Book review: Spotlight on boys’ books

There’s a mission to get young boys reading... and authors, illustrators and publishers are conjuring up some creative magic to keep the pages turning.

The campaign has gained momentum since a 2011 Boys’ Reading Commission by the National Literacy Trust revealed a glaring gender gap in reading attainment.

Girls outperformed boys on all National Curriculum reading tests, with differences appearing from the earliest years. At the age of five, there was a staggering gap of 11 percentage points between boys’ and girls’ achievement in reading, and differences continued throughout the rest of their schooling.

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The commission also found that boys just don’t seem to enjoy reading as much as girls and are attracted to different reading matter, preferring newspapers and comic books to fiction.

So, with the battle lines drawn and armed with the knowledge of just what boys do and don’t like, there are some exciting, adventurous and ‘boyishly’ funny books out there just waiting to be read!

Here are some of the best:

Age 2 plus:

The Cautionary Tale of the Childe of Hale by Rachel Lyon

It’s never too early to engage boys with books and St Helens born author Rachel Lyon’s unmissable ‘tall’ story inspired by the adventures of real-life giant John Middleton born in Hale near Liverpool in 1578, really is the stuff of legend. Told in simple but charming rhyming verse, the antics of the allegedly 9ft 3in tall giant become an exciting, action-packed, cautionary tale about the pitfalls of greed and ambition, and the value of kindness. The Child of Hale is made extra special by Vanina Starkoff’s bold, colourful illustrations which beautifully convey all the passion and pathos of the Childe of Hale.

(Maverick, paperback, £6.99)

Age 6 plus:

Captain Valiant and Me: Revenge of the Black Phantom by Adam Britten

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What young boy can resist the madcap and side-splittingly funny adventures of a new superhero family? Adam Britten captures all the anarchy so adored by fun-loving boys in the daring escapades of Mark Taylor who seems to be an average schoolboy but is really Dynamic Boy. Only trouble is he hates his name, his costume makes him look like an electric bee and even his super power is pretty rubbish. His dad, Captain Valiant, is a total embarrassment and having superhero tasks to do doesn’t excuse him from maths homework. So it’s a good job he enjoys saving the world from baddies! Illustrated throughout with hilarious pictures by Arthur Hamer, this is a book pitched perfectly at boys who are learning to read alone and need some action-packed pictures to keep the pages turning.

(Piccadilly, paperback, £5.99)

Arthur and the Earthworms by Johanne Mercier

A more down-to-earth hero is seven-year-old Arthur, the star of a fun new series and a boy who’s brilliant at, well, being a little boy who loves his family... and sharing his adventures. Full of understated humour which is so appealing to growing boys, Arthur narrates his own stories and brings the straightforward, rational world view that comes from being only seven. When he visits his grandparents’ house by the lake, more often than not, he becomes entangled in a new adventure, which he must solve with the help of his pet duck and useless dog and hopefully without too much help from eccentric Cousin Eugene. Brought to life by Clare Elsom’s quirky illustrations, the witty, wonderful adventures of Arthur and his merry ménage look set to run and run.

(Phoenix Yard Books, paperback, £4.99)

Age 7 plus:

Oliver Fibbs: Attack of the Alien Brain by Steve Hartley

Lancashire children’s author Steve Hartley is one of the writers leading the way in the battle to get boys reading, and Oliver Tibbs (better known as Oliver Fibbs) could be just the anti-hero to make those reluctant young males turn over a new leaf. Oliver isn’t brilliant at anything except telling fibs and his hair-raising adventures, played out in hilarious comic strip style, are full of crazy, knockabout humour. Oliver is a boy that many youngsters can identify with. Everyone in his family seems to be super-clever at something except him, so he’s been telling his class about his adventures as a Defender of Planet Earth and everyone loved it (except his teacher!). With its accessible text design and comic content, this inventive new series is the perfect way to keep boys glued to the story well beyond the first page.

(Macmillan, paperback, £5.99)

Action Dogs: Danger on the Ice by Steve Barlow and Steve Skidmore

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As if six daredevil dogs who fight crime with their bare paws and a range of super dooper hi-tech gadgets weren’t tempting enough, a free pack of game cards will surely clinch the deal! Welcome to the thrill-filled world of Action Dogs, the crime-fighting canines who take the ‘ruff’ with the smooth. Aimed at new readers and full of hilarious heroes and villains, these are ideal books to capture young imaginations and come from the pens of two top children’s authors. In this third book in the series, the heat is on when killer cats start clawing for world domination. It’s time to unleash the Action Dogs! Easy to read, brimming with adventure and superbly illustrated, these dogged detectives are pack leaders in the early reading stakes.

