Children's Books Special: The best books for boys

Brothers Leo and Benjy Taylor tackle famine ships, sewer scavengers and an evil blue rat
Click to follow
The Independent Culture


The Bear Keeper by Josh Lacey (Marion Lloyd £5.99) is about an Elizabethan boy called Pip. who goes to London in search of the father who he'd thought was dead, and also a man called the Weasel who has stolen all of his family's money. London is a horrible, smelly place where people throw the contents of their chamber-pots out of windows and Pip has to scavenge for food in a rubbish dump. He has lots of adventures, including a trip to the Bear Garden and an audition to be an actor at the Globe Theatre. Josh Lacey tells you interesting things about the time Pip lives in and I liked this a lot, although there's a very violent bit where a dog is torn to pieces by a bear.

Josh Lacey also writes books under another name – Joshua Doder. These are about the adventures of a dog called Grk, who is owned by a boy called Tim. In Grk Smells a Rat (Andersen £4.99), Tim is on holiday in India watching his friend Max Raffifi play in a tennis tournament. Here he discovers a group of boys selling counterfeit copies of books and DVDs, who are controlled by an evil blue rat whose servant is an old woman. While Max is winning his tennis match, Grk sniffs out a bomb beneath the stadium, but will anyone believe Tim when he tells them? This is the fifth Grk book and I think it's the second best in the series – almost as good as Grk and the Pelotti Gang.

Genie Us by Steve Cole and Linda Chapman (Red Fox £5.99) is about a family with four children – Milly, Michael, Jason and Jess – who move from London to a town in the middle of nowhere where their parents run a bookshop. One day Jason and Milly find a magic book with its very own bookworm, Skribble, who promises to teach them how to be genies. This involves secret passwords and going inside magic lamps, which change their clothes into genie costumes. (The funniest bit is when Michael comes out wearing a beard and a moustache.) But then the wishes start to go wrong and the story gets a lot scarier...

I really like books about history, whether they're made up or about things that really happened. Avoid Sailing on an Irish Famine Ship by Jim Pipe (Book House £10.99), from the Danger Zone series, is full of things that really happened 150 years ago – horrible things. It's set during the terrible potato blight that hit Ireland in the 19th century, when lots of people left by ship for America to try and escape starvation. Lots of people died of fever and some of the ships sank. David Antram's illustrations are funny, but scary at the same time – there's one of somebody's corpse being thrown over the side of the ship wrapped in a blanket. This is a good series, and now they ought to do one on the Battle of Hastings.

Michael Rosen's Sad Book (Walker Books £7.99) is exactly what it says it is – a book about being sad. Michael Rosen is sad because his family isn't the same – his son Eddie is dead, and so is his mother. Sometimes this makes him angry and he does bad things such as stealing the cat's food. But he knows he isn't bad himself – it's "sad" making him bad. There is a list of what sad is. "Sad is anywhere. It comes along and finds you" and "Sad is any time".

Quentin Blake's illustrations are brilliant, especially the first one which is a picture of Michael Rosen smiling because he thinks people might not like him if he looks unhappy.


Arnold Spirit ("Junior" for short), the hero of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Andersen Press £5.99), is a 14-year-old boy who lives on the "poor-ass Spokane Indian reservation". To add to his problems, he was born with too much cerebral fluid in his brain and gets bullied at the

local school for his big head. On the plus side, Arnold is clever and wants to be a professional cartoonist when he gets older. When he gets sent to the posh, white school out of town, the rest of his tribe think this is treachery. There, he is bullied again – this time by the racist farm boys – but he makes friends too, and with the help of the class genius, the basket-ball team captain, and Penelope, his bulimic semi-girlfriend, he gets his act together and plays the most important game of basketball of his life. This is a really good book, and Ellen Forney's drawings make it even better.

Blade Playing Dead by Tim Bowler (Oxford £5.99) is about 14-year-old Blade, who has been living on the streets since he was very young, and in trouble with the police since he was even younger. He doesn't seem to have any friends or family and things look bad. "They" are after him, and know where he is. He can try hiding, but he knows "they" will just keep finding him. There's an edge-of-your-seat ending which I won't spoil, and although it's very short – 156 pages in big type – I found this book very exciting. On the other hand, your parents may not be very keen on some of the language.

Joe Rat's lifestyle in Mark Barratt's Joe Rat (Red Fox £5.99) is even grimmer than Blade's. He's a "stinking tosher" who lives in the East End of Victorian London and spends his time picking through filth in the sewers. If he finds anything even half-way valuable – and his day's takings in the first chapter are four half-pennies – a gang usually takes it off him. As for family, the only people left in Joe's life are a sinister old woman everyone calls "mother", who is actually a criminal mastermind, and his friend Plucky Jack. No one can be trusted, and when he meets a runaway girl called Bess, and a madman who lives in a tumbledown house where there are cobwebs all over the gilt-backed chairs, his life starts to change in all sorts of unexpected ways. This is a great book, full of mystery and the horror of Victorian low-life.

In Teen, Inc. (Bloomsbury £6.99), the writer Stefan Petrucha has come up with a really original idea. Jaiden Beale – you guessed it, he's American – has been raised by the mega corporation NECorp. It turns out that a malfunctioning piece of the company's equipment killed his parents and the executives thought it would be good publicity for them to adopt the orphaned baby. So instead of having his life run for him by his mum and dad, Jaiden has steering committees, focus groups and upper-level executives working out what's best for him. You might think that this could be an ideal situation for a teenage boy, but believe me, it really isn't. For one thing, the company keeps him under close surveillance and he can't do anything without the corporation agreeing: it takes three months and 20 memos for him to be able to watch his first episode of South Park. Inevitably, Jaiden starts to rebel, at which point he finds out some things about his "family" that make him wonder just how much he owes them. Does he stay loyal or try to overthrow them? The ending isn't quite what you'd expect; my dad said it was like a version of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for American teenagers.