This One’s For the Boys: A Review of ‘Guys Reads: True Stories’

“One cannot always be a hero, but one can always be a man.”—Johan Wolfgang

“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.  An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.”—G. K. Chesterton

Suggested Grade Levels:

Grades 6-12

Review and Thoughts

I was excited to read this book for a couple of different reasons.  First of all, I feel like a lot of books are geared toward women lately.  I’m sure I will have a lot of people who disagree with that comment, but when I read a lot of modern literature, there are so many strong heroines, but few good heroes.  Boys are less interested in reading and some studies show that they are falling behind in school. The Guys Reads series is looking to help bring boys back to love reading again. The series is edited by John Scieszka (The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs, and The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales) and includes a great collection of short stories that are meant to appeal to boys.  I must mention here that girls will also enjoy these stories, but it’s obvious that they are trying to appeal to the guys out there.

Another reason I was intrigued by this book is because all of the stories were true.  Scieszka points out in his prologue that nonfiction can be beautiful and that “information text” is the new fancy term for “nonfiction”.  With the new Common Core push in a lot of schools, nonfiction is meant to be added wherever it can be and this particular book is recommended on the Harper Collins List for Common Core.   Even if you don’t completely agree with Common Core, nonfiction is an important genre, and these stories are meant to captivate their audience.  They may be of particular interest to young adults.  I thoroughly enjoyed the stories and I think a lot of young men will too.  Below are brief summaries AND potential issues for the selections.

“Sahara Shipwreck” by Steve Sheinkin

This is the true story of Captain James Riley and his crew who were shipwrecked on the coast of Africa by the Saharan desert.  They are taken slaves by a migrant group they find after wandering in the Sahara.  While they are scared, they are also glad that they have found water.  Their ordeal is terrible as they are stripped naked and forced to travel with the group.  Their skin becomes incredibly burned and eventually the group runs out of food and water.  They are forced to drink their own urine and camel urine.  Eventually the group meets with a trader named Hamet who agrees to buy the captain and his crew.  He agrees to sell them to someone up north so that they can make it back home again.  Captain Riley writes of the entire ordeal in his memoir and it becomes a famous book.

Possible Issues:  The drinking of urine and the description of the burned bodies may be disturbing to younger readers.

“Tarantula Heaven” by Sy Montgomery

Two men explore the rain forest looking for tarantulas.  They discuss the different spiders they see.  It is a dirty and dangerous journey through the jungle.

Possible Issues: None

“Dead Man Crawling” by Nathan Hale

The story of Hugh Glass is told through this story written as a graphic novel piece.  In case you don’t know who Hugh Glass is, he was attacked by a bear and left for dead by the people who were supposed to take care of him.  He crawls for 6 weeks to find help.

I think this particular story will appeal to the younger guys.

Possible Issues: The narrator of the story is about to be executed and is given the opportunity to tell the story.

“A Jumbo Story” by Candace Fleming

This tells the incredibly sad story of the life and death of Jumbo the African elephant.  Jumbo was always much bigger than other elephants in captivity so he was quite an attraction at the zoo where he grew up.  He was later sold to Barnum and Bailey Circus and became their biggest attraction.  Matthew Scott was Jumbo’s trainer and care taker and truly loved the animal.  He took care of Jumbo from his first moments in captivity to his final moments when he was tragically hit by a train.

Barnum and Bailey knew that Jumbo’s death was awful. They sent for a taxidermist right away.  Jumbo was made into an attraction who toured with the circus for a while.  Later his skeleton was sent to a museum in New York and his hide is in the Barnum museum at Tufts University.  Jumbo is now the mascot.

When the museum caught on fire, his hide was destroyed.  The students saved Jumbo’s ashes by gathering them in a canister.  To this day, athletes will rub the canister before a game.

Possible Issues: The death of Jumbo is hard to read.

“Uni-verses” by Douglas Florian

This section includes short poems about science.  Some poems topics include matter, gravity, relativity, etc.  Each poem is dedicated to a different scientific definition.

Possible Issues: None

“This Won’t Hurt a Bit: The Painfully True Story of Dental Care” by Jim Murphy

This may not be the story for someone who is afraid of the dentist, but Murphy describes the history of dental care in such a way that it makes it INTERESTING…and gross.  Murphy tells quite a few elaborate teeth-pulling stories.  He points out that teeth pulling was often like a circus act drawing large crowds to come and see the “event”.  I found this to be one of the most interesting sections of the book.  Pretty impressive for a “boring” topic.

Possible Issues:  Some of the teeth pulling stories are bloody and shocking.  One “dentist” embalms his wife as an attraction to have people come and get their teeth pulled.

“A Pack of Brothers” by Thanha Lai (author of Inside, Out, and Back Again)

Ha grew up in Vietnam during the war.  Though she wasn’t affected by the war until later in her life, she had quite a few adventures with her six unruly brothers.  Ha wanted to be a boy, like they were, and would often try too hard to fit in.  The boys took advantage of her and would have her do daring things that were sometimes dangerous.

Possible Issues: none

“Mojo, Moonshine, and the Blues” by Elizabeth Partridge

This short biography of Muddy Waters, a famous blues artist, tells of some interesting music history.  Young adults will connect with the fact that Muddy Waters was a major inspiration for Mick Jaggar and Keith Richards.  He inspired the name Rolling Stones!

Possible Issues:  The story mentions that Muddy Waters had failed marriages and several children with different women.

“A Cartoonist’s Course” by James Sturm

James Sturm tells the story of his journey in becoming a cartoonist.  He explains that from a young age he was obsessed with becoming a cartoonist and he affirms the idea that you must work really hard to reach your goals.

Possible Issues: None

“River’s Run” by T Edward Nickens

Nickens tells his dangerous story of canoeing through an Alaskan river.  This final story includes near drownings, lots of danger, great fishing, and adventures in places rarely ever visited by men.

Possible Issues: None

This compilation is beautifully put together and perfect for young adults of both genders and can appeal to a wide range of ages.  It is also nice to see a more modern novel written at a higher level than some of the current young adult literature.

Scieszka finishes his book with a plea for guys to keep reading and encourages them to visit the Guys Reads website.  He also asks that people share the book when they are finished.  I find it encouraging the Scieszka has taken this on and I hope people are inspired to read some of the other books in the series as well.

Further Discussion

  • Boys are falling behind in school.  Why do you think this is?  What can be done to fix it?
  • As a growing adult, what is our responsibility to the world with our education?  Why is it important to read and get different perspectives from different people?  Why is it important to read nonfiction?
  • Why were these stories chosen to appeal to young men?  What is it about them that calls to the hearts of guys?  Do you think young women feel the same way about these stories?

Catholic Resources

General Teaching Resources and Other Activities

    • Form a Guys Read Charter using this template and then register on the Guys Read website.
    • Visit the Guys Read website regularly for more up-to-date information,
    • Choose one of the stories to research more.
    • Choose a little known topic and do some of your own research.  Then, write your own piece of nonfiction literature.
    • Read one of the other books from the Guys Read series: (Please note that only the True Stories has been reviewed by Lit by the Tree.)