The  mostly titles listed in this posting explore themes of PUBERTY, MASCULINITY and THE EMOTIONAL LIVES of boys.  Each of the middle school characters deal with issues that many young teenagers can identify. Each book deals with a ‘tough topic’ issue (e.g., poverty, gender and queer identity, death loss and remembrance, racism) and could be added to my recommended list of fiction presented in my book Teaching Tough Topics.  As luck would have it, several of these titles are written in the free verse format which I’m quite fond of. 


AND THEN, BOOM! by Lisa Fipps (Verse novel)  / POVERTY

In her debut novel, Starfish (2021), Lisa Fipps wrote a powerful story about body shaming and the trials and tribulations of a young adolescent girl dealing with her weight and with bullying.  The author’s newest novel is a look into the harsh realities of living in poverty. Whenever she gets ‘the itch’. Joe’s mother abandons her son. He and his grandmother are left to downsize, to pay the bills and use any means to fight hunger. Life for Joe, is filled with unexpected ‘And then…’ moments, especially large one’s that are unexpected BOOM moments which demand that he face challenges, make decisions and solve problems in order to survive from day to day.  When life gives you lemons – A death, a storm, starving and the care of stray dogs – it is hard to make lemonade. Joe’s resilience and strong character help him get through life’s “And Then, BOOM” events. “Every story boils down to and thens and BOOMS!/ And -thens and BOOMS, but  are all about the moments when something happens that changes everything./ It could be bad. And it could be good but it’s often not.” (p. 5). Joe’s life circumstances often broke my heart but I was compelled to cheer for him  because of his humour and hope even when hard days got worse.   I absolutely LOVED this novel. I can’t wait for another Lisa Fipps publication. 

Excerpt (p. 65)

Hunger is day-in, day-out luck,

creating inside you

an urgent need, 

a craving, 

a longing

for something you can’t survive or thrive without 

and yet 

you don’t have it.


Hunger just isn’t about food. 



“Labels can change as you grow… and just because you identify one way now, doesn’t mean you’ll always identify that way. Things change, people change, and labels are fluid.” (pp. 108-109)

Nonbinary Eden Jones suffers from social anxiety. They feels that their life is  ‘pathetic’ and they want to be as invisible as possible.  Their mother has moved them to a new school, hoping things will get better. Eden Jones is asking for a friend. Actually, they need a few friends because their mother is expecting them to invite them to his birthday party, but Eden has lied about his friendship circle.  Even though they are reluctant to approach them, Eden gradually comes to develop friendships with Duke, Ramona and Tabitha .  Things are getting better for Eden as the group starts to bond… but they remain trapped in the lies they told his mother  – and their new ‘sort of real’ friendships. Ronnie Riley (queer, trans, nonbinary, lesbian, neodivergient) has done a remarkable job of presenting a cast of nonbinary, lesbian, trans characters who find joy in their queer identity even through the ups and downs of friendships. 


CALL ME AL by Wali Shah and Eric Walters / ISLAMOPHOBIA

“It’s only because of hate that we understand the need for love.” (Dr. Martin Luther King) (see page 207)

This excellent novel is centred on the character of Ali Khan, who, with the hope of better ‘fitting in’ prefers to go by the name Ali. Eigth grade Ali does very well in school but is not as perfect as his father wants him to be. Al’s father was a doctor in Pakistan and now works as a cab driver striving to do the best for his family. He has strong aspirations for his 3 sons and even though Al is respectful of his father’s outlook, he is becoming independent particularly with his interest and talent for writing poetry. (Doctors don’t write poetry. Al is up against racist views with his peers and more dramatically on shopping trip with his mother and brother when some thugs attack them, shouting ‘Go back where you came from!’.  Poet, Wali Shah and Master novelist, Eric Walters have told a special story, about an immigrant family,  a special teacher, and a conflicted teenager which that many of young adolescent readers will certainly connect to. Understanding of social class,  insights and information about celebrating Ramadan are strong features of this book, as is the belief that “Forgiveness is Peace “. Call Me Al is absolutely a highly recommended choice from Dr. Larry. 


MID-AIR by Alicia D. Williams (Verse novel) / DEATH LOSS & REMEMBRANCE 

Eighth-grade student Isaiah feels lost. He is struggling with the loss of his best friend Darius who was killed in accident. Isaiah feels guilty for the part he played in the hit and run accident and worried about the dwindling friendship with Drew who he enjoys hanging out with doing wheelies, watching movies and attempts to break Guiness World Records before entering high school. Isiah can’t seem to cope with a lost friend and a fading friend  his feelings of grief and the need to forge ahead with honesty and grace. The verse style and use of slang and vocabulary are relatable and well-suited for the reflective stance of this black teenage character.



