If you walk into the Young Adult section of just about any chain bookstore, you might very well get the idea that all YA books are for girls. Recent trends in cover design have left the shelves full of pretty young women in flowing dresses and typefaces with curly swashes. Now, a lot of those books are great, but it's easy to see how boys might be a little uncomfortable shopping for books in that part of the bookstore.
Contrary to appearances, though, there actually are plenty of great books for young men (and also for young women who aren't necessarily as excited by frills and romance as some). In fact, even though I decided to concentrate on books with a lot of adventure instead of the ones you might find on "approved" reading lists, I still had a really hard time choosing just five.
'Across the Nightingale Floor' by Lian Hearn
Tales of the Otori, Book 1. 2002. ISBN 9781573223324
In a setting resembling medieval Japan, 16-year-old Tomasu is orphaned when his peaceful village is attacked and pillaged. The Lord Shigeru adopts him, renames him Takeo, and tells him that his heritage is not what he thought is was. His father was a member of the Tribe, a secretive people possessing extraordinary skills of stealth, who traditionally worked as assassins. Takeo, it seems, has inherited all those skills.
The Tales of the Otori series is perfect for young folks who enjoy anime, manga and Japanese videogames. The main character is essentially a hereditary ninja, but he's also a believable young man trying to make his way in the world, to learn about his family, decide what's right and wrong, fall in love, and grow up. Lian Hearn's writing is beautiful, but she doesn't sacrifice story at the expense of pretty words. Across the Nightingale Floor is a pulse-pounding adventure story that was a New York Times Notable Book, and was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.
'Airborn' by Kenneth Oppel
Airborn series, Book 1. 2004. ISBN 978-0-00-200537-9
Kenneth Oppel is probably best known for his Silverwing books, but Airborn and its two sequels, Skybreaker and Starclimber, are just as good, and perhaps more suitable for somewhat older readers. The books' main character is Matt Cruse, an airship cabin boy who was, quite literally, born in the sky (on board an airship). While on a trans-oceanic voyage, Matt meets Kate de Vries, an aspiring young scientist even more headstrong than Matt. When their airship is attacked by pirates, they're shipwrecked and have to figure out how to rescue themselves.
Besides being well-written tales of non-stop adventure, the Airborn series is filled with optimism and wonder. Oppel's characters are curious, and eager to discover new places and new scientific principles. The setting is close enough to our own relatively recent past that readers who enjoy these books might be encouraged to explore non-fiction topics like the history of flight, or natural history. Airborn won the Governor General's Award in Canada.
'City of the Beasts' by Isabel Allende
2002. ISBN 978-0-06-050917-1
Isabel Allende is well-known as a writer of literary fiction for adults, but with City of the Beasts she made her first foray into YA fiction. The result is a lush adventure novel set during an expedition into the Amazon rain forest. Alex is 15, and while his mother is being treated for cancer, he's sent to live with his grandmother in New York City. They don't stay in the city long, though, as grandmother Kate Cold is a reporter for International Geographic magazine, and she's due to head to the Amazon for a story.
There's a local girl, Nadia, going along with the expedition, and she and Alex soon make friends, which is a good thing, because misfortune befalls the group, and then Alex and Nadia are kidnapped by a local tribe and end up on a quest to find the City of the Beasts. City of the Beasts was named one of the best YA science fiction novels of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review (though I'd argue it's less SF and more adventure fiction), and made the Book magazine Best of 2002 YA list. There were two sequels--Kingdom of the Golden Dragon and Forest of the Pygmies.
'Dragonhaven' by Robin McKinley
2007. ISBN 978-0-14-241494-1 (pb), 978-0-399-24675-3 (hc)
I've been a fan of Robin McKinley forever, it seems. Her book The Blue Sword was a Newbery Honor Book, and its sequel The Hero and the Crown won a Newbery Medal. Dragonhaven is a little more recent than those books, and it's the only one I can think of off the top of my head that has a male main character. It's brilliantly written (and gained a starred review from Kirkus), and has a fresh take on that old fantasy staple -- dragons.
Jake, the main character, grew up in Smokehill National Park, an immense refuge for the world's dwindling population of wild dragons. The setting is more-or-less the real world, but it's the real world as it would be if dragons -- huge, scaly, secretive, flying reptiles -- actually existed. Jake assumes he'll train to be a park ranger, or maybe a dragon scientist. But then he finds a dying dragon with a newborn dragon baby. It's illegal to touch a dragon, but Jake can't just leave the baby to die. The story that unfolds tests the ties of friendship, family, community, and responsibility.
Even though Dragonhaven is fantasy (and a great choice for dragon lovers), I'd suggest it as a good pick for young men who like the outdoors, nature, and wild animals; the dragons could almost stand in for any other other large, threatened species.
'The Wreckers' by Iain Lawrence
The High Seas Trilogy, Book 1. 1998. ISBN 978-0440415459
The title of The Wreckers comes from the historical practice in some villages on the English coast of lighting lanterns during storms, to fool ships into thinking there was a safe harbor waiting, so they would sail for shore and be wrecked. Then the villagers could collect the ship's cargo and sell it for a profit (or in many cases, merely to survive). The book is the story of 14-year-old John Spencer, the youngest crewmember on board a ship that falls for the wreckers' beckoning lanterns. John survives the shipwreck, but then he has to survive the wreckers.
The Wreckers is a beautifully written page-turner of a book, and won or was nominated for numerous awards, including the Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People (winner), the School Library Journal Best Book of the Year (winner), and the Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Children's Mystery (nominee). It is followed by two sequels, The Smugglers and The Buccaneers. If you know someone who loved the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World or any other nautical adventure, there's a good chance they'd enjoy this book.