

I'm no educator, but here's what would have worked for me:

The Star Wars novelisation. It's not great literature, and it's a bit simplistic in terms of characters, but it's a cracking read. You could maybe mix it up in some way with watching the movie.

If that works, and if you don't think that it's too dark for them, you could then go for the Alan Dean Dean Foster novelisation of Alien.

If any of my teachers had suggested reading those books in class, I'd have loved them forever.
posted by veedubya at 7:44 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure about specifics, but--something in the way of adventure stories? I'm sadly not good with remembering specifics as far as what might have problematic references, but stuff like The Three Musketeers and The Mark of Zorro. More adventure-skewing fantasy and scifi. Older stuff in these genres tends to be less about being gritty and morally ambiguous. If graphic novels work, then maybe something like Usagi Yojimbo. I don't know much about reading levels and all, but it kind of sounds like what they're looking for is something where the protagonists really get to be Men of Action and actually fight back against their problems--there seems to be a recurring theme of stuff they don't like involving protagonists who are in some fashion helpless against their circumstances.
posted by Sequence at 7:45 AM on November 15, 2014

Can they follow along with graphic novels generally? They are often my go-to for any sort of reluctant readers. There are some long but high interest books like Beanworld. Simple plot outlines and very straightforward but discussing more complex society situations, no triggers at all. I think one character maybe smokes. Mal and Chad might be a little young seeming even though the reading level is 3-7th grades but it's a weird scientist kid and his dog who go on adventures. Likewise Zita the Spacegirl. Or what about classics likeTintin?

Do they like video games in their free time at all? Ready Player One is very popular with older teens who like gaming. not 100% sure about all of your trigger issues. They might like other slightly older issue based books such as

- The Pushcart War
- Ellin Raskin's stuff like The Westing Game
- The Mysterious Files of Basil E Frankweiler
posted by jessamyn at 7:51 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh my god, do not give these kids The Chocolate War! (Or Lord of the Flies, which would have been my suggestion until about halfway through your question.)

Given that shorter texts seem to have worked better, I'd maybe try something from David Sedaris. His stories are short, funny, and straightforward. Some of them do involve mental issues so you'd need to choose carefully.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:52 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nonfiction suggestions:

-Harlem Hellfighters -J Patrick Lewis
-Striking Gridiron: A Town's Pride and a Team's Shot at Glory During the Biggest Strike in American History - Greg Nicholes
-On Two Feet and Wings - Abbas Kaerooni
-The Amazing Harry Kellar: Great American Magician - Gail G. Jarrow
-Lincoln's Grave Robbers - Steve Sheinkin
-Bombs Over Bikini: The World's First Nuclear Disaster - Connie Goldsmith
-A Chance to Win: An Ex-Con, a Little League Team, and the Quest to Redeem an American City - Jonathan Schuppe
-The Port Chicago 50 - Steve Sheinkin

Graphic Nonfiction

-A Game for Swallows - Zeina Abirached (see also sequel I Remember Beirut)
-Shackleton - Nick Bertozzi
-Pyongyang - Guy Delisle (see also: Shenzhen, Burma Chronicles, and Jerusalem)
-21 - Wilfred Santiago
-anything by Jim Ottaviani
posted by carrioncomfort at 7:53 AM on November 15, 2014

How about Jumper? I haven't read it in a while so you would have to pre-screen.
posted by bq at 8:02 AM on November 15, 2014

Is the point of the class to expose them to literature, or to keep them reading and improving their reading skills in any way possible?

If it's the second, what about nonfiction? Would they be interested in historical accounts of battles? Japanese warfare? Medieval castles and knights?

Sherman Alexie's work tends to be very accessible to troubled teenagers:
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
posted by erst at 8:03 AM on November 15, 2014

Usborne has a series of novelizations of great epics (and Shakespeare) that are about their reading level and full of pictures. They run about 80 pages but not too much text on any one page. My kids are really into the Beowulf one.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:08 AM on November 15, 2014

My first thought was this. It's a very short, very accessible story that I only read once a really long time ago. I don't think it has any of the triggers, but I don't remember much detail. As I recall, though, it's just a humorous little story about some dudes with a duck named Fup (Fup duck--get it?)

My understanding of the group dynamics of surly teenagers is that things sort of become a contest to see who can hate things first and most thoroughly, so there's always the possibility that some of them are secretly liking some of this stuff but won't admit it. But maybe a little mild irreverence might get past that, so I'm thinking things like Richard Brautigan or maybe even Mason Williams' poetry?
posted by ernielundquist at 8:10 AM on November 15, 2014

Response by poster: Is the point of the class to expose them to literature, or to keep them reading and improving their reading skills in any way possible?