(Usborne, paperback, £4.99)

Awful Egyptians by Terry Deary and Martin Brown

Twenty years ago the Horrible History books sparked a revolution in children’s publishing. For the first time, history books became funny must-reads for children. Terry Deary’s brilliant words and Martin Brown’s illustrations, bursting with the wit of the sharpest broadsheet cartoonist, burst off every page. And now they are back for a new generation, serving up the foulest folk from history but with bright and airy pages and in an eye-catching, chunky format to appeal to reluctant readers. Irreverent and gory, the Horrible Histories are lapped up by boys in particular and have the added bonus of helping them to engage with history. Fronting the new books, from Awesome Egyptians to Vile Victorians, is Rattus Rattus, the humble rat who has observed every era of history and is our roving rodent guide to history and all its nasty bits!

(Scholastic, paperback, £6.99)

My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish by Mo O’Hara

Finding Nemo meets Shaun of the Dead! Boys will be diving in to enjoy Mo O’Hara’s two laugh-out-loud stories about an evil big brother, a best friend who comes to the rescue and an amazing zombie goldfish. Billed as ‘a big fat punchy concept,’ this hilarious, action-packed tale of Frankie, a zombie goldfish with hypnotic powers, is just the job for boys who like books with plenty of bold, busy pictures. Tom’s big brother is an Evil Scientist who wants to experiment on Tom’s new goldfish Frankie. When Frankie is zapped with a battery, he becomes a zombie goldfish and the fun starts when he becomes bent on revenge. Lively illustrations, flip-book artwork and a quirky text design make these books highly accessible and appealing to boys learning to read alone.

(Macmillan, paperback, £4.99)

Age 9 plus:

Bone Quill by John and Carole E.Barrowman

For sheer imaginative, storytelling power, Bone Quill, the brilliant follow-up to Hollow Earth and the work of actor and presenter John Barrowman and his teacher sister Carole, offers mystery and excitement in spadefuls. Twelve-year-old twins Matt and Emily Calder are ‘Animare’ – they can bring art to life and enter paintings at will. They must do everything in their power to prevent a breach in Hollow Earth, a supernatural place that holds all the demons, devils and creatures ever imagined. They are getting closer to finding the Bone Quill, the key that would release the beasts and which must be protected at all cost, but a newcomer is threatening to ruin everything. As well as delivering a cracking story, Bone Quill provides important lessons for growing boys in the subtle interactions between the twins and their relationship with other characters.

(Buster Books, paperback, £6.99)

Age 10 plus:

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The Battles of Ben Kingdom: The Claws of Evil by Andrew Beasley

Imagine the thrill of a book that offers a cinematic mash-up of dark history, rich fantasy, steampunk innovation and action-packed adventure? Debut author Andrew Beasley has incorporated all this and more in The Battles of Ben Kingdom, his epic, coming-of-age series set in Victorian London. The stories centre on one boy’s quest to end an ancient war raging above and below the city. Ben Kingdom appears to be just a cocky street urchin but, in truth, he’s the saviour of mankind. Mere mortals are unaware that beneath them lurks the Legion, an evil gang determined to unleash Hell on London. But above the rooftops soar the Watchers, a band of orphans, mystics and spies, dedicated to protecting the city. When Ben is flung into the midst of the battle, he must choose between an army of angels and the Claws of Evil. A rip-roaring adventure for daredevil boys.

(Usborne, paperback, £6.99)

Goblins vs Dwarves by Philip Reeve

Philip Reeve can’t put a foot wrong when it comes to children’s books. The award-winning author has a magical link to young minds and in the sparkling follow-up to Goblins he introduces readers to a vast and exciting fantasy world before promptly turning all preconceptions of the genre on its head! The action revolves around a group of anarchic anti-heroes who must fight dark forces and solve astonishing mysteries. Skarper and Henwyn have restored some order at Clovenstone castle, a safe home for reformed goblin tribes, but something is stirring underground. An army of dwarves is infiltrating the fortress, hell bent on stealing the precious metal from which new goblin hatchlings are born. Humour and fantasy are in perfect harmony in this witty and warm-hearted adventure which packs plenty of story power to fire young imaginations.

(Scholastic, paperback, £6.99)

Early teens:

Waiting for Gonzo by Dave Cousins

Early teen years are a reading minefield. Where best to pitch a boys’ book? Dave Cousins marries affairs of the heart with action and crazy humour in the satirically titled Waiting for Gonzo, featuring a pretty standard teenage boy getting to grips with the frustrations of everyday life. Oz has got a talent for trouble but his heart is always in the right place (well, nearly always). Uprooted from his friends and former life, Oz finds himself stranded in a sleepy village. When a joke backfires on the first day at his new school, Oz attracts the attention of Isobel Skinner, the school psycho. But that’s just the beginning of a series of disasters. Packed with action, that irreverent brand of teenage humour, a frisson of romance and some serious life issues, this is the ideal book to tempt laidback teens.

(Oxford University Press, paperback, £6.99)

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