Help me find good books for my 12-year-old neighbor.
September 24, 2016 5:14 PM   Subscribe

So the kid next door is curious, restless, and smart as hell. He knows we have a shit ton of books, so he just asked me if he could borrow one for his weekly reading assignment. We have nothing for kids on hand, but I would really love to set him up with a few great things from the library or bookstore. Can you help me hook this kid on reading? He says he likes sports, adventure, and mystery. Bonus points for African-American content/protagonists/heroes. Thanks, everybody!
posted by kelborel to Education (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Are you sure he wants something that's "for kids"? I was also a precocious reader, and at twelve I was starting to move into books written for adults—my dad's shelf of science fiction novels, basically—and maybe that's what this kid is looking for by coming to you. If you have so many books, you must be able to think of something that would work. Many of the best books are written at a level that a precocious twelve-year-old could handle. What will happen, if he's like I was, is that he'll enjoy them for the plot and the characters and fail to pick up on most of the deeper stuff. With any luck, he'll return to them when he's older and get a whole new level of delight out of later readings.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:31 PM on September 24, 2016 [21 favorites]

If he's in middle school, and asking you, particularly for books, I wouldn't be so quick to assume that you have nothing at his "level."

Think about the "classics" that you've got that were particular popular in their day (so, are probably on the lighter side, as far as old-timey books get). Got any Sherlock Holmes? Agatha Christie?

This is also a good age for Jules Verne and Tolkien. Even Dracula too.

How about the Three Musketeers and/or The Count of Monte Cristo -- no black protagonists, but Alexander Dumas was a standout as a black author in his time.
posted by sparklemotion at 5:34 PM on September 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

Ready Player One would be an interesting choice
posted by Ftsqg at 5:36 PM on September 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Is that too young for To Kill A Mockingbird?
posted by salvia at 5:39 PM on September 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Anything by Louis Sachar, especially Holes. A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck. Sammy Keyes and the Hotel Thief (the main character is a tomboy, but it's a great mystery series).
posted by katelynsills at 5:41 PM on September 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Walter Dean Myers is a classic Y.A. author of color, so classic that your guy may have already been introduced to him. He has books pitched at a range of ages. Among his million books, he has sports novels, including some basketball ones, and a bio of Muhammad Ali.

William Sleator has some trippy Y.A. books - Green Futures of Tycho is a good one, kind-of a time travel/parallel worlds mystery.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:41 PM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Mysterious Benedict Society is well written and might strike his fancy. It has two black protagonists--Rhonda Kazembe and Sticky Washington. It's the first in a series (I've only read the first) so if he likes it, there are more.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:43 PM on September 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Adam Rex's The True Meaning of Smekday features the awesome Gratuity Tucci, is a sci-fi adventure, and is hilarious.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:56 PM on September 24, 2016

If I were you, I'd talk to one of his parents, to see what boundaries they have about reading material. Middle school is an awesome age for exploring new stuff, but they might be weird about stuff you don't even imagine *could* be controversial. Or they could be fine with it.
posted by amtho at 6:31 PM on September 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Asking an adult for a book recommendation/loan at 12 and being sent off with young adult stuff would have left me very embarrassed, and certain to not ask you about books again. I'd also probably be a little depressed about the whole interaction. I'm thinking there's a reason he's not hitting up his school library.

I remember a stupid regular reading assignment in grade five which consisted of one of the world's lazier teachers going around the class asking what book we were reading for the current "reading assignment." I was reading Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut sketches assholes in it a few times, just simple *-type ones, and I was so torn: I did not want to pretend to be reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but I also did not want to be known as the kid reading books with assholes in them. Finally I nervously confessed to the Vonnegut novel, only to realise with disgust that the teacher clearly had no idea who Vonnegut was. The odds of anybody getting upset with you for giving him something 'too advanced' -- if that is the concern -- are pretty much zilch -- if they are literate enough to know a book has assholes in it, they are proud of the kid for reading it, not angry -- but the majority simply won't have read it themselves.

(In grade seven I had another dunce for a homeroom teacher who took to regularly calling my house to snitch on what book I was reading. "Really!" my parent would exclaim. "She's reading that!!" "Yes!!" said the excited, dull-witted snitch. "That's terrific news. I lent it to her. I was hoping she would enjoy it. Thank you for letting me know!" The calls did not stop until she called to whinge about The Catcher in the Rye and I went to the principal to ask the principal to ask her to shut up as the grade eights were reading it en masse in their English class.)