Two months ago I would have said expose them to literature, now I just want them to read ANYTHING.

I forgot to mention that they were okay with David Sedaris and Anthony Bourdain, which is helping me distill my thoughts more along the lines of short stories that are engaging, well-crafted and have literary value.

I tried slam poetry, had them go to a slam poetry event; I was lucky to escape in one piece, they hated it so deeply. So no more poetry for now.
posted by kinetic at 8:33 AM on November 15, 2014

If Maus worked, have you thought about swinging directly into the curve and going full comic book? They might be paced just right for a single class to equal one weekly, but a trade will feel meaty enough to feel like real accomplishments to the kids who get something out of that. I'm specifically thinking that the Matt Fraction run of Hawkeye might be something to try. It's clever and funny but not too complex linguistically, it's pretty self-contained, and it's much less about violence and fighting bad guys than you might expect. And, as a protagonist, Clint Barton is surprisingly positive and self-accepting of his weaknesses. He never gives up. Definitely give it a read first though; Hawkeye's got a pretty dark backstory.
posted by Mizu at 8:38 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Perhaps some Roald Dahl? The novels maybe skew a little bit young, but the plots are clear and the characters are well drawn and witty, and can all be read in a couple of sittings tops.
posted by Middlemarch at 9:00 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you're looking for something shorter, what about reading feature articles (stuff from The Atlantic, Harper's, The New Yorker) on topics of interest? There are years and years of well-written, well-researched articles on basically any topic you can think of.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 9:06 AM on November 15, 2014

How about Hatchet, if they haven't already read it (I think it was a fifth or sixth grade school book for me)? It sounds like man vs. nature stories in general might resonate more with them than some other things.

If they like Sedaris, maybe some Etgar Keret? Here's one of his stories being read aloud on This American Life.
posted by chaiminda at 9:25 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I love The Outsiders but the characters definitely drink and one commits suicide. Some of S.E. Hinton's other books might be a bit gentler but I think they all at least have some alcohol consumption in them.
posted by chaiminda at 9:42 AM on November 15, 2014

There's an Australian author called Paul Jennings who writes short stories about teenagers. The language is simple but the plots usually involve something slightly odd/weird happening which may hold their interest. There's a few available online if you want to check them out eg
posted by une_heure_pleine at 10:00 AM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think graphic novels and the like would be good, as suggested - they're what I read when I need a break from "real" books.

My other thought is The Road? It's dark, but short and is quick-paced. I don't think it has the triggers, but it's been a while.
posted by umwhat at 10:28 AM on November 15, 2014

Sherlock Holmes could work really well - the short stories are short enough to get through one per class so they get the solution quickly and aren't left hanging. The Flashman books are incredibly popular with teenage boys - do pre-screen the books, Flashman is kind of a dick and there is some sex and violence, not much and not particularly graphic (James Bond movie level) but I don't know how strict your school is about that sort of thing. The Star Wars novels may also be a good option. Or something like Agatha Christie - her characters are dated, but the language is really straightforward and the plots are reasonably suspenseful. Or if they like Game of Thrones, they might like Cadfael (medieval murder-solving monk, written by a historian so actually very few anachronisms). Or what about Huck Finn or to Kill a Mockingbird or something like that? Or Le Carre? Tinker tailor soldier spy is great.

I know I've picked a load of mystery books but generally the language is simple and the plots are twisty without too much subtext so teenage boys do often enjoy them. There are also TV and radio versions of most of these books (check out the BBC website) which might help - you could watch one episode to get them into it and then read the follow on chapter or something.
posted by tinkletown at 10:33 AM on November 15, 2014

Science fiction from Super short.
posted by maurreen at 11:24 AM on November 15, 2014

I think short stories are good. I remember reading Ernest Hemingway's short stories in college. The stories are easy to read, entertaining on a surface level, and contain content that may have appeal for young males - hunting, fishing, etc.
posted by jenh526 at 11:28 AM on November 15, 2014

What about Nothing but the Truth, by Avi? It's written in letters, notes, memos, and script-style dialogue, so it mixes up the pace a bit, and it's about a high school kid who is suspended for humming the national anthem when he is supposed to be "respectfully silent."

