Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Finding The On-Ramp, Juvenile Edition

A social-media group I belong to had one of its members pose a question that provoked a cascade of memories and suggestions, and I finally decided to put them all in one place, here.

Here is the question:

I’m gonna post a question to the group: I remember reading Doc Savage, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard (I bought it for the art but then learned the story was amazing!) I’m trying to get my middle schoolers to read more than picture books, so I may try something a little older. Winn-Dixie, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry and more contemporary books are ignored because it’s easier to find the movie version. What would you readers suggest for middle school students, from 11-14, especially boys who don’t like to read?

I got so carried away with my initial answer, and kept remembering so many things to add, that I finally decided it should be a column. So here’s my final, revised-and-updated answer.


First, a quick aside– there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with reading ‘picture books,’ or even out-and-out comics. A kid reading a Superman comic book is still a kid reading. Keep your eye on the ball. Literacy is the goal here. As such, comics can be a great entry point. I had a MUCH easier time with Bram Stoker’s Dracula when I was a kid because I’d found these two editions first: the Classics Illustrated adaptation by Nestor Redondo, and then this giant coffee-table paperback, The Illustrated Dracula.

Easy steps, sure, but so what? You don’t want to make reading a chore, which is the mistake teachers have been making with kids and reading for centuries now. The thing that worked for me when I was a kid was when a very savvy youth librarian, Mrs. Lapidus, asked me what stories I liked on TV and the movies, and then connected the dots for me between Batman and Zorro, between Admiral Nelson’s Seaview and Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, and so on, without ever letting on there was supposed to be a QUALITATIVE difference.

At that age– ten, eleven years old– along with Batman, I was all about the television efforts of Irwin Allen (except Lost in Space, which even at age ten I thought was dumb.)

It was a very easy leap from there to the adventures of Danny Dunn, probably the first science fiction series I really got into.

Likewise, the Heinlein juveniles. A great many of us that love science fiction got there from one or the other.

Another very similar jump came with mysteries. The Hardy Boys were a bit too wholesome and bloodless for me, it never felt like they were in real danger. But when Alfred Hitchcock stuff showed up in my school library, I lunged at it. Again, I had a vague familiarity with Alfred Hitchcock; too young to be into his TV show, or allowed to see his movies. But I knew enough to know it was the good stuff; so when I found them, his young-adult line of books hit me right between the eyes, particularly The Three Investigators.

Those are the books I remember getting me over the hump.

Moreover, in middle school I discovered the Star Trek paperbacks by James Blish. The show was on my radar, sort of, but when I’d tried to watch it the first time it was extremely difficult for me to follow at age eight, and there weren’t enough fight scenes. (Those that know the original series will doubtless be somewhat befuddled by that claim, but you have to remember I was judging it from the perspective of the total mayhem being offered by Batman and Wild Wild West and so on.)

Even so, I still watched Trek, but I often didn’t get it. But finding the Blish books– and this was the only Star Trek available in Portland, Oregon in 1973– really brought me around, because I had the memories of the episodes I’d seen but Blish’s smooth, easy prose made it much easier to UNDERSTAND what I’d seen.

So I’d start there. Find what they like and spiral out from that. An easy gateway is the BBC’s SHERLOCK to Conan Doyle…. There are any number of quality greatest-hits juvenile editions of the original Holmes, though I favor this one.

Likewise, you can jump from the Marvel movies to any number of Marvel novels; original stories that further the mythology of the movies. These are from my era, the late 1970s.

And there are brand-new ones as well.

Although if you were to pin me to the wall on it, the ones that came out between those two series, the Byron Preiss books under the iBooks imprint, are the best. And there are more of those than any others.

Adam-Troy Castro’s Spider-Man trilogy, especially, is amazing.

It’s a very short hop from there to SF adventure and possibly even crime stories, especially if you note author names.

Middle schoolers in my classes really like old pulps, especially the replicas Tony Tollin is doing. Sell them as ‘the first superhero stories’ and it’s on rails. The Spider, in particular, is a big hit, especially when you point out that his girlfriend Nita and the manservant of color Ram Singh are just as badass as the hero.

Are they lurid? Full of purple prose? Lacking in artistic merit? Yes, probably. But here is the thing– it’s not the book you’re trying to sell, it’s the act of reading itself. Sitting down and reading even the shittiest and most exploitative prose is still building mental muscles for a kid that movies and television just don’t. A teacher friend of mine likes to observe, “Reading is caught, not taught.” Your position isn’t so much that of a Merlin promising to unlock mystery as it is a dealer smirking, “The first one’s free.” Own that and go with it.

Franchise and media tie-in properties are an easy gateway to use. I already mentioned Marvel. Star Wars has an entire library’s worth of stuff, many by noted SF authors like Vonda McIntyre and Barbara Hambly. Both ladies contributed to the Star Trek books as well. Although the ones by Diane Duane are the clear favorites among my students.

