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By James Clements, posted on 30th April 2020

Not your typical books for boys

I love children’s books.

The shelves in my office are overflowing with books jostling for attention. In fact, it has become a running joke in the family to see who can find me the most obscure book for Christmas each year.

This Christmas, I was delighted to unwrap a copy of Stirring Stories for Boys by Alfred Judd. It’s a collection of eight short stories originally published in 1925. As you can imagine, the stories are very stirring indeed. To give you a flavour, here’s a passage where our heroes Temple’s House are competing against arch-rivals Ovenden’s House in a boat race:

How they gasped and stumbled; how their hearts throbbed. Men of vim were abroad today! It was the fastest spurt on record. Temple’s four slipped past their opponents with the lissom directness of a torpedo. Bang! Temple’s had got the cup!

Of course, it’s easy to look back and laugh at the stereotypes – but have things really changed that much when we think about ‘books for boys’?

Modern ‘books for boys’

So often, when we see books marketed at boys, they also deal in stereotypes. Different stereotypes from the ones on show in 1925, but stereotypes nonetheless. If you’re a boy, the books for you are books about football, books where strong heroes vanquish monsters, books full of slapstick comedy and jokes about bottoms, or books with superheroes.

Of course, there’s some truth in this. Lots of boys do like the books in these categories. That’s why they’re popular. But what about the boys who aren’t interested in football? The ones who want stories built around more than fast-paced action?

I’ve collected together some suggestions for books that might appeal to boys who don’t see themselves or the subjects they’re interested in reflected in typical ‘books for boys’ lists. These are all books which – as well as being wonderful reads – explore themes and ideas your growing boy is likely to encounter as they navigate their way through the playground and beyond, books that encourage empathy, books which give them positive role models to aspire to.

For the boys who do love the funny cartoon books, the famous footballer books, and the superhero books, perhaps they will find something different to enjoy here. And, of course, the recommendations below aren’t just for boys. I’ve chosen these books because I love them and I hope that boys and girls might love some of them too.

Ages 5–7

Please note: all book links lead to more information on Amazon.co.uk

The Storm Whale

Benji Davies

This is the first in a series of beautiful picture books featuring Noi, a boy growing up by the sea with his dad.

As well as being enchanting stories with glorious illustrations, Noi is a thoughtful and kind, resourceful and brave boy, and the stories deal with Noi’s and his family’s feelings in a beautifully subtle way.

Buy on Amazon >

The Building Boy

Ross Montgomery, David Litchfield

A boy lives with his grandmother, who used to be an architect. Her final project is unfinished and when she is no longer around, he decides he will be the one to complete her work (with a little bit of magical help!).

A delightful story with a gentle message.

Buy on Amazon >

Bruno and Titch

Sheena Dempsey

Titch is the last guinea pig left in the pet shop. Will no one ever come and take him home? At last he finds a home with Bruno, a creative, inventive boy full of big plans and wild ideas. Will life ever be the same for Titch?

Buy on Amazon >

Billy and the Beast

Nadia Shireen

With older children, there’s a cliché that boys only like to read books with male protagonists. Somehow books where the hero is a girl, no matter how exciting and adventurous they might be, are seen as ‘books for girls’.

What better way of challenging this view than by introducing children to Billy, a clever, brave (and brilliantly-haired) girl who (along with her sidekick and pet Fatcat) outwit a terrible beast. If children enjoy this adventure, they might also like Billy’s second adventure, Billy and the Dragon.

Buy on Amazon >

Arthur and the Golden Rope

Joe Todd-Stanton

With his glasses and unassuming manner, Arthur isn’t your typical Norse hero. But when his home is threatened and other heroes are indisposed, it is Arthur who sets off to put things right.

A wonderful story that works like clockwork and a perfect way of illustrating that you don’t have to be big, strong or have unfailing confidence in your own abilities to be a hero. Sometimes cautious determination is the best kind of bravery and quick wits work better than muscles and a sword.

Buy on Amazon >

Ages 7–9

The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones

Will Mabbitt

The three stories in the Mabel Jones are silly, funny, joyful and exciting. I’m yet to come across a child, boy or girl, who doesn’t enjoy the tales of Mabel and the crew of animal pirates she finds herself sailing with.

A great story that anyone and everyone can enjoy, featuring a clever and resourceful girl hero.

Buy on Amazon >

I Bet I Can Make You Laugh

Joshua Seigal and friends

Poetry isn’t always the first port of call for a boy looking for a new book to read, but this brilliantly funny collection of laugh-out-loud poems might just change that. The title is spot on.

Buy on Amazon >

Corpse Talk

Adam and Lisa Murphy

These unique cartoon-strip non-fiction books were originally published in the glorious Phoenix weekly comic. In each part, the corpse of a famous person from the past is dug up and interviewed, telling the story of their life and their achievements.

Brilliant for children interested in history (or for children who don’t know they’re interested in history yet, but who like the sound of talking corpses).

Buy on Amazon >

Ages 9–11

The Amulet Series

Kazu Kibuishi

This series of graphic novels follows Emily and Navin (along with mechanical rabbit Miskit) and their adventures in a strange underground world.

The characters are richly-drawn and the books are exquisitely illustrated. Perfect for children who might not have found that one book that hooks them into reading yet.

Buy on Amazon >

The Many Worlds of Albie Bright

Christopher Edge

A book that manages to be funny, intelligent and poignant all at once. Christopher Edge has written two other books that use fascinating science to build dramatic and very human stories – The Infinite Lives of Maisie Day and The Jamie Drake Equation – both of which are highly-recommended.

Buy on Amazon >

Rhythm and Poetry

Karl Nova

A hip-hop tinged poetry collection from CLiPPA Award-winning poet Karl Nova. Lyricism and energy spring from every page.

Buy on Amazon >

The Murder Most Unladylike Series

Robin Stevens

Is a series of books set in a 1930s girls’ boarding school really a top pick for a ‘books for boys’ list, I hear you ask?

Well, why not? They’re perfectly plotted detective mystery stories that wrap the reader up in a web of intrigue. They’ve always proved wildly popular with both boys and girls in the Year 5 and Year 6 classes I’ve taught.

Buy on Amazon >

The Legend of Podkin One-Ear

Kieran Larwood

This is the first in the wonderful The Five Realms series of books set in a fantasy world populated by rabbits locked in battle their enemy, the Gorm. The books are exciting and thought-provoking in equal measure.

I really enjoyed this series of books, but really it’s here at the insistence of my 9-year-old son. These are his favourite books ever and if I’m going to recommend books that might appeal to boys, I thought I should include a recommendation from an actual boy. Come to think of it, perhaps I should have got him to write the whole thing…

Buy on Amazon >

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman

I can’t write a list of recommended books without putting my favourite children’s read-aloud on there. I’ve read this book to every Year 6 class I’ve ever taught and I’m pretty sure this modern classic is responsible for revealing the enjoyment that can come from a good book to more children than any other.

The Graveyard Book tells the story of Bod, an orphan who grows up amongst the ghosts of a graveyard, before the time comes when he must join the human world again. It’s full of richly drawn, three-dimensional characters, exciting adventure, laughs, and wisdom.

Buy on Amazon >

Finally, if your boy does love football, then the Football School series by Alex Bellos and Ben Lyttleton shouldn’t be missed. If they love humorous books, then Sam Copeland’s Charlie Changes into a Chicken (and sequels) provides lots of laughs and the chance to think too. If it’s fast-paced adventure that they like, the Vango series by Timothee de Fombelle might be the rollercoaster of a story they are looking for.

And, of course, if it’s stirring stories about boat races that they like, I can think of the perfect book for them…

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