We Recommend, How About Some Great Nonfiction?

A stepmom writes in concerned about her stepson, who just doesn't want to read. That's all, he just doesn't. Especially fiction. Everyone tries to get him to read, and he's not into it. He likes comic books though, including Donald Duck, Bone, etc. He also loves movies, of all kinds. He tried Harry Potter and it left him cold (though he did like the films). The last book he remembers enjoying in school was—a biography of Henry Ford.
Wow.
He said he might be interested in reading about World War II, but most of his family members seem to want him to read fiction.
What do we have for the guy?

Well, I must say, that as someone who is ridiculously biased in favor of fiction, and who knows how unpleasant it is to be asked to read something you don't want to read, I say, let this person follow his heart. If he doesn't want to read fiction, then by all means, don't make him. That doesn't mean he shouldn't read, though. If he was good with a biography of Henry Ford, by God, he's got the will and the imagination to be thrilled and amazed and transported by reading all sorts of things, I would think. The thing that gives me pause in coming up with a recommendation is his age; 13. That's a big kid, but not yet a grownup.
I thought of a lot of things: of Asterisk and Obelisk, of Tintin, of Bone. Maybe Maus,by Art Spiegelman, a brilliant graphic novel that's certainly about World War II. Maybe Persepolis, another amazing graphic novel, this one about the Iranian revolution as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl. And heaven knows that there's nothing wrong with watching the movie version of a story first, and getting to the book from there.

I thought, too, of my own favorite biography from when I was a kid: The Story of George Washington Carver (I thought it was the world's coolest thing that he made his own microscope). But the truth is, these were all thoughts, when my real answer is from a blind gut feeling (one which apparently has no respect for age-appropriate reading levels):

Seabiscuit-statue[1]

That's right, Seabiscuit.
Here's the crazy thing: I haven't read this book. And I know it's not specifically a book for kids. But it just seems so right, somehow. What can I say, it just leapt to my mind as though it was meant to be there.
But really, probably the reason I don't have enough to recommend is my fully-acknowledged weakness in the nonfiction arena. So everyone: what can we give this guy to read?

21 thoughts on “We Recommend, How About Some Great Nonfiction?

  1. My husband is here saying, Oh, there’s so much. John Toland, The Rising Sun, he says he read at that age. First person accounts of WW2. Studs Terkel, The Good War (or lots of other stuff by him)–personal histories.
    If he likes sports at all, Stolen Season by David Lamb (travels around baseball’s minor leagues); Leonard Koppit’s The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Baseball (older editions Thinking Man’s). Baseball fiction: Shoeless Joe by Kinsella. Short stories if novels are too long: Splendor in the Grass. Novella by Don Novello:Pafko at the Wall. (Based on Bobby Thompson’s shot heard round the world.) If he likes math, Bill James Statistical Abstract. Also: Earl Weaver’s On Strategy.
    Biography: The Power Broker, by Robert Moses–if he liked Ford, my hubby thinks he’ll love this.
    At that age my husband also liked All Quiet on the Western Front.
    Sorry if that was choppy, but I was transcribing what my husband said while he talked.
    I like Fast Food Nation for him too (who hasn’t eaten at McDonald’s?)
    And if he likes comics, I loved The Watchmen though it might be just a little old for him. Also: our library (small-town) has a great graphic novel section aimed at tweens to teens. Worth looking!

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  2. I’ve been lurking for ages, and I’m coming out of the shadows for this one.
    I’ve got a rather non-reading 14 yr old, and last year he got VERY into The Hunger Games. I know it’s fiction, but he REALLY loved it, and even made me pre-order the sequel.
    Seabiscuit WAS pretty good. I read it, even though I’m not a big nonfiction person, and it did suck me in. You know what other fun nonfiction I remember loving? Word Freak. It’s a stretch, but I recommend it. And it may have the unintended consequence of getting him interested in Scrabble!
    Would the kid do magazines? It’s pretty cool to get something in the mail, and my kiddo likes to read through National Geographic and Smithsonian while he eats his breakfast. I just leave them on the kitchen table so they’re there at his fingertips, and since no one else is really up and around yet (high school starts so EARLY now!), he doesn’t feel watched by all those hushed eyes going, “SHH!!! LOOK, HE’S READING!! DON’T DRAW ATTENTION TO YOURSELVES OR HE MIGHT STOP READING!!!”

