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Teenage Literature, Wet Brains

July 2, 2010 | by

I need to buy a present for a thirteen-year-old boy. His parents suggested "a good book." This thirteen year-old is not that interested in literature, so I want this book to be a gateway to good, weird literature for him. Suggestions? —James in Providence

This is such an excellent—and delicate—question, we decided to call in some experts.

Lev Grossman is a senior writer and book critic for Time magazine. He is also the author of the novels Warp, Codex, and The Magicians, the last of which is centrally concerned with teenagers and gateway reading. Lev recommends:

Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. I read and reread this book constantly from ages thirteen through sixteen. Vonnegut seamlessly merges (sorry for the cliché) the basic existential challenges of life with that early-adolescent sense of generalized grievance against the world of which thirteen year-olds are the chosen curators. Plus, it's impossible to read Cat's Cradle as a grownup, so it's now or never. If that doesn't work, T.H. White's The Once and Future King. After that I give up.

Laura Miller is a staff writer at Salon, which she helped found. She is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review, the editor of The Salon Guide to Contemporary Fiction, and the author of The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia. Laura writes:

The Maze Runner by James Dashner is not exactly a literary triumph, but it's accessible and action-packed (important to many young male nonreaders) yet also features just enough of that good, Vonnegutesque mind-blowing to show him that books can take you to places no other medium can.

As a working girl, I need to use those spare minutes—on the subway, waiting in grocery store lines, heating up canned soup—for my reading pleasure. This often results in a lot of re-reading to get back into the story. Any suggestions for books that just keep on moving? —A.

Thomas Bernhard wrote Woodcutters in a state of advanced alcoholism. One gets the distinct impression that the author keeps losing his place and reminding himself, every few pages, what's going on. (Not just in a Bernhardian way, in a wet brain way—if that distinction makes any sense.) A similar thing happens in Saul Bellow's last novel Ravelstein, which he wrote in extreme old age. Then there is Mary Robison's novel Why Did I Ever, the narrator of which suffers from ADD and tells her story in short confused bursts, a few (often very funny) sentences at a time. To lose one's place in that novel strikes me as the best, most faithful way to read it. All three novels are immensely enjoyable, and (necessarily?) short.

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  1. Thessaly La Force | July 2, 2010 at 11:09 am

    James, I’d add Ender’s Game to the list. I remember discovering that book in high school, the weekend before an enormous term paper was supposed to be due. What trouble that caused!

  2. Rachel | July 2, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    The Maze Runner looks very interesting. I think,however, that the other books suggested are a little advanced for a 13 year old who doesn’t already read. I would suggest starting with a middle reader or a YA book under 300 pages so as not to intimidate him. The Giver by Lois Lowry is a short and excellent book that has won many awards and definitely fulfills the ‘good’ and ‘weird’ criteria. If he’s not a huge reader, however, I’d probably start with something even more contemporary. Anything by Cliff McNish is fabulous– especially ths Silver City sequence (one of the most original series I have ever read) and Breathe (a modern day ghost story). The key is to get a child interested in something accessible and relevant. Once his interest develops, he can move on to different types of books.

  3. Charlotte | July 2, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Yes, I second Thessaly. Ender’s Game is fantastic.

  4. Helen DeWitt | July 6, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    For 13-year-old. Stanislaw Lem, Cyberiad; Immortal Engines. Sherlock Holmes. Three Musketeers. Treasure Island (Borges’ favourite book as a child, I’m told). It probably depends on the video games he’s playing, if he likes World of Warcraft maybe Njals Saga.

  5. Maryanna | July 21, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    I thoroughly agree with Rachel. I have seven nieces and nephews (non-readers), and I don’t think any of them could finish The Magicians or anything by Vonnegut.
    I would recommend books by Rick Riordan. He also has a great blog that recommends appropriate age books. The Percy Jackson series is amazing. One nephew read it, and got all the boys in his class to read it. The book series is much more engaging and humorous than the movie. Several of the boys in his class also read Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins. She also wrote another amazing series, Hunger Games. I think any of these books would be great for a non-reader.

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