Nora / Noah’s best friend, Ella / Lewis, was killed in a car accident Noah is trying to come to terms with the loss. Noah and Lewis understood each other and had much in common, including the fact that they were both Trans. The novel is mostly written as letters to Mothman,  Lewis’s favourite cryptid, who may or may not be living in the woods near Noah’s house. Strange appearances convince  Noah that Mothman is real and Noah decides to make Mothman the subject of his science fair project and gather as much evidence to prove its existence. When Noah makes friends with three girls, he finally comes to feel that he belongs. Through the extended metaphor of a lonely creature, Robin Gow has created a compelling story about grief,  gender issues and acceptance. The journal letters. as well as recounts. of everyday events are presented as free verse (in rather small font) and provide a narrative, and an honest expression of emotions. Dear Mothman and an authentic confessional account of a preteen  boy living with autism who is dealing with grief and their  queer identity. 

Excerpt (p. 157)

Why is being a person so hard sometimes?

I keep getting sad and thinking

“Maybe it would be easier to not have friends at all>”


Then I’m like – no, Noah. 

You love your friends.

This is just hard. 



“Being nonbinary, and figuring it out young, has been a little strange. I know who I am, butr I’m unsure how to tell the world.” (p. 4)

Twelve-year old Jude is rather comfortable with their nonbinary identity but he is not sure that others in their world understand them (especially their grandparents).  Jude has a deep friendship with Black gay friend, Dallas (“He’sthe only person who’s willing to call me out when I do dumb things.” (p. 60) Stevie, a popular girl in their class adds to the friendship duo, but her loyalties are divided and she abandons the bond that she had with Jude and Dallas. Hoping to give support to others in the community, Jude creates the first Diversity Club to town, a safe place, where marginalized people, young and old, can come togetehr and share their stories with out  concerns without being judged. Ronnie Riley’s novel provides a safe space for queer, nonbinary and disabled readers (Jude is diagnosed as ADHD) who are coming to terms with coming out, struggling to maintaining friendships and questioning their identities. Riley’s goal writes are especially written for young trans, nonbinary and queer readers with the hope that the find pieces of themselves in this story, and offers their wish “I hope you all the unconditional love and strength in the world.’  This book is for fans of Alex Gino and A.J. Sass fiction. See also: 

Excerpt (p. 62)

But those three words haunt me.

Are you sure?

Am I sure I’m not a girl or a boy. Yes.

Am i sure my gender can be described as waving my hands in the air and wanting to scream into a pillow? Yes.

Am  sure I’m worthy of love? Up until that moment, I thoght so. 


RED BIRD DANCED by Dawn Quigley (Verse novel) / INDIGENOUS CULTURE

This is a verse novel, presented in alternating voices of a girl named Ariel, passionate about ballet dancing, and her neighbour Tomah, a struggling reader who seems to get by by making others laugh. The two friends live in the city’s Intertribal Housing Complex  When Ariel’s Auntie goes missing, Ariel’s dancing suffers and she strives to keep the memory of her missing aunt alive. (“Dancing is how i connect my body and soul to the earth”. Ariel and Tomah carry each other through their sadnesses and struggles. Dawn Quigley, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe does a brilliant job of unpacking the trials and tribulations of urban Native kids and their connections with those who came before them and their resilience even when bad things go on outside the front door in the city. Quigley masterfully uses the free verse form to illuminate the emotions and stories of two Native citizens. Readers are given insights into the Native culture (e.g. Jingle dancing) but  especially come to understand the plight of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (#MM1W) through aunt Binieshinh’s story.Impressive too is the description of bird life that serves as a metaphor for the character’s world views.  This book deserves awards. 


Life in the housing complex / meant/ family is a / doorstep away. / Life is in/ our relatives/  relatives/ who may not be blood related/ but are like tree/ roots that/ intertwine and hold on / to one another unseen (p. 12)



What do you do when your mother disappears from your life? Where do you go? Who will take care of you? Will your mother come back into your life?  When their mother takes off,  sixth grade student Hank Hooperman and his three year-old-sister, Boo are forced to move from their home. Hank and Boo are totally dependent on each other and are  filled with love for each other.They are temporarily put into the foster care of a senior citizen, Lou Ann Adler who was a good friend of Hank’s grandmother and even though Hank tries hard to be a really good kid, it seems to be too much for Lou Ann. Hank develops friendships at his new school as well as with a compassionate neighbour named Ray who understands what Hank is going through. More than anything, wants to find his mother but she has problems that he can’t solve (she is known to be an alcoholic). Award-winning Newbery Honor  Gennifer Choldenko (Al Capone Does My Shirts) writes appealing narratives with feisty fictional heroes who are caught in the web troubling circumstances. Her books are guaranteed to engage middle years readers as they root for resilient characters like Hank Hooperman, a boy who makes mistakes, makes decisions and  struggles to carriyon, even though life has tossed him a batch of lemons. 