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  3. p.s. I’ve asked my kiddo for his recommendations, and he wonders if this boy would be interested in something about boys surviving harrowing circumstances, a la Night by Elie Wiesel or some other Holocaust experience, or perhaps something about the Lost Boys of Sudan. Maybe What is the What? I haven’t read it but mean to, and it seems that it blends fiction and autobiography in a compelling way. I don’t know if it would be too intense and scary. That would depend on the kid, and what questions the parents are willing to delve into with him. But my kid thinks other kids in his age range (boys in particular) are beginning to become aware of the injustices in the world in a new way, and they respond viscerally to stories of real, true violence and trauma coupled with bravery and surviving. (My translation of his thoughts on the subject.)

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  4. He sounds like the perfect candidate for a book I loved in fifth grade for no discernible reason: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, an account of the Doolittle raid during World War II.
    Hitler Youth is a great nonfiction book, but a solid background on WWII is probably important to have first if he hasn’t got it.
    Ooh, A Night to Remember by Walter Lord is an incredibly fabulous book about the Titanic that I devoured multiple times. It’s got all kinds of good stuff like passenger lists and diagrams in it.
    I was also very taken with a biography of Luther Burbank that made me want to a. be a botanist (still a lingering interest, even though I turned out to be a nurse) and b. visit Luther Burbank’s house, which I convinced my family to do when I was in high school.

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  5. Moby Dick? How about the Patrick O’Brian books — they’re fiction but historical fiction, really. Napoleonic wars, etc. There are even compendiums to them for history buffs.

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  6. Hanna’s Suitcase is a story that tells both the story of Hanna, a girl who ended up in a german death camp and the modern day museum curator who finds her suitcase and is trying to reconstruct her story. It’s non-fiction and VERY compelling.

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  7. Wow, I wish I had half these ideas! Your readers are amazing. I just wanted to weigh in with an opinion, no actual suggestions. As someone who was always an avid reader but has strong feelings about books (I either love or hate it), and who is trying to get her 6-year-old more into independent reading, I’m so delighted to hear you telling him to follow his heart. There are some things I wouldn’t let my kid read, mostly because they deal with topics that I think are too old for him (such as graphic war violence, given his age). But as long as I think he can handle the subject matter, there’s no “inappropriate” reading material. Even things with an agenda with which I completely disagree would be okay, as long as he agreed to talk about it. And a kid who is drawn to nonfiction? My own son has been asking to read nonfiction, and since most of our kids’ books were mine when I was little, it made me realize how little of that I read. It seems to be a rarity, perhaps because it tends to be harder reading. So encourage it, and he’ll be so much happier and a better reader for it!

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  8. I did read What Is the What? and it was definitely interesting, though there were some things that bothered me about it (but these were more style sorts of issues). If hes OK with risking feeling somewhat traumatized, it does talk a lot of boys, which can be compelling to other boys.
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    p.s. Ive asked my kiddo for his recommendations, and he wonders if this boy would be interested in something about boys surviving harrowing circumstances, a la Night by Elie Wiesel or some other Holocaust experience, or perhaps something about the Lost Boys of Sudan. Maybe What is the What? I havent read it but mean to, and it seems that it blends fiction and autobiography in a compelling way. I dont know if it would be too intense and scary. That would depend on the kid, and what questions the parents are willing to delve into with him. But my kid thinks other kids in his age range (boys in particular) are beginning to become aware of the injustices in the world in a new way, and they respond viscerally to stories of real, true violence and trauma coupled with bravery and surviving. (My translation of his thoughts on the subject.)
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  9. How about explorers, like Mawson’s Will? I loved that book when I was about his age. I also loved Roland Huntsford’s book The Last Place on Earth, about Aamundsen and Scott’s race to the South Pole, especially the description of their parallel journeys. Thst book is pretty long but it’s really well written and the actual race is very exciting.
    I think I may have expressed my love for these books already in previous comment, but that probably just adds to the recommendation.