I'm not sure if the content of Monster would be inappropriate, but it is about a young African American kid who is in jail for suspected involvement with an armed robbery. The book is a screenplay he writes of his experience with the trial. You might look into other Walter Dean Myers' YA books, which are generally about the experience of black teenagers.

Hatchet is a really good suggestion. Other Gary Paulsen books which might work include The Voyage of the Frog, and Dogsong.

The main character of My Side of the Mountain is 12, so he may be too young for your students, but that is also a very good book.

If Maus resonated, they may be interested in some other WWII-era books - maybe Under the Blood Red Sun? I haven't read either of these, but they might appeal - Soldier Boys, or Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two.

Good luck!!
posted by ChuraChura at 12:50 PM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aah! I knew there was a Walter Dean Myers book about WWII. The Journal of Scott Pendleton Collins, the (fictionalized) journal of a 17-year old soldier at D-Day. You might look at the other My Name is America books, which are all diaries of boys (usually in their teens) in various historical settings.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:56 PM on November 15, 2014

Best answer: You could try Bill Bryson's children's/YA version of A Short History of Nearly Everything (titled: A Really Short History of Nearly Everything).
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:17 PM on November 15, 2014

Some of the short stories from Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House might work. "Harrison Bergeron", "The Foster Portfolio", "The Kid Nobody Could Handle", "D.P." come to mind. (Probably avoid the title story though.)
posted by Daily Alice at 1:52 PM on November 15, 2014

Have you talked to your local Young Adult librarians? They are often a wealth of info on books of all types for all readers/non-readers. (I noticed on Twitter today that a lot of them are at a YA literature conference. They should come back full of ideas.) Check out the Quick Picks for Reluctant YA Readers lists from YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association), too. You might want to check out Patrick Jones, both for his YA novels and his books on working with reluctant readers He describes successful lit for these readers the way you describe what your students want--well-defined characters and not a lot of them, plot, and not a lot of descriptive narrative.

Another source is Orca Books--they publish high interest books for struggling readers that look like "regular books"--catchy covers & titles. Example.
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 2:00 PM on November 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Okay, so these books are super popular with my (very high level) 6th graders:
--Wednesday Wars & Okay For Now (though Okay For Now includes an occasionally drunk abusive father, so may not work for you)
--Ric Riodan's series
--The One and Only Ivan
--Maze Runner (though there is a lot of violence and death)
--If I Stay
--My Life as a Book
--Little Brother
--Paper Towns (movie is about to come out, and John Green is a perennial favourite of my students - boys and girls. But the others have more challenging content, especially Looking for Alaska. Abundance of Katherines may work though)
--The Beginning of Everything
posted by guster4lovers at 4:45 PM on November 15, 2014

I don't know how the whole rabbit thing will come across, but since it seems like "Maus" (which I've never read) makes use of animals, what about Watership Down? It's an engaging story, with some pretty accessible themes.

Not exactly classic literature, but what about the Harry Potter series? I don't know about for these specific students, but I think it generally worked as a way to get non readers into reading.

Sherlock Holmes is a good rec but make sure you pre-read because some of the stories do include Holmes using drugs (Sign of Four, for example). They might also find Agatha Christie stories to be more accessible if they don't like Doyle's writing style. Although with any of these murder mysteries, you also have to watch out for suicide/mentions of suicide coming up.

I don't have any recommendations off the top of my head, but maybe look at some plays as well. They might find plays easier to get into than novels.
posted by litera scripta manet at 4:54 PM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

What about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time? The entire premise is "as literal as possible."
posted by DarlingBri at 5:00 PM on November 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

S.E. Hinton books
posted by thegoldfish at 5:41 PM on November 15, 2014

I can't believe no one has suggested Harry Potter. Apparently it's increased boys' reading. They may have read them already, but if not it would be worth a shot.

You could also try Diana Wynne Jones, who (to my mind) is infinitely superior although there are some surface similarities. Charmed Life would be a great one to start with, about a boy named Cat whose sister Gwendolyn is determined to become a witch and ropes him into all her plans. He has to learn how to stand up for himself (slight spoiler) but there are heaps of hilarious magical pranks and it's enormous fun as well as being quite fast-paced. Also, The Time of the Ghost is great - the main character is a ghost who knows she's one of four sisters, but has to work out which one so that she can hopefully stop whatever it was that made her into a ghost. The covers are lamentable (they make her look much more cutesy than she actually is) but they're fabulous. There's some dark themes, enough to make them vaguely realistic, but not the ones you've mentioned.

