My son, J., was a strong early reader and got bored with me reading to him way too early (my opinion, not his), so we began reading the same book tandem-style years ago. That’s how we read the entire Harry Potter series together, and we’ve since moved on to joint-read a lot of graphic novels (he often recommends ones for me to read) and mainly science fiction books (I usually recommend these).
He’s officially a tween now at 11.5, and some if not most of the books we’ve been reading are definitely from the TEEN shelves. One reason for that: it’s hard to find great sci-fi for middle grades (though it’s possible I just don’t know where to look). Tor.com published this essay about the lack of speculative fiction in the Newberry Award line-up over the years, and I agree. It seems like great fantasy books (which my daughter is into) are easier to come by for this age group than sci-fi (I’m thinking of The Girl Who Drank The Moon, Saavy, My Diary From The Edge of the World). But my son, for whatever reason, is into apocalypses, not dragons and magic. So when reading these books alongside J., I make sure to check in about the violence, romance, etc., and we discuss. Briefly. But brief discussions count!
Also, some context: I also grew up in a house where my parents didn’t care what I read (I mean this in the best way possible!). We kids were turned loose in the library and made our way through the stacks all on our own, without parent recommendation or guidance. So I grew up reading everything and loving all genres of books. 5th grade, when I was my son’s age, I discovered Stephen King. I spent the next few years dwelling in horror and whatever you want to call the V.C. Andrews books, before re-emerging into the light with large Russian novels for some reason. While I would not be super excited to have my son read Stephen King now, at his age…I mean, I turned out all right. Gave me nightmares, still gives me nightmares, but whatever. Anyhow, all this to say, just because The Hunger Games is about kids killing kids, and that sounds awful, it still can be a great book to read with your child, if both you and your child are ready for it.
Here’s a list of what we’ve been reading, in case you’re interested in starting up your own dystopian (and occasionally fantasy) book club for two.
The House of the Scorpion and its sequel The Lord of Opium, Nancy Farmer: the first book in this 2-book series is one of my son’s favorite books ever (“I just love her writing,” J. said). Sure, the novels deal with poppies, opium, and the drug trade (good time to have that conversation about addiction!), but the books also take place in a richly imagined future, dealing with some of the same cloning ethics that Never Let Me Go also dipped into. Also features a great, imperfect, headstrong, and complex boy hero. (By the way, I’m not saying to read Never Let Me Go with your tween. Please don’t.). J.’s rating: House of Scorpion, 5/5; The Lord of Opium: 5/5
Scythe and Thunderhead, Neal Shusterman: these are my favorite books that we’ve read together. Scythe has some pretty heavy themes and disturbing violence (the mass gleanings, man, those are hard for even me to read). But I think the books, at the same time, handle death and killing so respectfully–compared with, for instance, Star Wars violence, where you can shoot up dozen bad guys and it’s no big deal. The books brings up all these huge issues which have been great to talk about with J., such as, would you want to live forever? Would you want to be a Scythe? What kind of Scythe would you be? There’s also an interesting AI character, The Thunderhead, kind of a uber-Siri, who is trying to keep the world running smoothly but bad humans are getting in the way. I found Scythe by checking out the Printz Honor books (award for teen books by the ALA). J.’s rating: Scythe: 4.5/5; Thunderhead: 4.5/5
Pure (and the two follow-up books Burn and Fuse), Julianna Baggott: I was super excited about Pure, as it was on the beloved 100 Notable Books of the Year for the New York Times. When does a teen sci-fi book get to be on that list!?! It’s a well-written and deeply moving series set against the backdrop of a nuclear bombed out world. J.’s rating: Pure 4/5; Burn 4/5; Fuse 3.5/5
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card: combines computer games, boarding school, bullying, outer space, aliens, and war! J.’s rating: 4.5/5
Divergent (and its sequel Insurgent), Veronica Roth: My son thought Divergent (book 1) was even better than The Hunger Games (and he really liked Hunger Games). I like that the series takes place in Chicago–go Midwest! There’s a strong female lead, score one for the team!, though the romance is kind of heavy (good time to have that conversation too). I would recommend skipping the third book in the series, Allegiant — the (controversial?) ending is bleak. Really bleak. Really, really bleak/sad. I’m all for depressing books but this felt like way too much and didn’t seem to fit the tone of the series. After this VERY WRONG THING happened, I ended up summarizing the rest of the book for J. and told him he might want to stop reading (he did). J.’s rating: Divergent 4/5; Insurgent 4/5; Allegiant, 3/5;
The Hunger Games (and its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay) by Suzanne Collins: this was my second read through the series, Jasper’s first. They are enjoyably intense page turners that get political and revolutionary toward the end, though the Katniss, Peeta, Gale love triangle is——I’m just tired of love triangles. Let’s add some polyamory into teen books, please! J.’s rating: The Hunger Games 4.5/5; Catching Fire 4/5; Mockingjay 4/5
- Nimona (2015 National Book Award finalist), J.’s rating 4.5/5;
- Spill Zone (by Scott Westerfeldter of Uglies fame, another series I want to read with my son) (I remember quite a lot of the F word used in Spill Zone, another opportunity for yet another conversation with J. about language), J’s rating 4/5;
- The Lottery graphic novel (yes! a graphic novel! illustrated by Shirley Jackson’s grandson! It gave me the chills watching J. interact with Shirley Jackson for the first time), J’s rating 4/5.
- The Thief
- Arena (found this on the 2017 Alex Award list, an ALA award given to adult books that are of interest to teen readers–I’m not sure how these books will go over with J. but I’d like to try).
Books which didn’t work out for the club
- Feed, by M.T. Anderson: this book has one of the best opening lines (“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”) I love this book. Anderson also went to my MFA program a few years before me, which is really (too?) exciting for me. But the language was overly stylized for J. and he stopped reading after a few pages. Darn.
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding: not exactly sci-fi but I think of it as a possible inspiration for The Hunger Games. My son refused to read it after encountering this sentence in the first paragraph: “All round him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat.” Okay, yes, that is a weird sentence. What were you thinking, William Golding?! But darn.
- Wizard of Earthsea: J. made it half-way through before losing interest. I love Ursula LeGuin deeply, but this book is not my favorite of hers. It is so serious and somber and almost flat. Maybe not the best suggestion on my part (I was hoping we would make it to future books in the Earthsea series, like The Tombs of Atuan, which I think is much better).