Reading list for a bright 13 year old iconoclast
September 2, 2017 11:53 AM   Subscribe

Looking for book recommendations for a bright young lad who sees himself as a rebel and an outsider. He is well versed in comic book culture, music and videogames, but has hardly read anything at this point.

In a conversation with my nephew, he suggested that books were a dead form and told me he only reads what he is assigned in school. I found this depressing and told him he was just reading the wrong stuff. Of course, he mostly plays video games for entertainment so his form of solitary nerd culture is much different than mine was all those many years ago. I started him with Daniel Pinkwater and he took to it with even more enthusiasm than I dared to hope. He is a fairly precocious kid who identifies with the weird/outsider themes of Pinkwater and it has been the catalyst for some great conversations, but its time to broaden his horizons.

I'm thinking I'll try Vonnegut's Cat Cradle next. I loved Vonnegut at his age, but I had been a voracious reader since I could walk, so I don't know if he's ready for something like Slaughterhouse yet. He has fully inculcated the idea that the only good culture is obscure culture, so I think he'll rebel against Lord of the Rings as I know he did against Harry Potter. I'm thinking maybe something like The Once Future King or maybe the Queen's Thief series. I was nuts for Heinlein at his age, but I find a lot of his themes problematic these days. Maybe that is a good reason to read it, but I'm not enthused about much of his work now. I was also nuts for Thomas Covenant, which came out when I was that age, but I'm not sure I want to inflict that on the lad just yet.

I know I've missed a lot of things I loved and that much material has come out (particularly in the fantasy/sci-fi realm) that I've missed in the far-too-many years since I was 13. I'm hoping my fellow nerds and outcasts can help me hit a few more home runs and spark a love of reading in a kid who should already have it.
posted by Lame_username to Media & Arts (38 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I saw the headline and immediately thought Vonnegut. How about Holden Caulfield? Your nephew probably hates phonies.
posted by falsedmitri at 12:07 PM on September 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

You just described me at 13 (well, the mentality, I was always a reader). My favorites back then were On The Road and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test.
posted by ElectricGoat at 12:11 PM on September 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

The Screwtape Letters, Fahrenheit 451, The Book Thief, To Kill A Mockingbird, Spiegelman's Maus, Anderson's Speak, The Fault in Our Stars, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Zombie Baseball Beatdown
posted by childofTethys at 12:22 PM on September 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Frank Portman, King Dork
Alan Moore, Watchmen
Neil Gaiman, Sandman
Andrew Hussie's Homestuck (webcomic, in case you're not familiar - he can google this and start reading it immediately)
Aaron Cometbus, Despite Everything
Cindy Crabb, Doris
Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed
Ursula Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Warren Ellis, Transmetropolitan
posted by bile and syntax at 12:36 PM on September 2, 2017

Snow Crash and Neuromancer.

The One and Future King is a good one, definitely.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:44 PM on September 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

D'oh, while I'm recommending Stephenson, there's also Cryptonomicon.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:44 PM on September 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think Catcher in the Rye is pretty much the archetypal answer for this.

It might be a little too early, and it could go the wrong way, but he might enjoy Nietschze.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:16 PM on September 2, 2017

Maybe some irreverent sci-fi, such as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:35 PM on September 2, 2017 [11 favorites]

I was a girl version of this kid. Absolutely give him stuff like Vonnegut that you think might be slightly beyond his level, perhaps with the caveat that "you don't know if you should be giving it to him because he is a bit too young, but you think he can handle it".

Notes from the Underground (Dostoyevsky) might go over well. You could try Chuck Palahniuk, Jack Kerouak, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Stephen King (I'm thinking Running Man and The Long Walk), Charles Stross, Douglas Adams, Ted Chiang. You could try biographies of famous rebels like Che Guevara, Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, William Wallace, etc. You could give him books about historic rebellions and their leaders. You can give him Noam Chomsky (manufacturing consent) and Thoreau (Civil Disobedience) and Albert Camus (the Rebel) and maaaaybe Sartre.

He definitely won't be ready for all of these guys but you might be surprised by what does strike his fancy and being exposed to great literature won't do him any harm right?

