OK–This one is a little different than my previous reviews. I read this book by Jean Craighead George in about the 4th Grade and the images from this story have stuck with me for fifty years. The protagonist here is not a boy, but a young male great horned owl who is seeking a new territory and ultimately a mate. What I still find magical about this book is how George brings the characters of the woodland community to life without resorting to the cheap trick of making them think, communicate and act like humans (hello Bambi!). As a boy, it gave me a completely different view of the nature I could see all around me. Before, the birds and beasts I encountered were just part of the background in my own movie. After, they became prominent players with unknowable, but very real, parts to play in the drama of everyday life. The author’s descriptions of the daily life-and-death struggles of the forest are indelible.
This great adventure story won the Newberry Award way back in 1941 and it is number one on my list because it is the first book I can recall that totally mesmerized me as a kid. It has all of the elements of a classic “coming of age” adventure. Set in the South Pacific, Mafatu, the son of the chief, is afraid of the sea. Sick of his own fear and the taunts of the other boys, he sets out across the trackless ocean in an outrigger with only his dog and pet albatross.
Wrecked upon the shores of a jungle island, Mafatu must learn to conquer his fears and master his new world. And what an exotic world it is! High volcanic peaks, deep jungle, and a crystal clear lagoon seem like a paradise, but danger lurks. Wild boar with fearsome tusks inhabit the jungle, a hungry hammerhead shark cruises the lagoon and an evil looking statue with a sacrificial altar marks this island as a sacred place to the man eaters from islands to the south. The boy must face them all to survive.
In addition to the great narrative, Sperry provides wonderful illustrations throughout that bring this boy and his dangerous paradise to life. I would recommend this for any boy (or girl!) from Grade 3 and up. My only caution is that the author’s description of the tribes from the southern islands reflects typical negative caricatures from the Forties.
This classic was written in 1959 and has some flaws, but is still a great read for a boy. Sam Gribley is tired of living in New York with his parents and 7 siblings and dreams of striking out for his grandfather’s abandoned farm in Catskills Mountains. He makes good his escape and begins a kind of voluntary Robinson Crusoe existence in the wilderness. He finds and improves on a shelter in a great hollow tree, makes acquaintances with fellow inhabitants of the woods (Baron the Weasel, Jesse Coon James and Frightful the falcon fledgling). Sam has done his homework and thrives in his wild new home.
What’s great about this book is how it realizes the common boyhood fantasy of running away from home. Sam takes off and doesn’t really look back. The rhythms of the forest feel authentic and Sam seems like a real (though incredibly competent) boy. My one problem with the book is that some of the plot begs credulity. Sam was not an outcast from his family, but it took many months for his father to finally come looking for him. Even in 1959, that seems odd.
Well this is just a bit self serving, but my YA novel, Longbow, was just published and is available on Amazon. Like all books featured in this blog, Longbow is the kind of story a boy will appreciate.
It begins when 14 year old Roland Inness takes the wrong deer on the wrong nobleman’s land. Worse yet, he uses his longbow, a weapon outlawed and suppressed by the Norman overlords of England. Now they are coming for him. With one shot the peasant boy is launched on a desperate flight that takes him from the mountains of Derbyshire to the wild frontier of Wales and on to the court of Richard the Lionheart.
Along the way he is hunted by a paid killer, aided by a strange monk named Tuck, and taken in by a gruff Norman knight, who values his amazing skill with the bow. That skill and his courage are sorely tested as he fights to earn the trust of his new master.
While primarily an adventure tale, this book does touch on values that are important for boys like courage, loyalty, and even patience. It was originally written for my two sons and is most appropriate for ages ten and up, though adults should enjoy it as well. I might add that there is also a terrific girl in this one!
You can find it through my website at http://www.waynegrantbooks.com. Just click on the “Buy” button under the Longbow cover illustration and it will take you to the relevant Amazon page. I hope you enjoy–and please give me some feedback
OK–I LOVE this book. My expectations were not that high as I have read some of Gaiman’s adult novels and always came away with this feeling: “Great concept, muddled plot.” But he has hit a home run with this YA novel.
