The hard-to-shake (and untrue!) belief that boys don’t like to read at once stymies interest and limits the types of books that are recommended and highlighted. And while it is patently unproven that boys won’t read books with a female main character, there are plenty of male characters who aren’t traditional warriors or rebels or sullen loners. And we’ve found some that give the spotlight to a variety of characters everyone can both relate to and cheer for. Each of these four novels features an array of main characters, all of whom find and take opportunities to do better, be better, and create positive change for themselves and the world around them in large and small ways.
Backfield Boys by John Feinstein
Backfield Boys (2017) follows NYC teens and best friends Jason Roddin and Tom Jefferson as they leave home to embark on what seems like a fairytale opportunity with full football scholarships at an elite sports-focused high school in Virginia. They soon discover that Jason, a Jewish, white, and lightning fast receiver and Tom, a Black, bulls-eye throwing quarterback, are being considered more for their skin color than their abilities. Feinstein’s focus is not about what happens on the field as much as how bigotry influences what happens behind-the-scenes to shape opportunities for young football hopefuls.
The novel has a Hardy Boys feel as the friends begin to unravel mysterious details about their new school and its football coach. The characters come across as older than high school freshmen throughout, however, readers will find the book and its dialogue both believable and relatable in true young adult fiction style.
Feinstein can be a bit heavy-handed with his efforts to avoid stereotypes, but there are some exceptional moments of self-realization in the story. As Jason enjoys success on the field despite being assigned as a quarterback, Tom, sidelined for every game, is at once happy for his friend and disgruntled at being left out of every opportunity. Jason’s realization that his success depends in part on Tom being “kept down” allows the reader to consider times their own opportunities may have cost someone else the same. Recommended for ages 12-18; knowledge about American football is optional.
This Is Kind of An Epic Love Story by Kheryn Callender
This novel is full of characters readers will immediately recognize, and the main character, Nathan Bird, is conflicted and vulnerable and hopeful and afraid – so much so that it almost makes him lose his friends and a chance at love. This Is Kind Of An Epic Love Story (2018) is written in a journal-like format that allows the readers to get to know Nathan really well, warts and all.
The storyline centers on Nathan’s inability to believe in happy endings. He is bisexual, and despite falling in love easily (his best friend Florence has recently broken up with him), his love-life exists under a pessimistic cloud. When Ollie, a close friend and crush from his childhood, moves back to town, Nathan’s fear of the relationship changing or ending keeps him from making a move. He even behaves with real meanness towards the object of his affection.
Some readers may find Nathan frustrating, but many will recognize his thoughts and actions as realistic even as they seem awkward and illogical – a little like being a teenager. The novel’s main group of friends includes a Black bi-sexual main character (Nathan), a mixed-race bi-sexual character (Florence), two white straight characters (Gideon and Ashley), and a Latinx gay character, who is also hard-of-hearing (Ollie). The diversity in the group of friends is treated matter-of-factly, and it does not factor into the conflicts.
The novel is recommended for 14+, mainly for occasional coarse language and sexual activities in one or two scenes. Nathan provides readers with a strong example of how to say no to or delay unwanted sexual activity. In addition, in some scenes, he thinks to himself that he both wants to and doesn’t want to engage in sexual intimacy, and he chooses to delay. And when he and Ollie do eventually engage in sex, the use of condoms, lubrication, and affirmative consent are at the forefront of the scene. Like all the other representation in the novel, this is treated as the norm and feels like a natural part of the story.
Kids Like Us by Hilary Reyl
Like many kids, Martin, the main character of Hilary Reyl’s KIDS LIKE US (2017) doesn’t react well to being suddenly uprooted to a new country and a new school while dealing with his mother’s dating and his own budding romantic feelings towards new girls he meets. Martin is also a self-conscious, teenage boy with autism. The story is told from Martin’s perspective via a journal-like narrative, and his honesty as a narrator helps readers empathize and root for him throughout.
Readers get a look at how Martin views his parents and his sister and how they interact with him and respond to his autistic behaviors. Set over a summer in France, much of the novel’s events are filtered through Martin’s focus on Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or “Search,” as Martin calls it, which serves as a link to his jailed father. His adoration of Proust colors his understanding of the world around him, which sometimes affects his ability to interact with those around him.
During their stay in France, Martin’s mother pushes him to attend a school for mainstream kids, and Martin provides descriptions of how he experiences his mother’s frustrations with his “unconventional” behavior as well as the multiple “teaching moments” she uses to mold him to become more “mainstream.” This contrasts with the wholly loving and accepting attitude of his sister. Reyl’s descriptions of Martin’s behavior and inner thoughts are some of the most nuanced and realistic in recent memory. The scenes between family members and Martin’s experiences with schoolmates are also both believable, descriptive, and sometimes very raw.
While the main conflict throughout Kids Like Us centers on Martin’s challenges with his new surroundings and routines, there are multiple complications involving romantic feelings, friendships, betrayal, separation, jealousy, and coming of age – as with most teenage stories. This novel is a fantastic read not just for families with a member with autism, but also for teens who feel out of place or awkward, and for those who love them. It’s a great book to help grown-ups empathize with and remember those feelings.
Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh
Between the Syrian refugee crisis, terrorism and its side-effects in Europe, and crisis situations that force teens to make very grown-up decisions, NOWHERE BOY (2018) is both timely and classic. When Max is forced to move to Belgium from Washington D.C. for his father’s job, he is miserable and lonely and he feels out of place. Little does he know that Ahmed, a boy who escaped Syria after losing his entire family, feels much the same way – and he is hiding out in Max’s family’s basement. Upon discovering Ahmed, Max must confront his own selfishness and willingness to help someone even if it means risking his own comfort and safety.
The story of Nowhere Boy is told using alternating points-of-view between Max and Ahmed, allowing the reader to fully understand the emotions and experiences of each teen. The story begins in 2015, which allows for modern-day conflicts for the characters including the Bataclan attack and subsequent manhunts, worldwide images of drowned refugee children, as well as general attitudes towards Muslims and refugees throughout Europe.
Marsh manages to create a story that meshes typical teenage angst and hubris with tragic world and societal issues. The friendship between the two main characters develops easily and with recognizable hiccups and dynamics. The prose is easy to read, making it accessible to a wide range of readers. The subject matter, however, is often painful and tragic. For example, the novel opens with Ahmed and his father escaping Syria with a group of refugees in a fragile, flooding dinghy; not everyone makes it to the shore. Recommended for ages 10-14+.