And I say sure, give him Heinlin and Asimov and Bradbury and so on. Sure they can be problematic but that doesn't necessarily mean they aren't worthwhile or need to be censored from him. If he spends a lot of time online he has probably been exposed to far worse right?
posted by windykites at 1:39 PM on September 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think 13's a couple years young for Holden but the perfect age for Lord of the Flies.
posted by Rash at 1:41 PM on September 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ok, more classics ...Kakfa, The Metamorphosis.
posted by falsedmitri at 1:43 PM on September 2, 2017

Terry Pratchett
Margaret Atwood
William Gibson
Octavia Butler
posted by bile and syntax at 1:59 PM on September 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

Angie Thomas - The Hate U Give
posted by epj at 2:20 PM on September 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

The challenge with some classics is they don't hold up well, and at 13, you don't want him getting caught flat-footed with women, or playing catch-up with values. Kameron Hurley's essays in Geek Feminist Revolution open some windows & let in light, maybe read one together and discuss it as being part of stepping away from the old mainstream? Atwood after Octavia Butler, who wrote a male birth story. Oryx and Crake might be a reflection point on computer games, or it could be uncomfortable enough that he stops reading, as Atwood pulls no punches with her speculative vision.

Green covers consent, and Speak covers the aftermath of non-consent, all from the perspective of social outsiders. It could be counter-cultural for him to give them the time of day. Precocious people date & relate, better to have reading mixed in that provides some clues rather than dated stereotypes.
posted by childofTethys at 2:31 PM on September 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

I see a lot of adult classics here but those can be tough for kids that age, especially those who don't like to read a lot.
Hell, I was a voracious reader at that age and wouldn't have liked most classics.

One of my favorite authors at that age was Julian F Thompson, who wrote pretty much exclusively about young teenagers rebelling against authority and society in general. One of the books is about kids whose parents send them to a boarding school to be murdered because they're "inconvenient" - they find out and outsmart the school and their parents. Sounds serious but it's basically a caper and written with a light touch. My only caveat is that the books were written in the late 70s and early 80s and seemed a bit out of date when I was a teenager in the 90s, so they definitely will now. But maybe it'll just seem retro?
posted by lunasol at 2:40 PM on September 2, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's not a book but it's another good gateway to what you're trying to achieve
posted by benadryl at 2:49 PM on September 2, 2017 [7 favorites]

I agree with lunasol that a lot of these are way beyond a thirteen year old's interest and understanding if not reading level. You could take a look at NPR's list of best teen novels for some ideas and there are probably other useful lists.
posted by Botanizer at 3:09 PM on September 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Scott Westerfeld is a very solid YA writer, and I think would have titles that would appeal. So Yesterday, about cool hunting might be fun!
posted by gnat at 3:30 PM on September 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

I enjiyed Ender's Game at that age, and loved any and all Terry Pratchett.
posted by halogen at 3:48 PM on September 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Wow, there are a lot of dead white men here.

How about some Daniel J Older or NK Jemisin? They're not super well known outside their respective niches but absolutely worth reading. He might also enjoy Diane Duane's Young Wizards series, and The Phantom Tollbooth.

Seconding Persopolis for sure, ditto Speak and le Guin.

Lord of the Flies, yes, but an annotated version explaining that Golding wrote the book as scathing critique/satire of Western society/masculinity. Maybe Libba Bray's Beauty Queens after.
posted by Tamanna at 3:57 PM on September 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

The Outsiders! Eragon. Seconding Part Time Indian.
posted by Temeraria at 3:59 PM on September 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

As an antidote to The Screwtape Letters, xian apologetics, I recommend Letters From the Earth by Mark Twain, written 1885-1910 but not pubished until 1960, probably because of the sarcastic tone about christianity and the letters from Satan to some archangels about how things are on earth. Great stuff.
posted by MovableBookLady at 5:12 PM on September 2, 2017

Give him used books. Shiny new books at that age always read as "pop culture mainstream". A dusty, ratty paperback from an older relative delivered as if slightly illicit...well now.
posted by stray at 5:47 PM on September 2, 2017 [6 favorites]

Par Lagerkvist's The Dwarf, ideally right after (excerpts of) Machiavelli's The Prince.

