Choosing Books for Boys

Choosing books for boys isn’t all that hard. Give them adventure — the kind with blood and courage, dirt and ingenuity — and watch their imaginations soar, assuming they haven’t been “Eustaced”* by the sort of twaddle mentioned in Martin Cothran’s excellent article below. Below Martin’s article, you’ll find a few reasons to look for good books for boys, a few tips on audiobooks, and links to a couple of lists of boy books.

Choosing books for boys isn't hard: avoid twaddle and give them the good stuff.

Boys Don’t Need Books That “Put Them in Touch with Their Feelings”

A guest post by Martin Cothran

If you listen to cultural authorities on the question of why boys aren’t readings books, you will quickly discover the problem: the politically correct experts themselves and the Children’s Literature/Industrial Complex with which they are allied.

Boys, they proclaim, need books that put them in touch with their feelings. Robert Lipsyte, writing in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, writes:

“[B]oys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships—the kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives. This is what turns boys into readers.”

Excuse me while I dab my eyes delicately with my handkerchief, touched by this tender thought.

Of course, this is complete nonsense. If you had told my wife that our three (now grown) boys had needed a “deeper engagement with their own lives,” she would have told you that what they really needed to do was clean their rooms and take out the trash.

Erin Geiger Smith, writing in a recent edition of The Wall Street Journal, also suffers under the delusion that what boys need is more self-obsession, more books that put them in touch with things with which they are already way too in touch: books about what is happening to their bodies, books about being bullied (and how they feel about it), books that bury them right where they are in their narrow little feelings-infested modern lives.

Smith quotes Brein Lopez, manager of Children’s Book World in Los Angeles, who advises giving boys books that “allow their characters to feel in different ways” (emphasis added).

You can just see Tom and Huck, fleeing these modern Aunt Pollys.

Boys are not interested in getting in touch with themselves, and it is particularly off-putting when they are told that it is good for them. The minute the politically correct schoolmarms approach, they head for the woods, where they are free to transform sticks into swords and fight monsters and hunt frogs and swing from trees—anything but to be preached at by people whose sermons consist of high-minded meaninglessness.

It is instructive to look at the books boys used to read in the days when boys read books. The old magazine pulp fiction and adventure books which used to attract the allowance money of the average boy—what Digby Anderson has called “blood and morality” literature—contained action and even a modicum of violence, but also assumed a fundamentally moral world in which characters with a clear purpose fought for a good worth fighting for.

[FOR A LIST OF CLASSIC BOYS BOOKS, CLICK HERE.]

If you went back and looked at this literature, you would quickly discover that it was characterized by precisely the opposite qualities the so-called experts now extol.

The older authors forsook the sermonizing and dispensed with the psychological aggravations of mundane daily life in favor of stories of men of action in historical times and exotic places in which good prevailed over evil, and where the hero had to put himself in danger to make sure it happened. Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan), Johnston McCulley (Zorro), Anthony Hope (Prisoner of Zenda), H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines), P. C. Wren (Beau Geste), Howard Pyle (Robin Hood), C. S. Forester (Horatio Hornblower), John Buchan (The 39 Steps), Baroness Orczy (The Scarlet Pimpernel)—these were authors whose books boys not only didn’t avoid, but sought out.

These were books once illumined by flashlights under bed covers late into the night. To do this with the modern therapeutic fiction now being pawned off on parents would be a waste of batteries.

Boys Don’t Need Books That ‘Put Them in Touch with Their Feelings’ was originally published on Intellectual Takeout by Martin Cothran.


Why good books for boys?

Good books prepare the mind for great books, so it is essential for young minds to be steeped in literature in order to be prepared for the relative complexity of classics such as Beowulf and the Aeneid (the really exciting literature of our culture). More than that, however, is that good books are great fun not just for boys, but for anyone.

I read many of the authors recommended for boys — Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Baroness Orczy, Louis L’Amour, Howard Pyle, Sir Walter Scott, and others while growing up, and they are some of the most vivid and delightful stories I remember. They illustrate courage, justice, strength, and goodness in a way that kindles a desire to become more courageous, just, strong, and good.

If your boys aren’t yet excited about reading, or if they experience difficulty in doing so, read aloud or give them audiobooks, especially if they are auditory learners. They will get much more out of the story and be absorbing the rhythm and cadence of the language, which will in turn help them become better readers and writers. More importantly, they will be associating with characters who can do hard things with honor. Getting good books into them is the key thing — never wait until they can accomplish the reading on their own.

Choosing audiobooks

A good audiobook reader can bring a story to life and draw out nuances that a young reader might otherwise miss. For that reason, I prefer professionally recorded audiobooks from Audible, rather than the amateur versions at Librivox, especially for the classics (a bad reader can ruin even a great book). I’ve recommended my favorite audiobook versions of many classics in the Excellence in Literature curriculum, but you can also visit Audible and listen to samples until you find a narrator you enjoy.

(If you aren’t familiar with Audible, you can use my affiliate link to try Audible and get two free audiobooks.)

Lists of good books for boys

I have shared my own perpetually incomplete list of Books Boys Like on the Excellence in Literature site (and I’m open to suggestions for additions); Martin has shared his list of essential boy’s books at Memoria Press; and there’s another great list at The Art of Manliness. You can also find some wonderful boy books at the Historical Fiction and Biographies for Young Readers list.


* “Eustaced” is the past-tense of Eustace, a character in the Chronicles of Narnia. When he is introduced in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we meet a boy made nearly insufferable by an education drained of beauty, truth, and goodness. There is redemption in the story for Eustace, as there can be for others whose taste for good books has been dulled by twaddle.

You might also enjoy:

Teach Classic Literature in Context

Literature — It’s Central to Literacy

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: