On Book Recommendations: These are suggestions for reading for pre-teen and teenage boys, not reviews. There’s a million reviews out there. If you want a full and robust review of any of these books, Google is your best friend.
Explanations for category icons ( ) are here.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, by Jeff Kinney
I admit I have not read these books, other than looking over my kids’ shoulders. I’ve seen a couple of the movies. As I’ve said in my blog, I credit Kinney’s series with starting my kids on the right path with reading. Unlike the Harry Potter series, these books are at a consistent reading level (Middle Grade, my kids read them in second and third grades)
Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Rodrick Rules, The Last Straw, Dog Days, The Ugly Truth, Cabin Fever, The Third Wheel, Hard Luck, The Long Haul, Old School, Double Down, The Getaway, The Meltdown
Fudge series, by Judy Blume
The story of 9-year-old Peter (age 12 in the final book) and his family’s antics, especially his little brother Fudge. This lovable classic series is engaging and stands the test of time. I’ve labeled the series male protagonist, but the second book has a female main character.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, [Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great not centered on Peter], Superfudge, Fudge-a-Mania, Double Fudge
Holes, by Louis Sachar
14-year-old Stanley finds himself in a juvenile corrections camp where the teenage inmates are forced to dig holes in the desert to search for buried treasure. Characters are complex and compelling, with a subtle touch of magic.
Small Steps, by Louis Sachar
Sequel to Holes, two years later when 16-year-old Stanley begins a complicated romance (that started in a complicated way) with a pop star. Sounds strange, but for a preteen or teenage boy who knows Stanley from Holes, it's a fun read with some good social messages.
Fuzzy Mud, by Louis Sachar
Excellent pure science-based science fiction, not dystopian or spacey. Marshall (seventh grade boy) and Tamaya (fifth grade girl) work to solve a mystery that turns out to be an ecological disaster. A great Middle Grade read that could be enjoyable for teens as well.
Secrets on 26th Street, by Elizabeth McDavid Jones
This is part of the American Girl History Mysteries series, I didn’t mention that to my son! The story follows 11-year-old Susan when her mother becomes active in the suffrage movement of 1914. My son read this before the 2016 election (he was 10) to better understand what a big deal it was to have a female candidate for President. It's also a good look at New York tenement life in the early 1900s.
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
12-year-old Jonas lives in a dystopian society where every citizen plays a rigid role, performing jobs that are assigned at age 12. Jonas is assigned the job of Giver, which is an honored memory-keeper position passed down only after a lifetime of service. In his training, Jonas learns dark secrets about his society, including the fate of those too weak to contribute (elderly, chronically sick, disabled). This book is suited to Middle Grade (9-12).
A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness
This is a charming but heartbreaking tale of 13-year-old Conor’s struggle to come to terms with his mother’s illness. Conor is visited by a monster (a nearby ewe tree come to life) who teaches him lessons through three tales, and demands Conor tell him his greatest fear in a fourth tale. The novel is emotionally intense, dealing with bullying and the death of a parent.
Refugee, by Alan Gratz
This historical fiction follows three child refugees, 13-year-old Josef (1939 Germany), 11-year-old Isabel (1994 Cuba), and 12-year-old Mahmoud (2015 Syria) on their journeys to escape their homelands. The writing style is suited for Middle Grade but the subject-matter is intense and could be too much for some readers.
Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
What needs to be said about Harry Potter at this point? Harry is 11 years old to start the series, and the books progress year by year until he is 17. The books are classified as Middle Grade (ages 9-12), but I think the earlier books are suitable for younger readers (my kids started the series around age 8) while the later books are a bit much for most middle grade due to increasing violence, intense danger and dark emotion. These are better classified as Young Adult (12-18). That said, some of the earlier books are slow starters and could seem “boring” if your child starts in too early, like when I tried to read Sorcerer’s Stone to one of my sons at age 6. I gave up then, and he’s loving them on his own now (age 8).
The Philosopher's Stone [a/k/a The Sorcerer’s Stone in the United States]
A slow starter. I confess to being terribly bored by Harry’s time with the Dursleys in the first two books. It was a chore to press through to get to Hogwarts, but such a delight to finally be there.
The Chamber of Secrets
Rowling’s characters get quirkier, the story more delightful.
The Prisoner of Azkaban
More emotion now, starting to love the characters, not just enjoy them.
The Goblet of Fire
Is this everyone’s favorite? I enjoyed the first three books, but Goblet entered a new league.
The Order of the Phoenix
A complex story suitable for YA readers. Characters have increasing depth.
The Half-Blood Prince
The story gets very dark, with intense themes of loyalty and loss.
The Deathly Hallows
Includes the final epic battle, violence, and loss.