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  10. Also–I’m sure someone has tried him on Diary of a Wimpy Kid? They are all the rage around here.
    Boy, for someone who “might” be interested in WW2 we’ve given him lots to think about. Here’s hoping!

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  11. World Auto Race of 1908 By Gary Blackwood
    Black and White Airmen: Their True History by John Fleischman
    We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball By Kadir Nelson
    This one may be too young but it ties in with liking comics:
    Another Book About Design: Complicated Doesn’t Make It Bad by Mark Gonyea

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  12. My non-fiction loving husband loved to read the encyclopedia as a child. He’s weird like that. 😉
    I would also suggest Malcom Gladwell’s books. They are written for adults, but he’s a newspaper man, so the reading level is very firmly high school with a few larger vocab words thrown in. Very doable for a 13 year old willing to stretch. Outliers may be the one to start this boy with because it has so much biographical information.

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  13. Ooh, ooh, I’ve got it:
    The Endurance, by Caroline Alexander, which is an account of Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic, wherein he and his crew attempted to get to the South Pole (in 1911?), and got frozen into the pack ice, where their ship got crushed. It is the most unbelievable adventure story — Shackleton got every single man out alive, after 20 months — it has everything a 13 year needs, including gangrene and the weird stuff they had to eat to survive, and the book is illustrated with stunning photographs taken by the ship’s photographer. Order it for the 13 year old, then steal it from him, and read it yourself.
    Also? Everything ever written by John McPhee, except the geology, which I’m thinkin’ won’t go over at this age. If he has any interest in sports, especially A Sense of Where You Are (basketball) and Levels of the Game (tennis). Ditto on the ordering and stealing.

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  14. Lost in the Barrens by Farley Mowat?
    Also, A Really Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I’ve read the longer, ‘adult’ version, and it was great – you get the background information (often wacky) about a lot of people that you hear about in school (especially scientists – Newton, Galileo, etc).

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  15. Both of my boys really enjoyed Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli, which fits the requirement. It is not too long. My boys will NOT read a book that looks like an inch thick.
    You know what kills me? In 5th and 6th grade here (6th-8th is middle school) the kids are told to Accelerated Reader books and in 6th grade it counts as 5% of their grade. My 6th grade son loves to read (not the 8th grade son) and last year and this his teachers bug him about reading AR books for points. They actually tell him to see first if it is an AR book. I tell them he will read whatever he wants to and if it happens to be AR then I have to go and ask the media center to order the AR test if they don’t have it. And I am not anti-teacher. Hubs teaches 5th grade. And he just wants his students to read or be read to regardless of it being an AR book or not. Magazines are great too!

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  16. If he’s a non-reader, most of the suggestions (mostly awesome books, by the way) might be a little dense for him.
    The 13/14 year old boys in my classroom can’t get enough of books full of lists and statistics: Guiness Book of World Records, Top Ten of Everything, etc..
    Also popular- illustrated books about how to do magic (Penn and Teller have a couple of good, if disturbing ones), coffee table books on surfing, rollercoasters, special effects, paintball and any kind of firearms.
    Boys like things ranked. If there is some sort of heavily illustrated book on the Top 100 Tanks of WW2, it would be an instant hit.

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  17. Sandman is one of the greatest comic series. It might be considered “too old” for a 13-yr-old, but I’m fairly sure I picked it up at the same age. If he likes it, it opens doors to the glorious slew of Neil Gaiman’s novels, so it could be a nice step-stone.

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  18. I don’t have any other suggestions to add at this point, but I had to chime in and say I remember being really taken with a George Washington Carver bio in grade school as well – wonder if it was the same book. Ironically my oldest has a peanut allergy – so she might not be as interested!

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