Against the Odds: Inspiring Books to Share with Geek Kids

Reading Time: 6 minutes
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From the “only-slightly-crazed-years” archives. Photographer unknown.

By the time my older son was four months old, he would sit on my lap, point at images he enjoyed, and help turn the pages of  the board books we’d read together. At this age he was a stormy, intensely-observant little person already passionately opposed to doctor’s offices, food stores, malls, elevators, escalators, cribs, playpens, sitting still, quiet, music, bright lights, nail clippers, solitude, crowds, darkness, clothing tags, naps, and loud-noises-that-were-not-trains. Book time was just about the only peaceable time we had each day that did not involve either somebody lactating or Johnson’s Baby Shampoo.

Through the seemingly endless parade of meltdowns that framed a period that most children just SLEEP THROUGH,  I discovered that we could usually reconnect and calm down with a book. The increasingly ill-named diaper bag rarely contained actual diapers, wipes, or changes of clothing…but as God is my witness: I knew better than to leave home without the entire Thomas the Tank Engine oeuvre in board-book form by the time this child was on rice cereal.

Sometimes now I think there was a Darwinian purpose to my son’s behavior. Because today that baby is 15 years old, almost six feet tall, perfectly capable of reading to himself, and actually working on his own novel–and yet I still read to him and his brother most evenings. It is, after all this time, still the point in the day when I know we can all calm down and reconnect. The cats know it, too. They pad upstairs most nights and curl up into contented loaf-shapes on one bed or the other to listen along, eyes closed, purring intermittently.

I have read all seven of the Harry Potter books aloud to my children, with different voices for each character (it is a point of no small pride in our home that each of us can do reasonably proficient Cockney, Irish, London, Cornish, and Scottish accents, on demand), as well as a great many favorites from my own childhood: fairy tales, nonsense poetry, stories of magic and fantasy…

Initially, my goal was to entertain and intrigue: Aren’t books wonderful? Don’t you want more? Do you hear that delicious no-one-screaming sound? But somewhere along the way, as my sons got older, I wanted something else from the books we read. I wanted inspiration.

As it turns out, a precocious appreciation for a ripping tale well-told does not guarantee a life of academic ease.  The occupational therapist that ultimately worked with my older son once told me, “I’ve never met a child with such profound sensory integration dysfunction before.”  Three years later, she amended her statement upon meeting the younger son: “…until now.”

The sensory gates that we all possess, that allow some environmental stimuli through while blocking out extraneous information so that we do not become overwhelmed by the world around us, didn’t work quite right for either of my children–by which I mean: at all. This resulted in attention deficits, impulsiveness, phobias, sleep dysfunction and some oppositional defiance (as well as profound irritability on everyone’s part)–all of which did nothing to help the underlying language-processing disorders both children also had.

My sons have had to work harder than other kids. Very little of what we consider “normal” has come naturally to them: holding a pencil, tying their shoes, reading a book, kicking a ball, adding two numbers, sitting in a chair, buttoning a coat, writing a sentence, making a friend…despite possessing “normal” IQs, they have required therapies and specialists to master each of these milestones.

I recognized early on that I would need all of the help that I could get in supporting these two and ever since the fateful day on which I came upon Captain Underpants creator Dav Pilkey’s website and read about his experiences with AD/HD, I’ve expanded my support network to include fictional characters, as well–a strategy sometimes referred to as bibliotherapy.

Bibliotherapy is the use of books and relationships with characters to help children cope with challenges. In the context in which I use the word, this does not mean self-help books for children. Instead, it means well-crafted stories where compelling characters prevail against seemingly-insurmountable odds through a mix of grit, optimism, and moxie. As GeekMom Laura explained in an earlier post: Childhood books make us who we are. I want kids who are independent, creative, problem solvers who adore their mother but do not plan on living in her basement in their 30’s. I choose our titles accordingly.

What follows here is a list of some of the best “against the odds” books I’ve read to my sons in the last two years. Some of the titles border on dystopian-lit but I try to temper the despair of dystopia by alternating with choices that are uplifting and lighter.

  • Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – Not a book for the faint of heart, this is the biography of Lou Zamperini, a one-time Olympic track star who survived 46 days on a near-provisionless raft in shark-infested waters after his plane crashed into the Pacific only to become a Japanese  prisoner-of-war for four years during World War II. Caveat: the book is never profane but the sheer level of trial and degradation Lou suffers is probably too intense for elementary-aged children or more-sensitive older children.
  • Science Fair Season by Judy Dutton – Each chapter in this book introduces you to the rich back-story of another child participating in Intel’s high-stakes science and engineering fair in 2009. The students come from all walks of life, from the relative privilege of a Connecticut film geek who almost-accidentally falls into studying colony collapse disorder (see her C-Span “Student Cam” winning film on CCD here) to the quiet poverty of a young Navajo man living in a trailer on a reservation who invents a solar water heater for his family out of soda cans, black paint, and an abandoned Pontiac radiator. At the end of each chapter my sons and I would agree, “Oh, now this kid should win!” Each child had to overcome their own unique set of challenges to make it to the competition floor with their awe-inspiring projects–as October Sky’sHomer Hickham says in his review of the book on Amazon, “Within the[se] pages are tales of true heroism, that of courageous students who are willing to struggle and persevere and finally succeed.” This is just a great, uplifting family read-aloud.
  • Shackleton’s Stowaway by Victoria McKernan – The explorer Ernest Shackelton really did lose his ship Endurance to the ice of Antarctica in 1914. Ultimately, he was forced to leave most of his crew on Elephant Island for four months and navigate a small lifeboat across 800 miles of open ocean to  South Georgia in order to get help for his men. The book Shackelton’s Stowaway adds a fictional overlay to this tale in the form of Perce Blackborow, a young man so enthralled by Shackelton’s reputation that he stows away on board Endurance in order to take part in the explorer’s adventures. The experiences of the men that are left behind (amazingly, all survived), their struggles to eat, stay warm, and remain hopeful, are all told through the lens of Perce’s observations. Caveat: Tender-hearted readers may struggle with the fact that the men resort to eating penguin and dog to stay alive. Erm…we had no such struggles…
  • Hatchet by Gary Paulsen – 13 year old Brian is on his way to visit his father in the Canadian wilderness when the pilot transporting him on the last leg of his journey has a heart attack and dies. The plane crashes into a lake and Brian manages to survive two months alone, in the wild, with little more than the clothes on his back and the birthday gift his mother gave him before he left home: a hatchet.  Teaser: You will NEVER look at moose the same way again!
  • The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier – Jerry Renault is tired of school fundraisers and decides he isn’t going to sell chocolate this year for his high school. Displeased, the school’s assistant headmaster, Brother Leon, colludes with the school’s secret society “The Vigils” and it’s sociopathic leader, Archie Costello, in order to force Renault to change his mind before other students at the school follow his lead. Caveat: According to Wikipedia, “Because of the novel’s language, the concept of a high school’s secret society using intimidation to enforce the cultural norms of the school, and the protagonist’s sexual ponderings, [The Chocolate War] has been the frequent target of censors and appears at number three on the American Library Association’s list of the “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000-2009.” All I can say in response to that is banned books make for really rich discussion…
  • Honorable mentions go to: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Holes by Louis Sachar, and Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.

If you’ve got additional titles to suggest, by the way, I’m all ears.