ULTRAVIOLET by Aida Salazar (Verse novel) / TOXIC MASCULINITY

Thirteen year old Elio Solis tries to navigate social media, friendships, his Mexican culture  and his changing body. Swimming in his head are his mother’s warnings about toxic masculinity and consent and his father’s warning to ‘man up’.  In fact, his father takes him witness a cock fight as well as  partake in a community man’s group called ‘Brother’s Rising’  Elio is also experiencing ‘head over heels’   feelings for the beautiful Camilla, so much so that he sees the world as ultraviolet. When Elio’s heart is crushed by the blows of first love, he struggles with the ups and downs of coming of age. Through splendid accessible poetry, sprinkled with Spanish language, Ultraviolet provides a strong perspective  and questioning of masculinity.

Excerpt (p. 43)

So does that mean

I’m automatically toxic?

No, not you, but behavior like that could be.

As a boy you have priveliges that girls don’t.

It’s what the world gives you

just for being a boy. 

That doesn’t seem fair, I shrug. 



THE CHOCOLATE WAR by Robert Cormier (1974) / YA+ / BULLY POWER

“They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too.” (p. 248)

Trinity boys school is conducting a fund-raiser to sell chocolates and Jerry Renault is the only student who refuses to take part in this school-wide initiative, even though it means defying the challenge of a secret school society called The Vigils. The Vigils lead by the abusive, manipulating Archie is the foundation for what one character claims is “something  rotten in the school. More than rotten.. Evil.” A poster that hangs in Renault’s locker asks: Do I dare disturb the universe? and this question serves as the moral compass of Jerry’s stance. Top (opening sentence: “They murdered him'” to bottom (“Someday, Archie you’ll get yours” )  Archie is probably one of the most evil characters in literature whos behaviour is beyond bullying as he tortures others with his words and actions (as is  Brother Leon, the domineering teacher who leads the project.  This story grew from an incident  with his teenage son, Peter, who came home from school one day with boxes of chocolates to sell and announcing that he didn’t want to do.The Chocolate War is an astonishing read, albeit an absolutely chilling chilling read. Devastating! I will  be seeking out the sequel, Beyond the Chocolate War.

I know I’ve read this book many years ago, but in honour of its 50th year of publication, I decided to read this novel – one of the top ten banned books in classrooms throughout North America. In one Florida Middle school, teachers endured abusive harassment and death threats because of the stand they took.  Criticism for the book centred on the anti-authority worldview,   a gutsy violent ending, and yes, the inclusion of masturbation. “Too complicated. Too many characters. A downbeat ending, which teenagers in the 1970’s would find difficult to accept. Too violent. Not quite an adult novel, too sophisticated to be a juvenile novel. Too unbelievable.” (Introduction by Robert Cormier, 1997, edition) At that time, Corman sent a message, “I have been at a loss for words. The ironic thing is that words are my business, and thw words in my books have been the cause of so much trouble” (in the New York Times, Sunday June 2, 2024, p. 32). . Throughout his life, Robert Cormier put forth mighty efforts combatting attempts to ban The Chocolate War. Like many authors do today. 

In the edition that I read a short essay is included by author Patty Campbell, the author of the biography of Robert Cormier who she calls the ‘grand master of young adult fiction.”  (e.g.,  I Am the Cheese, After the First Death, Fade, The Bumblebee Flies Away, The Rag and Bone Shop).  The following is an excerpt from her piece entitled ‘Who is this Robert Cormier, anyway?”

“His writing is unique in its richness and power, as le looks unflinchingly at tyranny and the abuse of authority, at treachery and betrayal, at guilt and forgiveness, love and hate, and the corruption of innocence His novels are brilliant and complex structures full of intricate wordplay and subtle thought, although at first reading they seem to quite direct and simple. Because, most of all, the works of Robert Cormier are good stories, full of suspense and surprise and dramatic action as his characters struggle – sometimes unsuccessfully – to find an appropriate response to the existence of evil.” 


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BOYMOM: Reimagining Boyhood in the Age of Impossible Masculinity by Ruth Whippman

Journalist, Ruth Whippman investigates the changing complexities of manhood, focusing on the loneliness and longings that many boys experience. As a mother to three sons, this feminist writer offers a review of child development, a report into masculinity literature and a insights into society rules that often limiting boys from connecting with honesty and humanity.  As a memoir, Whippman digs into  the ultimate parent goal of raising good sons (which suddenly feels like a hopeless task). Chapter titles include “Boys Will Be Boys: Off to a bad start”; “‘Girl Stories’: What we are failing to teach boys about being human”; “‘Feminizing the Classroom’: Boys and school” and “Sex and Sexism”.