It also occurs to me that Choose Your Own Adventure books might be good. It's a good way to engage with the reading process and rather than passively waiting for the story to unfold, to actively participate. The ones from the 80s are pretty dated and daggy, but there are more modern, grown-up ones. I'm thinking specifically of To Be or Not to Be, a choose your own adventure Hamlet in which you can play as Hamlet, Ophelia or old king Hamlet's ghost. I honestly cannot remember if it involves suicide though. There are definitely endings in which everyone dies. Goodreads has a list of others which might be worth a go.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:35 PM on November 15, 2014

Maybe the Bone series? Since Maus worked, and comics can be good for engaging reluctant readers.
posted by nonasuch at 7:36 PM on November 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

How about classic boys adventure stories and mysteries? They are generally very straight forward and they would presumably identify with a protagonist of their own age. Older books give kids more freedom, I'm thinking Huckleberry Finn, My Side of the Mountain etc. And if they like books about animals the Gerald Durrell books on his animal collecting forays are great and very practical in tone.
posted by fshgrl at 8:08 PM on November 15, 2014

The Curious Incident... is about a character who is 'literal'. The story itself is not particularly straightforward. It is also about a child with autism who struggles considerably with an unpleasant incident involving a neighbour as a result. It might cross over into triggering territory I suspect.

Seconding trying some non-fiction (even biographies, which generally make me shudder, if you are desparate) and maybe spend some further time discussing why reading and engaging with literature is worthwhile? I think Alain de Botton has a TED talk about it. I know he's very upper middle class but he is a clear speaker. Your students sound as though they are really engaging in very oppositional ways with the texts you have presented without much consistency. Which makes me think that getting them to agree to try to like what you present them with might be worth a bit of time. I think you gave a really broad and reasonable selection. Often the idea of reading itself is really intimidating and thus is met with a hostile response (as you are finding). Good luck. There is a lot of culture pressure against young boys enjoying reading, especially in certain social groups. You are doing good work!
posted by jojobobo at 12:32 AM on November 16, 2014

Best answer: You know, I've been thinking about this question for a while, and it made me realize that there really aren't a lot of books written for this audience. Basically all of the books I thought of, I dismissed. So, i am wondering if a different tactic might serve you better. The boys are clearly critical thinkers - finding plot holes. So, perhaps focusing on short stories and having them pick them apart would be worthwhile. Ask them what the boys would have done in Holes, and think of reasons they couldnt escape. If they wrote a book, what would they want it to be about? I loved reading because there were books that spoke to me - and they are in a demographic where there really aren't a lot of choices. My only other thought was auto/biographies by sports heros or musicians?
posted by umwhat at 6:30 AM on November 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding Athanassiel on the Choose Your Own Adventure books. And this kid does some funny reviews of the books. Choose Your Own Adventure - "Journey To The Year 3000" Book Review.
posted by Gotanda at 4:59 PM on November 16, 2014

I know you said they weren't into poetry, but would a prose novel maybe work better? I read May B. a few years back and remember it as being somewhat stark in its literalness, and the words are pretty sparse, so it's a relatively quick read (and it might be satisfying to be able to finish a book like that quickly, since it really does look like a novel).

I frequently recommend the Percy Jackson books to kids with reading and/or attention related issues, because pretty much the entire cast has those in one sense or another, but I'm not sure they'd work so well in other instances, since there's often a kind of goodie-two-shoes quality to them, if that makes sense.

There's drinking in it, but Breakfast of Champions might work. Depending on their attitudes towards potty humor, fantasy, and villain protagonists, they might like Artemis Fowl.

Jimmy Santiago Baca might be worth checking out; he's pretty easily excerpted too.

I know Hawkeye was mentioned upthread; I love that comic but am not sure how appealing it would be to this particular group, but it's possible something else in the Marvel canon might work. There's some pretty interesting stuff going on in this trade of Daredevil; they might also enjoy Runaways. Johnny the Homicidal Maniac also comes to mind, but I think that one might fall into the Holden Caufield problem trap, except, uh, more so; it's also a pretty hard sell to parents/school boards/etc. It is a favorite of misunderstood, angsty teens everywhere, though. Maybe I Feel Sick, though? There's a whole canon of Angsty Teen Type Comics of varying quality, many of which seem really trite to me as an adult but really spoke to me as a kid: Ghost World, Lenore, Blankets, etc.
posted by NoraReed at 10:03 PM on November 20, 2014

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