Planet of the Apes
has a lot of cool stuff in prose… all sorts of tie-in paperbacks and things that can be had for cheap.

And that franchise also works as a gateway to other SF: post-apocalypse stories like Andre Norton’s Daybreak: 2250 AD (also published as Star Man’s Son) and so on.

I keep thinking of more examples. Another good one for middle school is Lloyd Alexander, particularly the Prydain books and also The Marvelous Misadventures of Sebastian; if they like stuff like The Princess Bride and Tolkien movies, those books are much faster-moving and new-reader-friendly than actual Tolkien.

Another group member, Matthew Higgins, reminded me of Charlie Higson’s Young Bond books. After he said it I was kicking myself because I should have thought of that myself.

A lot of middle-school kids are into manga, particularly Naruto, the story of a teenage ninja. Those kids might very well enjoy the KUNG FU novelizations by “Howard Lee,” especially the first one ghosted by Barry Malzberg adapting the pilot. It’s a terrific book.

The show’s been gone long enough that the books might as well be original, not adapted from the episodes. Of course they may be able to just whistle up the TV show on Netflix or whatever. But again, the adaptations are smooth, easy reads, tailor-made for a reluctant reader… and familiarity from movies and television will help, not hurt.

The important thing is that for kids who are into genre TV and movies, you need to let them know that this is where all the good stuff COMES from. Show them how to find the stair-step linkages themselves and they’ll end up hunting books on their own. I went from Oz to Narnia to Prydain to Robert E. Howard to Fritz Leiber in an easy, natural progression.

But the mission statement for the lesson is never This is good for you or you need to know this. It’s always: Stories come from here. This is where you find more.


I’m sure lots of you have more to add, so feel free to do so in the comments.

Back next week with something cool.


  1. Edo Bosnar

    For me personally, the juvenile on-ramp and the on-ramp in general are the same thing…
    But I get your point, and agree with many of these recommendations, as they apply to me as well, esp. the Danny Dunn books (I devoured those back in the day). Also the Heinlein juveniles, which I would say are probably where you should start and stop with his work.
    I would say that if you note any interest in adventure stories and/or SF in a kid in the 11-14 age range, you should simply steer them to Andre Norton’s stuff right off the bat – not just Star Man’s Son, but also, say, Sargasso of Space, Star Guard, Zero Stone, The Stars Are Ours and even the unfortunately titled Sioux Spaceman. Frankly, I think she did the whole juvenile SF thing better than Heinlein.

    Looking at more recent material: for any kids who like the Marvel movies, and especially if they liked Black Panther, I would steer them toward Nnedi Okorafor’s various YA books (Zahrah the Windseeker, Shadow Speaker, Akata Witch, Akata Warrior…). These will then open the door to her non-juvenile SF, and so much more. There’s also the fact that Okorafor has written some Black Panther and related comics (Shuri), so those can also work as a gateway to her prose work.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      And, of course, I completely forgot to mention my favorite author: Ursula Le Guin. Every opportunity should be taken to steer young people to her work, and of course, she’s written a good amount of children’s/YA books that serve as good gateway, from the Catwings series for the little ones just learning to read, to, most obviously, the first three Earthsea books for those in the 11-14 set. The latter is probably my favorite fantasy series bar none.

  2. Loved Danny Dunn. Andre Norton too — for some reason she was in Florida school libraries at a time little else SF was.
    “A kid reading a Superman comic book is still a kid reading. Keep your eye on the ball. Literacy is the goal here. ” It’s very annoying when some pretentious twit insists that comic books aren’t reading because it’s all in the visuals.
    The ibooks are excellent, particularly the Sinister Six. There’s also a good time travel trilogy with some clever twists. And MJ laughing that “Oh Peter, just because that old photo looks like you and Bishop doesn’t mean you’re going to travel back to 1868, silly.” (Spoiler: Yes it does!).
    The British author Diana Wynne Jones does excellent fantasy for kids that also works for adults. When I worked in a bookstore I recommended her a lot as “what do you read after Harry Potter?”
    I’ve read a couple of Spider novels. For the life of me I could not find anything interesting in them, even as a long-time pulp reader.
    Okorafor is excellent. And her response to receiving the Lovecraft award, then learning what a racist he was was amazingly gracious.

    I agree about the need to make reading fun. I read a book about 30 years ago that argued the fatal mistake schools and literacy programs often make is insisting reading’s no good if it isn’t Serious and Deep. So the recommended books are about Drug Addiction! and Suffering! and Racism! and Existential Loneliness! along with assurances that this is what kids want to read. Whereas stuff they do read like Nancy Drew or Sweet Valley High gets thumbed down.

  3. Call Me Carlos the Dwarf

    The Prydain Chronicles are UNREAL! Absolutely perfect for anyone in the 9-14 range, and Taran Wanderer is endlessly re-readable to this day.

