“The Only Alien on the Planet” by Kristen Randle

“The Only Alien on the Planet” by Kristen Randle

Early readers: Review culture writer picks five best titles for budding bookworms

“You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.”

So says Dr. Seuss.

But while youngsters may go gaga over the idea of storytime, getting middle schoolers and teens to pick up a book unassigned by a teacher can be hard. And in a world of ever decreasing attention spans, amidst an informational landscape made up more and more of photos, videos and 280-character thoughts, what we’ve gained in connectivity, some say, we are at risk of losing in contemplation.

To think critically, to consider something at length, is a skill future generations clearly need schooled in — and to do that you gotta read. So, with Read Across America Day, the highlight of the National Education Association’s annual reading motivation and awareness program, again set to be soon upon us (on Saturday, March 2, in fact), I thought it time to take a slip from the good doctor’s prescription pad and give adolescent would-be bookworms a shot in the arm, and a nudge in the right direction.

Here are five books I suggest sharing with the in-between readers in your life, some classic and others lesser known, for those beyond kids books but not ready for true grownup fare quite yet. Whether you prefer stories set on the page, the screen or even enjoyed aloud: Ready, set, read!

1. “The Only Alien on the Planet” by Kristen Randle

My own mother read this book to my siblings and I many, many years ago and it has stuck with me.

New student Ginny is intrigued by the handsome alien in her homeroom — and no, this is not a science fiction novel. Smitty, whose real name is Michael, is known to all the kids as “The Alien” because of his indifferent demeanor and constant, complete silence.

Soon, Ginny and Smitty’s longtime protector Caulder team up to try and crack his seemingly impenetrable shell. But they get more than they bargained for when they drag him along to a classic movie double feature and the unflappable “alien” has a strangely personal reaction, one which sets his only friends on a determined path to understand the source their quiet companion’s self-imposed exile from the world.

It’s a striking, intriguing story of trauma, abuse, new friends and old secrets.

2. “The Westing Game” by Ellen Raskin

Ranked No. 9 among the all-time greatest children’s novels in a survey published by School Library Journal in 2012, this is another book that made a pivotal impression on a younger me when it was assigned reading in sixth grade.

The story involves 16 seemingly unrelated heirs of reclusive millionaire Sam Westing and his innovative challenge to them, from beyond the grave, to figure out the secret behind his sudden death. They must figure out who killed Westing by using clues in his will, which is structured as a puzzle. Each of the eight paired teams, assigned seemingly at random, is given $10,000 cash and a different set of baffling clues. The pair that solves the mystery will inherit Westing’s entire $200 million fortune and control of his company.

It’s a perennially popular book, and rightfully so, and was even adapted to film. From Wikipedia: “In a retrospective essay about the Newbery Medal-winning books from 1976 to 1985, literary critic Zena Sutherland wrote of The Westing Game, ‘Still a popular book with the group of readers who are mystery or puzzle fans, in retrospect this seems more entertaining than distinguished. Its choice as a Medal book underscores the problematic question: Can a distinguished book also be a popular book?’”

Yes, Zena. Yes it can.

3. “When Zachary Beaver Came to Town” by Kimberly Willis Holt

This National Book Award winner, published in 1999, deals with obesity, war, death and loyalty — so not exactly breezy fare, but the end is worth the endeavor.

“The red words painted on the trailer caused quite a buzz around town and before an hour was up, half of Antler was standing in line with two dollars clutched in hand to see the fattest boy in the world.”

Toby Wilson is having the toughest summer of his life. It’s the summer his mother leaves for good, the summer his best friend’s brother returns from Vietnam in a coffin, and the summer that Zachary Beaver, the fattest boy in the world, arrives in their sleepy Texas town.

While it’s a summer filled with heartache of every kind, it’s also a summer of new friendships gained and old friendships renewed. And it’s none other than the enigmatic Zachary Beaver who turns the town of Antler upside down and leaves everyone, especially Toby, changed forever.

USA Today said, “This book packs more emotional power than 90 percent of the so-called grown-up novels taking up precious space on bookshelves around the country,” and I’d have to agree.

4. “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier

First placed in my hot little hands by an especially important English teacher waaaay back in ninth grade, this book remains an early favorite of mine, and I’m not alone: Reportedly, although it received mixed reviews at the time of its publication, some have since argued it is one of the best young adult novels of all time.

There’s a fundraiser going on at the all-boys Catholic high school Trinity. The egotistical ambitious vice principal, Brother Leon, has recently become acting headmaster and, dramatically overestimating his leadership abilities, has committed the Trinity students to selling double the previous year’s amount of chocolates, secretly enlisting the support of The Vigils, a cruel and manipulative secret society of students who officially don’t exist.

Jerry Renault is a freshman who decides not to sell any chocolate, drawing the wrath of the administration and The Vigils, resulting in an increasingly desperate and violent series of confrontations. Think “Cool Hand Luke” meets “Lord of the Flies.”

From Wikipedia: “Because of the novel’s language, the concept of a high school secret society using intimidation to enforce the cultural norms of the school and various characters’ sexual ponderings [the book] has been embroiled in censorship controversies and appeared as third on the American Library Association’s list of the ‘Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000–2009.’”

Buck the system, kids: Read this book.

5. “Rotters” by Daniel Kraus

I actually read this just a few years ago, had no idea it was a YA book and really enjoyed it.

But be warned: This one goes there. It gets serious. Certainly not for everyone, but it might be just the terrifying trick to get a reluctant reader sucked in. It feels like something your mom wouldn’t want you to read — the most gruesome “Goosebumps” book R.L. Stine never wrote (the man himself called “Rotters” an “unforgettable book,” though).

Grave-robbing.

What kind of monster would do such a thing? It’s true that Leonardo da Vinci did it, Shakespeare wrote about it, and the resurrection men of 19th century Scotland practically made it an art. But none of this matters to Joey Crouch, a 16-year-old straight-A student living in Chicago with his single mom. For the most part, Joey’s life is about playing the trumpet and avoiding the daily humiliations of high school.

But everything changes when Joey’s mother dies in a tragic accident and he is sent to rural Iowa to live with the father he has never known, a strange, solitary man with unimaginable secrets.

At first, Joey’s father wants nothing to do with him. But once father and son come to terms with each other, Joey’s life takes a turn both macabre and exhilarating as he enters the family “business.”

Strong stomachs only, please.

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