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Magic and maggots

June 10, 2007|Denise Hamilton | When not reading to her boys, Denise Hamilton writes crime novels for adults. She also edited and contributed to "Los Angeles Noir," a short story anthology.

EVERY night at bedtime, I get a firsthand look at the challenges of engaging the fickle boy reader.

"Bo-ring," my 9- and 11-year-olds chant, if a book doesn't grab their interest within the first few pages.

They like action, danger, suspense, gadgets, tricks, slapstick and scary supernatural stuff. Bathroom humor is a sure winner. But they often don't like books that are supposed to be good for them or the ones with $100,000 marketing campaigns.

With evidence mounting that boys are falling behind girls in reading as they hit middle school, I've decided to compile and share the tactics and titles that have worked at our house. I let my kids play with Hot Wheels while I read because they enjoy keeping their hands busy. Often I'll read the first chapter out loud, stop at a cliffhanger, then hand it over. I also leave books scattered around the house.

My youngest learned to read by studying comic books. Current favorites are the French classics "Asterix," a series featuring an ancient Gaul who outsmarts the Roman legions, and "Tintin," about a boy reporter who travels the world having adventures.

Dav Pilkey's "Captain Underpants" series taught my kids the words "preposterous" and "perilous." A perfect segue from Pilkey is the trilogy "The Day My Butt Went Psycho," written by naughty Australian Andy Griffiths. For cleaner humor, David Lubar's books ("In the Land of the Lawn Weenies") are spooky and funny. Other amusing reads: Jerry Spinelli's "Picklemania," the "Hank the Cowdog" series by John R. Erickson and Roddy Doyle's children's books, including the "Giggler" series and "Rover Saves Christmas."

For a sampler of different styles, you can't beat "Guys Write for Guys Read," edited by Jon Scieszka, author of the "Time Warp Trio" series. The anthology contains 80-plus stories, essays, cartoons and memoirs by cool guy authors.

My boys love R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" books and K.A. Applegate's "Animorphs" sci-fi series. For more advanced sci-fi, try Orson Scott Card's "Ender's Game," about a military-school boy who trains for an alien invasion by playing computer war games. For spooky, try Neil Gaiman's entrancing "Coraline" and Joseph Delaney's "The Last Apprentice" series. Gore and horror fans will embrace Darren Shan's "Cirque du Freak" series.

Author Sid Fleischman is a master at teaching American history while engaging kids ("By the Great Horn Spoon!," about the California Gold Rush). Ditto for Avi, whose medieval-themed "Crispin: The Cross of Lead" won the 2003 Newbery Medal.

Greg Leitich Smith sends up magnet schools, science fairs, blackmail and secret crushes in "Ninjas, Piranhas, and Galileo." Cornelia Funke's "The Thief Lord" unfolds along the canals and bridges of Venice, Italy, as two orphaned boys join a flamboyant gang of young thieves.

Rollicking tales in fantasy include the "Molly Moon" series by Georgia Byng about an orphan hypnotist, the "Charlie Bone" series by Jenny Nimmo about a boy with magical powers, Eoin Colfer's "Artemis Fowl" series about a mad Irish boy genius, and Suzanne Collins' "Gregor the Overlander" series about a boy who falls through a vent in a New York basement and discovers a world of violet-eyed people, giant cockroaches, bats, rats and mice.

Boys who like intricate world-building will enjoy Christopher Paolini's "Eragon" series about a boy and his dragon, Kenneth Oppel's "Silverwing" trilogy about a young bat on a quest to find his father, Brian Jacques' "Redwall" series about a medieval animal kingdom and Jonathan Stroud's superb "The Bartimaeus Trilogy" about a witty, opinionated ancient Egyptian djinn who wreaks havoc on English magicians.

Kids who like graphics will appreciate the newly released "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick and last year's "Monster Blood Tattoo" by D.M. Cornish, a Dickensian tale set in an alternate world with lovely pen-and-ink drawings.

In nonfiction, Conn and Hal Iggulden's new bestseller "The Dangerous Book for Boys" is boyish catnip that mixes historical battles, practical how-to (tie knots, make invisible ink, build a treehouse) and self-reliance. What boy could resist "Oh, Yuck!" and its disgusting sequel, "Oh, Yikes!" by Joy Masoff, with clever entries about maggots, plague, Vikings and guillotines.

Any kid who wants to make the world a better place will eat up "Chew on This," by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson.

But boys are a tough audience; there's no magic wand. There's only the spell cast by a book itself and the wonderful eerie silence that descends when it has seized a child's interest.

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