Re. previous: asking my parents if it was okay would need to be very delicately done or else it would mark you as a person to not talk books with. He's 12, he can sit in a public library and read something, he can access all sorts of filth on the internet; if you are giving him respectable literature and the parents have a problem with it, it is the parents who have a problem, not you. Book-banners are such dreadful morons that it is okay to ignore them.
posted by kmennie at 6:47 PM on September 24, 2016 [19 favorites]

I was reading some adult-level books as a teen and had adults who were giving that sort of material to me to read. Maybe ask him what he's read lately that he really enjoyed, and what kind of books he's interested in borrowing - that might give you a clue.
posted by bunderful at 6:50 PM on September 24, 2016

The Martian. At that age I read my first dean koontz (lightning) and Chriton (Jurassic park). I borrowed them from my friends parents.
posted by dpx.mfx at 6:54 PM on September 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

I read 1984 for the first time around that age. I didn't get all of it but I understood enough to appreciate it. I enjoyed reading Jon Krakauer, Michael Crichton, and struggling through Stephen King then as well. I also remember reading and re-reading the novelization of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Another vote for if a 12-year-old asks his neighbors for books, he can probably handle the adult ones.
posted by thewestinggame at 6:59 PM on September 24, 2016

He may be able to handle adult books, but that doesn't mean that YA books aren't also a good idea -- there's a lot of great stuff out there right now, and there's no reason for him to avoid it. Based on what you said about his tastes, try The Great Greene Heist -- it's like Ocean's Eleven for twelve year olds with an African-American protagonist.
posted by cider at 7:14 PM on September 24, 2016

I'd be tempted to ask about his favorite TV shows. Like a kid who likes The Walking Dead might like not just zombie novels, but other dystopian futures.

For the sports interest, Walter Dean Myers wrote several books about black teenaged boys and in at least a few of them, basketball is a theme.

Chris Crutcher wrote some excellent books about high school kids on sports teams. These books eem a little older and wrestle with situations like abusive parents.

Hunger Games is kind of a classic 'adventure' story for this age. Some kids prefer more reality based stories, but obviously HG was very popular.
posted by puddledork at 7:16 PM on September 24, 2016

Find out his reading level by asking indirectly - Not all kids are lucky enough to have the kind of environment that leads to advanced-level reading; there are kids with few to no books in their homes. You really need to find out what kind of stuff he's read already, what he likes, and what he's interested in. Otherwise, yeah, you might end up giving him something waaaay below his interests, or waaaaay too dense/difficult.

Let him choose - he can discover from your shelf -

If he has time to peruse some different books you have, he should be able to choose one at his level. You might have to encourage him not to choose one that's going to be too much work.

If it were me, I'd see if I had some books like: lovely art-type books (that didn't cost $50, or that wouldn't be a tragedy if they got wet or torn); or fairly safe graphic novels; or even recipe books or other how-to books at an appropriate level -- anything with short segments that might be interesting. Look through your collection, you might be surprised. Don't limit yourself to fiction unless that's required.

Then I'd put a bunch of them together on a shelf, invite him to peruse the shelf (without your looking over his shoulder -- let him spend a good long time looking inside the books and reading bits), and see if anything invites him in.

We currently have books on how to tie different knots, identifying birds, cooking techniques, clicker-training cats, emotions associated with different colors, insects, etc., all easy to read - most well-written how-to books are fairly accessible. You might find out from him if it's OK if he doesn't finish the entire book, though; if he has to read the _entire_ book, then maybe a big cookbook wouldn't work.

If you have $5 to spend on this, you can try going to a used bookstore and get one or two books _that you like_ at different levels in there if you want to be safe (there are some really interesting kid-friendly books out there even for adults). See what he goes for.
posted by amtho at 7:21 PM on September 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

Or? Let him browse your books himself.

I just came in to say that and now I see that amtho beat me to it.
posted by bunderful at 7:30 PM on September 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing would be an ambitious read for his age, I think.
posted by praemunire at 7:30 PM on September 24, 2016

When I was 12 I was reading Crime and Punishment for kicks. I didn't totally GET it, but I was completely capable of reading it. Give the kid your very favorite book that doesn't have sex scenes in it, and just see if he likes it!
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:36 PM on September 24, 2016

Great answers and lots of food for thought. I'm weighing back in to clarify that he came to me only because he needs "a book" for a homework assignment, and I suspect his mom sent him over because they had none at home. He's not an avid reader looking for more challenging stuff (yet). As far as I know, he's never read a book for pleasure, and I really want to help him find something that is instantly compelling to him. I feel honored he gave me this chance, and I don't want to blow it.

In short, I'm looking to start this fire with a pile of dry tinder and be ready with some bigger sticks when it catches.