It begins with the grisly murder of the hero’s mother, father and sister (blessedly not described in detail). The baby boy only escapes death because of his habit of climbing out of his crib and wandering as far as he can–night or day. In this case he wanders out of the front door that the killer left ajar and up the street to the nearby graveyard. You won’t find out why the “Man Jack” was sent to wipe out this seemingly innocent family until near the end, but that’s half the fun. The other half of the fun is the brilliantly imaginative world of the graveyard that Gaiman creates. Ghosts of every vintage, all the way back to Roman times, inhabit the cemetery on the hill and they take the baby in as one of their own. Since no one knows his name, he is dubbed Nobody or “Bod” and begins a most peculiar upbringing among the spirits of the dead. He is assigned a guardian, Silas, who, while it is never explicitly stated, is clearly a vampire. His status as undead allows him to interact with the living and protect Bod, particularly from the never-ending pursuit of the “Man Jacks”. Each chapter of the book finds Bod two years older and each weaves a tale about his life in the graveyard and his occasional connections with the world of the living. Bod comes across as a typical boy who hardly realizes what an untypical world he lives in.
This book has created a world that is exotic and believable. I hesitate to use this level of hyperbole, but Gaiman shows JK Rowling levels of inventiveness in taking us to a magical realm and making is seem so very real. This gets my highest rating! I would recommend for anyone over the age of ten.
The Horatio Hornblower series published by C.S. Forester from the late 1940s through the early 1960s is perhaps the greatest seafaring historical fiction ever written (my opinion). The series of eleven books plays out during the dramatic period of the Napoleonic wars,when Britain was in a life and death struggle with France. While Napoleon’s armies sweep across Europe, Britain’s superb navy thwarts the ambitions of the French Emperor to dominate the continent.
Into this monumental struggle steps our hero, Midshipman Horatio Hornblower, who receives his first assignment to HMS Justinian, a decidedly second rate ship with a sickly captain and a bully as the senior Midshipman. Chronologically, the first book in the series is Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, and it is one of my favorites, displaying all of the elements that makes the series special. Here is why you should introduce your boy(s) to this great character:
- Character —While this series has much to recommend it (see below), the character of Horatio Hornblower is what makes it special. Horatio enters the service in his early teens and has never been to sea. He is gawky and not handsome–not at all the image of a charismatic leader. He gets violently sea sick at the beginning of each voyage and is deathly afraid of heights, which makes his duties aloft in the swaying rigging of a tall ship particularly daunting. What he has is courage, ambition and integrity. Both qualities will be sorely tested as he rises through the ranks.
- Action–No one writes a sea battle better than CS Forester. He has a way of putting you viscerally in the thick of the action.
- Supporting Cast–Forester has created truly memorable supporting players in this great saga to include Hornblower’s closest friend and fellow officer William Bush and his mentor the great Edward Pellew, Captain of the HMS Indefatigable. Pellew was an actual historical figure and one of the most decorated frigate commanders of the period.
- Prose–There is nothing outdated in Forester’s prose style and one thing I most admire is his ability to convey a sense of the complexity of naval operations in the age of sail without falling back on excessive nautical jargon, which so many other do (I’m talking about you, Patrick O’Brian!)
This is the kind of series that boys 12-18 could really get immersed in and I can’t recommend it highly enough. After all, Ernest Hemingway is quoted as saying, “I recommend Forester to everyone literate I know,” and Winston Churchill stated, “I find Hornblower admirable.”
There was a time when almost all of the heroes that kids found in books were boys—Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings, and more recently, Harry Potter. But times have changed. Now girls read, boys play video games, and the heroes in our books are most likely to be strong girls such as Katniss Everdeen and Beatrice Prior. We can all applaud the fact that our daughters can now read about strong, resilient young women who are at the heart of a great adventure story and not either a damsel in distress or a secondary character.
But what about our sons? Where they are concerned, are we to surrender the field to HALO and Call of Duty? Looking at the current book market, it appears that the answer is yes. I don’t pretend that I can balance out this trend in favor of our boys, but one of my goals in launching this Blog is to identify the kind of books that will appeal to them and have protagonists they can more readily identify with. Because boys, after all, need heroes too. So if you are looking for some suggestions on how to engage your boy with the written word, tune in!
I have set up my own rating system, with camp fires instead of stars. It seems a good symbol for bringing a little light to this subject. The ratings work as follows:
The book has some redeeming value, but is flawed.
The book is a good solid read, but is not a classic.
The book is very good. Strong characters, exciting action, good values.
The book is a classic–or will be some day.