He may need to be a year older for The Dwarf, but I found it fascinatingly readable at his age.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:09 PM on September 2, 2017

You might check out Philip Reeve, for example Railhead.
posted by gudrun at 6:22 PM on September 2, 2017

Not Nietzsche ;)

I really like the Existentialism-intro trio of Camus' Sisyphus, Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, and Eggers' What is the What. I think a kid who sees himself as a lone outsider/rebel will be attracted to some of the RADICAL(tm) premises of existentialism and then well-served by some of the more positive/empowering lessons of Frankl...and then humbled by the actual fucking rough lives of the Lost Boys & diaspora.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:36 PM on September 2, 2017

Yeah, nerd and outcast here. I worked in my highschool (and later college) library. The one thing a physical library has going for it is great organization and easy random access. I've got to believe somewhere in the Dewey Decimal system there are books he would find interesting. I know while in high school I stumbled on the Upanishad, Astronomy and Cosmology, Science Fiction authors, computers (even way back then) and Psychology books. And as stray pointed out above, the fact that nobody is pushing the book on him but he discovered it himself (especially if it's edgy) adds the spice to it. And then once he derives knowledge, entertainment and/or enlightenment from one book, he may eventually seek out more.

Of course warring with the above approach will be the desire to maintain his cool image, not to appear to be too much of a nerd or old fashioned. I would argue that the library is meant to open his horizons, from then on it can be digital or audio books, or PDFs downloaded from the Web. The important thing is to get him reading.

You might try pairing up a trip to the library with something he would normally love to do afterwards, your treat. As I always say you can't push string, you have to pull it.

Another approach would be to suggest books related to his interests. I believe there are books about the history and design of video games, biographies about comic book authors, etc. Also, a You Tube video (for instance) can only convey so much about a topic, perhaps he can find books mentioned on the video sharing Web sites he'd be interested in. I know a lot of suggestions have been in the fiction area, but the original question did not specifically target that realm.

My only other suggestion is to find books like the one I found when young: "The Prevalence of Nonsense". If he is an iconoclast and jaded then any book that deals with how politicians lie to us, how people lie with statistics, how few people really know how to think and use logic, how video game civilizations are probably better run than real world countries, should be a big hit.

I have ignored the question of "forbidden" topics, because I doubt very much that in our information age there is much ability to filter. Obviously you will want to monitor and advise if you think he heads off into a dangerous area.
posted by forthright at 6:44 PM on September 2, 2017

I thought Youth in Revolt was funny as hell when I was around that age.
posted by the_blizz at 7:50 PM on September 2, 2017

Another fun one that I liked at that age is Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:07 PM on September 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ready Player One, for the obvious video game hook?
posted by misterbrandt at 8:47 PM on September 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Geek Love was the defining novel of my nerdy arty teen friends and me.
posted by chowflap at 8:48 PM on September 2, 2017 [1 favorite]

Orwell- Keep the Aspidistra Flying.
posted by pompomtom at 12:59 AM on September 3, 2017

What about Shade's Children, by Garth Nix? It's been a loong time since I've read it and it's different from most of the suggestions here, but it's aimed at that age group with heavy themes of rebellion/revolution. I remember writing a book report on it that included some quoted Rage Against the Machine lyrics. The sci fi/war themes might make it accessible to a kid who likes videogames.
posted by geegollygosh at 5:22 AM on September 3, 2017

Consider including some biographies. Everyone is a bit of an outsider in their biography.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:40 AM on September 3, 2017

Response by poster: I just thought I'd drop in and provide a bit of feedback. I'm very pleased that I asked this question on this forum because I love so many of the answers. It occurs to me that one of things that bonded us on Pinkwater was that it was something I read and loved at his age and that led to good conversation about how I related to the themes then and now, so on the first round I will concentrate on works that spoke to me from amongst your suggestions. I love Catcher, Mark Twain and the Hitchhiker books because they combine thoughtful themes with lots of humor and will be a natural transition from what he's already read. I can provide many of your suggestions in illicit dusty paperback form as an added bonus along with some of the strong material that I think might be a bit much for him today (Stephenson, Palahniuk, Kerouac, Camus)

Some works suggested here are new to me and later I'll try to trick him into an informal book club and we can discuss the book as we discover it together. I'm especially excited about Part Time Indian and Persepolis in that category.