The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton
Some say this classic invented the YA market (Hinton wrote the book in high school and was 18 when it was published!). The story follows 16-year-old Ponyboy and his fellow greasers, who are at war with the local rich kids. The 'cross-the-tracks rivalry turns deadly when Ponyboy's friend Johnny kills one of their rivals in self-defense (and defense of Ponyboy) and the pair go on the run.
Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen
My son’s Fifth Grade teacher read this to the class after he refused to read it at home . . . and he loved it. It’s an outdoor adventure about 13-year-old Brian, who must survive on his own in the wild following a small plane crash with nothing but a hatchet.
Vengeance Road, by Erin Bowman
This Young Adult historical western is the story of 18-year-old Kate’s quest for vengeance when her father is killed by outlaws. Kate disguises herself as a boy to travel the old west (circa 1877) in search of revenge and buried gold.
The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
This historical Young Adult novel follows 10-15-year-old Liesel in Nazi Germany, where she and a Jewish man are taken in by her foster parents. The story is narrated by Death. This book is intense, but appropriate for teens and pre-teens who are interested in history.
Miss Paragrine’s School for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs
Magical story of 16-year-old Jacob’s discovery that he inherited special gifts from his grandfather, including the ability to see monsters called hollowgasts. When he finds a community of others with special powers, he learns he (like his grandfather before him) has the power help them survive. Sequels Hollow City, Library of Souls, and Map of Days are worth reading for anyone who loved the first book.
Tangerine, by Edward Bloor
Seventh-grader Paul just moved to Tangerine, Florida, where he plays soccer, and his older brother, Erik, plays football. When Paul chooses to attend the cross-town middle school over the school in his wealthier neighborhood, Paul finds himself and remembers why he’s afraid of Erik.
Legend, by Marie Lu (series is Legend, Prodigy, Champion but this recommendation is only for Legend)
There are two point of view protagonists in this dystopian novel, a 15-year-old boy (Day) and a 15-year-old girl (June). Though the male character is strong, he’s a teenage girl’s idea of a boy (Day says of June: “Her sadness makes her impossibly beautiful, like snow blanketing a barren landscape.”). Lu was very young when she started writing Legend, which may explain the perspective of her male characters. In general, girls will like this book better than boys. It does not rise to the level of The Hunger Games, Divergent, or The 5th Wave.
Divergent series, by Veronica Roth
Boys will love these books, female protagonist and all. While I want my boys to find great books with male protagonists (because they relate more easily to them and I want to remove boundaries to a great reading experience), I do want them to read compelling female characters. My position isn’t no female protagonists, it’s go heavy on the male protagonists and choose your females carefully. Interestingly, Roth first wrote the Divergent story from the point of view of an 18-year-old boy (Tobias, a/k/a Four).
Tris (16-year-old female protagonist) discovers secrets about her dystopian Chicago society.
Tris and her allies (including 18-year-old Four) fight corrupt leadership.
Tris and Four fight from outside the Chicago society. Ironically (for this site, where I recommend books for boys that have male protagonists), the third book in the series is a disappointment. My son enjoyed the first two books (exclusively Tris’s point of view) but couldn’t get into the third (introduced Four’s point of view). I agree, the first two books are superior, for boys as well as girls. I recommend reading the first two, skipping the third.
Fifth Wave series, by Rick Yancy
This trilogy follows 16-year-old Cassie as she battles the enemy in post-apocalyptic Ohio, with her allies including 18-year-olds Evan and Ben. Most of the trilogy is from Cassie’s point of view, but Ben and Evan are strong enough characters to satisfy the finicky teen and preteen boy.
The 5th Wave
This book starts with four waves of destruction unleashed on Earth, which killed most of the human population. The military gathers teenage survivors and trains them to fight alien invaders in the 5th wave of the attack.
The Infinite Sea
This book follows a band of teenage fighters as they learn more about the war they are fighting.
The Last Star
Cassie, Ben and their band of fighters must save Evan, who was captured by the enemy, then fight the final battle with the alien invaders.
Bone Gap, by Laura Ruby
Magical story of teenage Finn, his older brother Sean, and the mysterious Roza, who appeared one day in their barn. When Roza disappears again and Finn is the only witness to the man who took her, Finn closes himself off before he starts to connect with the people around him, including a teenage beekeeper named Petey (Priscilla).
My older son loved this book and claims it as his favorite movie (his favorite book is 11/22/63 by Stephen King). In a dystopian future, everyone spends their free time in the OASIS, a virtual reality world and video game. 18-year-old Wade is an OASIS expert, a mega-fan who researches everything about the game and its creators. When one of the creators dies, Wade competes in a global contest to win ownership over the OASIS. Friendship and teamwork prevail over the corporate system.