    I’d also throw the Skulduggery Pleasant books, by Derek Landy, on that list.

  4. Alaric

    Lloyd Alexander was my favorite author when I was… I’m not quite sure exactly how old, but certainly for several years when I was young. Love the Prydain books (when I started studying the Welsh language years later- long story- I was somewhat disappointed to find the actual pronunciation of all those names, at first. I developed a love for the sound of the language over time, and it’s clear that Alexander wanted the readers to read those names as their spellings would suggest that would be pronounced in English. For example, the old Welsh name “Caw” wasn’t actually pronounced anything like a sound you’d expect a crow to make). It’s funny- most of the other series you mention I read exactly one book from when I was a kid- Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint, The Star Beast and Red Planet (okay, that’s TWO Heinlein juveniles), The Mystery of the Stuttering Parrot, the Fantastic four Doomsday novel- though I certainly enjoyed them. I couldn’t get enough of those Star Trek books, though- I liked the book version of certain episodes better than the actual episodes, in fact (mostly read the copies at my school, as I recall).

  5. Rob Allen

    A couple of my early favorites (age 7-9):

    – the Mushroom Planet books by Eleanor Cameron.

    – The Teaspoon Tree by Mary B. Palmer.

    – Dog stories – Jack London, Albert Payson Terhune, Jim Kjelgaard, etc.

    A few years after that, I was reading a lot of PG Wodehouse.

    1. One of my best friends in college adored the Mushroom Planet books.
      I started reading PG Wodehouse when I was 11. Have continued to do so.
      Somehow I wound up starting the Prydain books with The High King, but I had no trouble following and getting hooked by the story. And I had a major crush on Eilonwy for years.

      1. Alaric

        “And I had a major crush on Eilonwy for years.” Who didn’t? (Lloyd Alexander clearly had a thing about princesses who talk a lot- they pop up in a number of his books.)

  6. Chris Schillig

    As a high school teacher, I can tell you that standardized testing and the gauntlet we make kids run to prepare for such exams are killing the love of reading for pleasure. When all texts must be annotated, analyzed, and scanned for answers to multiple-choice questions or raided for “evidence” to support some argumentative essay, they become synonymous with work.

    Today, I saw a student reading a book for pleasure in the middle of my class. The sight was so unexpected that I let him keep reading (“Dune,” by the way), assured that whatever he was experiencing between those two covers was superior to anything I could teach.

  7. jccalhoun

    Since I learned to read in first grade, I was a reader. However, the first book series I remember seeking out was John Christopher’s Tripod series. In the 80s Boys Life decided to adapt the book series into a comic series. As you could imagine, a one page a month adaptation of a three book series took years and years to complete. I was so enthralled with the story that I didn’t want to wait and so I sought out the original books at the library.

    The series (don’t bother reading the prequel that was written much later) is set in a world where Earth has been taken over by mysterious tripod machines who have reduced humanity to a pre-industrial-era level of technology. It is up to three teenagers to save the world. Even though I’m an adult I still re-read it every few years when I want some comfort reading.

  8. I feel like I’m one of the younger regular readers here, and I grew up in Australia where they are heavily focused on promoting Aus literature (Blinky Bill, The Magic Pudding, etc.) but what got me off the comics and on to books were the choose your own adventure books. I noticed the other day in Chapters they’re also available again and packaged exactly the way they used to be with the white border, red masthead, etc. My brother read the older Ian Livingstone ones but I never quite got in to them. The fad was fading when I discovered them.

    I also remember reading a lot of Babysitters Club because girls I liked read them (we’re talking grade 3 here. Ridiculous.)

    I read Super Folks in high school but it would be perfect for an 11 year old who wants to feel they’re reading something they shouldn’t. And which 11 year old doesn’t want that?

    My son is just about to turn 6 and he’s devouring the Captain Underpants ‘novels’. The key for him is humour so I plan to get him next on to things like Timmy Failure, the Bad Guys, etc. There are SO MANY choices these days, it’s fantastic.

  9. Jeff Nettleton

    I used to get the “They’ve rad Harry Potter and want something similar” and always steered them to Terry Pratchett, especially the Tiffany Aching books (also The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents and The Carpet People). Funny, exciting and thought provoking, without hitting you over the head with it.

    For mystery fans there is The Mysterious Benedict Society, which includes puzzles for the reader to solve, as they move along through the book.

    Fans of superhero movies and James Bond stuff might try the Artemis Fowl series, by Eoin Colfer, as well as Anthony Horowitz’s Alex Rider series.

    Series of Unfortunate Events is a great gateway to all kinds of things, from adventure to fantasy to horror and mystery.

    The Percy Jackson books are great gateways into mythology and superheroes, as well as other quest adventure.

    For superhero fans, I also steer them to The Scarlet Pimpernel and Captain Blood, as well as Treasure Island. Sword fights, daring escapes, secret identities, evil villains; it’s all good. Fans of Iron Man should check out Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

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