I'd also like to acknowledge those who suggested I be sure to include a mix of cultural influences and the thoughtful comment from childofTethys along those lines. It got me thinking a lot about my obligation as a man to lead young men by word and deed to a better version of masculinity and I'm grateful for the reminder and to all of you for the thoughtful suggestions. I intend to refer back to this post often over the coming months and I promise to do some homework on the many suggestions that are unfamiliar to me.
posted by Lame_username at 7:37 AM on September 3, 2017

Has anyone mentioned Dune yet? And in the Stephensen category, it's definitely not too early for Zodiac, which is fast-paced (even more than Dune) with a good outsider angle. (I'd maybe offer up Cryptonomicon in a while as it takes discipline to read; it's not a page turner.) Another possibility is Ready, Player One (don't know if non-Gen Xers would like that?). The problem is all of these have mostly male protagonists. I wish I knew some good, fast-paced feminist science fiction. Oh, maybe look into The Fifth Sacred Thing. And it's been so long since I've read Octavia Butler, but her stuff might be good.

Also, it might be a great time to introduce him to non-fiction like Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee or A People's History of the US.
posted by salvia at 10:10 AM on September 3, 2017

Nonfiction: Cartoon History of the Universe! Now in multiple volumes extending from the Big Bang to the Bush administration!
(Note: small amount of nudity)
posted by Huffy Puffy at 6:04 PM on September 3, 2017

I was once a 13-year-old Daniel Pinkwater fan. Now I am a children's author (who still loves Daniel Pinkwater.) My thoughts:

One challenge of this question is that it's really hard to know what his reading level is. A bright 13-year-old certainly has the intellectual capacity to understand the concepts and plots of grownup books, but if he's never done much reading, he might not have developed the specific skills necessary to parse complex sentences, or the patience to stick with long books. He might also not have much practice in putting works in context if they come from very different cultures or time periods.

I am guessing that he is right on the boundary between Middle Grade books (aimed at 8 to 12 year olds) and YA fiction (aimed at teens.) So I'll start with some MG recommendations that will offer him plenty to think about, but won't necessarily intimidate him in terms of prose structure. The one risk is that many of the MG protagonists will be 12 or even younger, so if you think he'll be insulted by reading about characters younger than him, you might skip to the YA. (I'm guessing he won't be, but it's something to keep an eye out for.)

If Harry Potter is too popular and mainstream, he might check out Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, which starts with The Book of Three. These are delightful fantasy/adventure novels but they are nowhere near as well known as they deserve to be. They're from the 1960s but I re-read them recently and didn't find anything problematic.

Speaking of fantasy, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series (starting with The Golden Compass) is iconoclastic in several senses.

The Story Thieves series by James Riley is very meta-- the characters are constantly jumping in and out of other books.

He might enjoy books with a puzzle or mystery aspect that he can try to solve ahead of the main characters. Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game is a fun, complicated mystery. Jennifer Bertsman's Book Scavenger and Chris Grabenstein's Escape From Mr. Limoncello's Library both have strong puzzle/mystery elements, and they're both about kids who love books, so it might help him feel books are cool (or he might think you're trying to propagandize him. You probably have a sense of which.)

Moving from MG to younger YA, I'd recommend three comic books. (When I was growing up, there was some snobbery that comic books didn't count as real reading, but educators now recognize that comic books absolutely count as books.) I'd recommend Vera Brosgol's Anya's Ghost (which has an outsider-y protagonist that I think might appeal to him) as well as Raina Telgamier's Smile and Drama.
Disclaimer: Vera Brosgol is illustrating one of my books so I might be biased. But Anya's Ghost won an Eisner award so I'm not alone in loving it.

I also second the suggestion of Philip Reeve's Railhead series. Reeve's prose is a little denser than some of the other suggestions, so it might be a good bridge to full-on adult fiction.

Finally, as a left-field adult suggestion: The Big Short, a nonfiction work by Michael Lewis. Lewis talks about some pretty complicated financial ideas, but he makes them very clear, and much of the book focuses on colorful characters. Plus, it's about a small group of really smart people who outsmarted mainstream society, which seems like something an iconoclastic teen would like.
posted by yankeefog at 3:50 AM on September 4, 2017

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