Thanks so much for the suggestions so far, and keep 'em coming if you think of more. (I'm a first-time Ask-er but a long-time lurker, so I'll just take this chance to say that I love this place so damn much before I bow back out.)
posted by kelborel at 9:51 PM on September 24, 2016 [9 favorites]

(Sorry; two more things: he has a great sense of humor and he likes science . . . and he is about to inherit my Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)
posted by kelborel at 10:04 PM on September 24, 2016 [9 favorites]

In that case:

Go to the library at a time when there won't be _that_ many people there (weekday late morning, when school is in session), find a children's librarian, and tell them what you've written here. You do need a super easy, short book that's lots of fun, but maybe a relatively new one or an obscure one so it won't be something his friend's little brother has already read.

You can also get a general idea from the librarian of what an appropriate reading level book feels like - length, word choices, sentence length/structure - and take that knowledge with you to a good used bookstore.

If you've got a really nice store, they could have some great vintage books that you either remember or will find a pleasure to own for yourself.

Finally - I love a book called "The Wild Cats of Rome" by Elizabeth Cooper, which is out of print but can sometimes be found used. It demonstrates empathy, leadership, perseverance, overcoming limitations, and is kind of a neat story. It may not be what your friend would like, though.
posted by amtho at 10:24 PM on September 24, 2016

Walter Mosley's mysteries.
posted by brujita at 4:10 AM on September 25, 2016

Anything by Jess Mowry.
posted by Weftage at 6:54 AM on September 25, 2016

When I was in 7th grade we were assigned Singularity by William Sleator. It blew my mind and was a great, simple read with some creepy deeper undertones. Highly recommend.
posted by Night_owl at 7:56 AM on September 25, 2016

Got any Sherlock Holmes? Agatha Christie?

Both are of their time and by today's standards, racist. That is not what we're looking for here, I don't think.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:57 AM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

I must recommend the "Rivers of London" series by Ben Aaronovitch. The first book was published as "Midnight Riot" in North America. Police procedural/fantasy series starring a young black policeman in London. Magic, deep history, and immigrant culture are involved. Contains some swearing and scariness but nothing a 12-year-old couldn't handle.
posted by heatherlogan at 8:54 AM on September 25, 2016

'What if' by Randall Munroe is a great book.
posted by bq at 10:25 AM on September 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't go for the classics. I'd go with Ready Player One or Little Brother by Correy Doctorow. Something that's really going to grab the kids interest because of its relevancy to stuff going on today. Classics, in my opinion, are great once someone is already an avid reader, but not always the best venue for hooking in new ones.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 11:40 AM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Books my pre-teen enjoyed

Harry Potter series
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - might be too young?
Wonder, RJ Palacio
Ranger's Apprentice series
Artemis Fowl

Other books I saw his peers reading - Raina Telgemeir, One and Only Ivan, Rick Riordan's series

What he really loves to read the most are books of comic book strips, Calvin & Hobbes, Garfield, and Big Nate.

Graphic novels are wonderful for capturing kids who don't read that much. Some of Rick Riordan's books (Lightning Thief, Red Pyramid) are also available as graphic novels. Bone and Amulet are also popular series.

This list has lots of great suggestions, you could take a look and see what you think might appeal to him -
posted by haunted_pomegranate at 12:24 PM on September 25, 2016

I loved One Crazy Summer/PS Be Eleven, which are perfect but for the girl protagonists.
posted by graventy at 2:50 PM on September 25, 2016

Christopher Paul Curtis!!! I'm a children's librarian and I love love love his work. It has protagonists of color and he is really good at painting a picture of historical eras. Try Bud, Not Buddy, or The Watsons go to Birmingham-1963.

Also, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander came out a couple of years ago and won the Newbery as well as being Coretta Scott King Award honoree. (sports and black protagonist included)

Lastly, Mike Lupica writes a ton of middle grade sports books with varied protagonists so if he tries one of those and likes it there are way more for him to read.

I'm sure these are available at your local library, but I would make sure that he gets a library card and that you don't check them out for him on yours. Having his own card makes a big difference in terms of him owning his reading experience. He will likely only need a parent or guardian with him to grant permission and provide contact info.
posted by donut_princess at 11:38 AM on September 26, 2016

Probably a bit young for the Alex Cross novels. Has anyone mentioned "Odd Thomas"?
posted by DrAstroZoom at 11:52 AM on September 26, 2016

One of my favorite black YA authors, Jason Reynolds, recently released two middle-grade novels: Ghost, As Brave As You. I haven't read them yet, but if they're anything like his YA novels, they'll be great (and Ghost was just longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People's Literature).
posted by sunset in snow country at 3:12 PM on September 27, 2016

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