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.
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.