Armada, by Ernest Cline
Armada is a stand-alone novel, not a sequel to the better-known Ready Player One. 18-year-old Zack is an expert video game player, who learns the games are training people to fight an eventual alien invasion. When the invasion begins, Zack must fight alongside his long-lost father.
John Green’s first novel, follows 16-year-old Miles when he leaves home for boarding school by his own choice. Miles, who has gone through life largely friendless, is paired with a roommate whose big personality is only matched by their friend, Alaska. This coming of age tale deals with edgier Young Adult topics, including cigarettes, alcohol, and sex, and deals with issues around death.
The Fault in our Stars, by John Green
John Green’s better-known novel follows 16-year-old Hazel in her fight against cancer, alongside 17-year-old Augustus. This story is better suited to girls, but it’s so well written that I still include it in recommended reading for boys who enjoy a female protagonist and/or are avid readers who can risk trying a book they might not love.
Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins
The dystopian science fiction series follows 16-year-old Katniss, who volunteers as a District tribute (contestant in an annual battle to death) to spare her younger sister. She inspires revolution and fights for the freedom of her people.
The Hunger Games
Katniss volunteers as a tribute and fights in the 74th annual Hunger Games, alongside 16-year-old Peeta.
Katniss and Peeta return to fight in the 75th annual Hunger Games, a battle of champions.
Katniss, Peeta and their allies fight the Capitol, the government that oppresses and enslaves District residents.
Mortal Instruments series, by Cassandra Clare
15-year-old (in the first book) Clary learns she is a Shadowhunter, possessing special powers and a responsibility to protect ordinary people (“mundies” for the mundane) from dark other-worldly forces. This is a good fantasy epic with strong male and female characters.
City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass, City of Fallen Angels, City of Lost Souls, City of Heavenly Fire
Red Rising series, by Pierce Brown
Classically books for boys—an intelligent and thoughtful male protagonist (16-year-old Darrow) fighting for himself and his people in a dystopian spacey world (the setting is our solar system, primarily Mars and Earth’s moon). This series is very violent, similar to the Hunger Games series, but still suitable for teens. My son read these at ages 12-13, but that may be a bit young for most readers.
Darrow discovers his people (the “Reds”) are being used as slave labor to power the world of the social elites (“Society”). People are classified based on race and live in a caste system, some aware and some unaware of the full scope of the world around them. Darrow infiltrates Society to fight from within, where we learn people are complicated—the good ones do bad things and the bad ones do good things.
Darrow continues his fight as one of the Society’s elite warriors.
Darrow escapes capture and torture (and presumed death) and allies with someone close to the throne, leading to overthrow of Society government and ultimately to Darrow’s family leadership.
Ten years after Morning Star, Darrow’s government is at war with the outer rim of the solar system. In a struggle for peace, Darrow is overthrown and escapes before he can be imprisoned. A new female protagonist is introduced (18-year-old Lyria) for a new Red perspective
Dark Age (announced for July 9, 2019)
The magical adventure story of teenage Tristran, a misfit who doesn't know he's half-Faerie. Gaiman is a brilliant and prolific author who writes for all ages (Coraline is arguably Middle Grade). His enchanting YA titles (like The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Neverwhere) and YA-adult crossovers (like Stardust and The Graveyard Book) are as compelling as his adult titles (like American Gods). I recommend reading them in the order they appear in this recommendation, then keep going through his full list.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
14-year-old Arnold (a/k/a Junior) lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation but attends public high school in a neighboring (white) town. Sometimes banned for its depiction of alcoholism, sexuality, profanity, and slurs. An excellent (but shallow) glimpse into Native American culture. Full disclosure: I'm a fan of banned books (the books that are banned, not banning them). For more reading, these are Arnold's favorite books in True Diary: The Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, Fat Kid Rules the World, Tangerine, Freed, Catalyst, Invisible Man, Fools Crow, Jar of Fools.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
15-year-old Charlie is socially awkward, but thrives when he’s befriended by quirky older teens, Patrick and Sam[antha]. Intense subject matter includes suicide, abusive relationships, sexuality, sexual abuse, and abortion.
Every Day, by David Levithan
16-year-old “A” has no gender because A has no body. Every day, A inhabits a different body, always the same age but otherwise very different (male, female, gay, straight, transgender, obese, beautiful, mentally ill, drug-addicted). A falls in love with Rhiannon when A inhabits her boyfriend’s body and seeks her out each day thereafter, in a new body.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky, by Mark T. Sullivan
Based on the true story of 17-year-old Pino Lella, and his role in resisting Mussolini’s fascist Italy during world War II. Pino helped Jews escape Italy for Switzerland, and he became personal driver (and spy) to a Nazi officer who reported directly to Hitler. Though based on a true story, this is categorized as fiction. It is a good transition between novels and non-fiction (on the way to The Boy on the Wooden Box and The Boys in the Boat)
Memoir of 10-year-old Leon, a Holocaust survivor and one of the more than 1,000 Jews who worked in Oscar Schindler's factory. Subject matter is intense and at times too subtle for younger readers. In the end, Leon takes the citizens of Krakow, Poland to task for looking the other way when Jews were forced into ghettos. They said they "didn't know" what was happening. This point was too subtle for my son on his own (then 11) but it's an excellent opportunity to talk to kids about not looking the other way at the start of an injustice.
This story of the University of Washington rowing team that competed in the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany follows Joe Rantz from childhood through the Olympic games, a span of more than ten years.
Educated, by Tara Westover
Acclaimed memoir of the author’s youth in the Idaho mountains, with her survivalist family. Westover didn’t attend school until she left home for college at age 17. Though she was never really home schooled, she taught herself to take the ACT college admission test. Based on her test scores and representation that she’d been home schooled, she was admitted to college. With grit and determination, she excelled in college and learned about a world that was kept hidden from her at home. A fascinating look at survivalist culture, abuse, and isolation, intense but suitable for older teens who have an interest in how others live.
Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens, by Steve Olson
An excellent look at science and government, through the human lens of personal stories. Starting with the ominous rumbles of a previously dormant volcano and ending with botched interventions in reforestation (seeding yields fewer plants because seeds create a boom in the mouse population, which then eat the emerging seedlings when their enhanced food source disappears, who knew?), this book is a lesson in where humans fit in ecology. And it's a really good read.
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson
I missed out on the fun of physics when I was in school. It was boring and it was hard, a killer combination. With the right teacher, physics is only hard in the fun way, and it's certainly not boring. Reading this book before being exposed to a physics class could make all the difference in the universe.
Grit, by Angela Duckworth
I famously forced my then-11-year-old son to read this book because Duckworth was the keynote speaker at my company's annual conference, and I was bringing my family along for some fun in the Phoenix sun. He was too young, but I couldn't control the timing. He hated reading the book (probably just because I was making him), but he loved listening to the keynote (which exactly followed the book). Grit is about the power of passion and perseverance, a great lesson for teens who might not feel smart enough, strong enough, talented enough...
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
A good read about what goes into success. Includes an interesting (though disputed) look at the 10,000 rule--the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of experience/practice to become an expert at anything. Accurate or not, it's good context for a teen without any idea of what it means to work hard for a very long time.
This adult title follows Shadow, a grown man who finds himself in the midst of a battle between Old Gods and New Gods. Gaiman is a brilliant and prolific author who writes for all ages (Coraline is arguably Middle Grade). His enchanting YA titles (like The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Neverwhere) and YA-adult crossovers (like Stardust and The Graveyard Book) are as compelling as his adult titles (like American Gods). I recommend reading them in the order they appear in this recommendation, then keep going through his full list.
This is my favorite Stephen King book (and my son’s favorite book of all time, so far), so it’s my recommendation for where to start on King’s extensive list of publications. Jack is a high school English teacher who finds a portal into 1958. Every time he passes through the portal, he arrives at exactly 11:58 a.m. on September 9, 1958. No matter how much time he spends in the past, when he returns exactly two minutes have gone by. Jack decides to go back and stop the Kennedy assassination, spending more than five years in the past where mysterious forces of time and fate work to stop his quest.
Watchers, by Dean Koontz
I read this in junior high (remember when middle school was junior high?) and loved it so much I took it to summer camp as a “comfort” re-read. My oldest son read it around the same age and also loved it. Travis, a former elite army operative, discovers a stray dog with seemingly magical intelligence, and they must join forces to fight the dog’s nemesis, a monster created in the same lab as the dog. There’s a sub-plot with some pretty disturbing violence, but I think it stops short of too far for teenagers.
I’m recommending this because I’m so fond of it, but I admit it’s a slow starter and my son couldn’t get into it. I even told him he could skip the first section because it doesn’t really matter (who am I??). The book follows a group of graduate students and their professor who find themselves stranded in 1357 France, on the eve of a battle for control of a castle. Other good Crichton titles for teens include The Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, and The Lost World. Other good time travel titles include Stephen King’s 11/22/63, Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler’s Wife and Jack Finney’s Time and Again.
I love this book and adore profanity-spewing Mark, an astronaut stranded alone on Mars. This is for older teens, or teens with an interest in space travel and NASA.