Holiday Gifts, Best of the Old

Although it goes without saying that UNBORED is the perfect holiday gift, we also have a bunch of other gift recommendations that we’re going to make over the next several days. Many of our recommendations are for books and products that came out this year; but sometimes old is best.

One of Josh’s “Best Ever” lists in UNBORED covers fiction about kids who are puzzlers and makers. Puzzlers and makers build stuff without following instructions, investigate mysteries and crack codes, and use their wits (and materials at hand) to solve problems. They often fail, at first. But rather than seeing failure as something to worry about, they realize that failure is a way to learn faster. Here are some classic novels about kids who investigate, puzzle, experiment, fail… and try again.


Knight’s Castle (1956), by Edward Eager.

Siblings Roger and Ann, and their cousins Eliza and Jack, discover that a toy castle and a set of figurines allow them to magically enter the world of Ivanhoe—a knights-in-armor adventure (by Sir Walter Scott) set in 12th-century England. Unfortunately, their appearance on the scene makes the story turn out badly. So it’s up to them to figure out how the magic works.

Eager’s Magic series (1954-62) is fun because the magic in each book—in addition to Knight’s Castle, there’s Half Magic (1954), Magic By the Lake (1957), The Time Garden (1958), Magic Or Not? (1959), The Well-Wishers (1960), and Seven-Day Magic (1962)—works according to laws whose rules are unknown. They’re logic puzzles disguised as fun adventures.








Have Space Suit—Will Travel (1958), by Robert A. Heinlein.

After winning an obsolete space suit in a contest, high-school senior Kip Russell (who wants to study engineering and spacesuit design) fixes it up—and, while wearing it, gets kidnapped by an evil alien in a flying saucer. After many adventures, he saves the human race.

Though most of his sci-fi books are for grownups, Heinlein published 12 novels for kids and teens. You might also enjoy: Rocket Ship Galileo (1947), Space Cadet (1948), Red Planet (1949), The Rolling Stones (1952), and Starman Jones (1953). Though most of his books were about boys, Heinlein’s 1963 novel, Podkayne of Mars, features a teenage girl protagonist.










Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine (1958), by Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams.

When the inventor Professor Bulfinch builds an early computer, middle-schooler Danny and his pal Irene figure out—through trial and error—how to program it to do their homework. They learn the hard way that computers aren’t any smarter than the humans who program them.

There are 15 books in the Danny Dunn series (1956-77), but the first four, which were written by both authors, and illustrated by the great Ezra Jack Keats (of The Snowy Day fame), are definitely the place to begin. In addition to Homework Machine, read Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint (1956), Danny Dunn on a Desert Island (1957), and Danny Dunn and the Weather Machine (1959).





The Gammage Cup (1959), by Carol Kendall.

The Minnipins, who live in the village of Slipper-on-the-Water, consider a woman named Muggles eccentric—in part, because her cottage is crammed with odds and ends that no one regards a valuable. However, when Muggles is banished from the village, along with four others, her independent way of seeing things turns out to be well-suited to the problem of surviving.

Fun fact: Some believe that J.K. Rowling got the term “Muggles” from The Gammage Cup. Its sequel, The Whisper of Glocken, was published in 1965.








Alvin’s Secret Code (1963), by Clifford B. Hicks.

Like the Danny Dunn books, the Alvin Fernald series (1960-2009) recount the adventures of a talented middle-school inventor. In this adventure story, a former spy teaches Alvin the history and basics of cryptography and cryptanalysis (writing and cracking coded messages). Soon enough, Alvin is cracking a 100-year-old code that leads to buried treasure.

Fun fact: Clifford B. Hicks was an editor of Popular Mechanics magazine; he wrote the magazine’s Do-It-Yourself Materials Guide and also edited the Do-It-Yourself Encyclopedia.






The Mad Scientists’ Club (1965), by Bertrand R. Brinley.

Jeff, Henry, Dinky, and other members of the do-it-yourself Mad Scientists’ Club tinker in a makeshift electronics lab above their town’s hardware store, and use whatever materials they can find to pull off various pranks and stunts. For example: a remote-controlled lake monster!

Fun fact: The author of the Mad Scientists series—story collections published in 1965 and 1968; and the novels The Big Kerplop! (1974) and The Big Chunk of Ice (2005)—directed an Army program for assistance and safety instruction for amateur rocketeers. He also wrote Rocket Manual for Amateurs (1960). The stories first appeared in the Boy Scouts magazine Boys’ Life.








Taran Wanderer (1967), by Lloyd Alexander.

Having fallen in love with a princess, a young man sets out across Prydain to search for his parentage. During his journey, Taran comes to respect Prydain’s farmers, shepherds, blacksmiths, potters, and weavers, who teach him something of their work and way of life. Most inspiring of all is Llonio, a DIY maker who teaches Taran to find uses for discovered objects.

You might want to hold off reading this book until you’ve finished the first three titles in the Chronicles of Prydain series: The Book of Three (1964), The Black Cauldron (1965), and The Castle of Llyr (1966). The final book in the series is The High King (1968).












Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1972), by Robert C. O’Brien.

One of the great maker adventures of all time! A group of super-intelligent former laboratory rats have developed an advanced society (complete with electricity and machines) beneath a rosebush on Farmer Fitzgibbon’s farm. In exchange for their help moving her home out of the path of the farmer’s plow, the field mouse Mrs. Frisby helps save them from disaster.

O’Brien’s real name was Robert Leslie Conly; his daughter, Jane Leslie Conly, has published two Rats of NIMH sequels. You will also enjoy his 1968 novel, The Silver Crown.








The Westing Game (1979), by Ellen Raskin.

Who “took the life” of multi-millionaire Samuel W. Westing? That’s what the crafty 13-year-old Tabitha Ruth “Turtle” Wexler wants to find out. So do the other 15 heirs to Westing’s fortune; whoever cracks the case will inherit his fortune. The answer to the mystery is concealed in a complex word-puzzle. Luckily for Turtle, she turns out to be very good at that sort of thing.

Ellen Raskin won a Newbery Medal for this novel, and a Newbery Honor for her 1974 mystery, Figgs & Phantoms. Also well worth reading is Raskin’s The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) (1971), and The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues (1975).






Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars (1979), by Daniel Pinkwater.

Unhappy at their conformist, unchallenging suburban high school, two misfit friends—Leonard Neeble and Alan Mendelsohn—visit Leonard’s old neighborhood, where a bookstore owner sells them a kit for learning telekinesis and mind control. He thinks he’s ripping them off, but the kit works! As it turns out, Mendelsohn is a Martian—though he didn’t know it.

Pinkwater often writes about social misfits whose unhappiness makes them willing to leave the comfort of home—and the known universe, generally. Other favorites: the children’s books Lizard Music (1976) and Fat Men from Space (1977); and the young adult books The Worms of Kukumlima (1981) and The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death (1982).







Hoot (2002), by Carl Hiaasen.

In order to protect a burrowing-owl habitat from being paved over by an unscrupulous corporation, a barefoot runaway boy known only as Mullet Fingers sabotages the construction site using whatever means possible—including alligators. His stepsister, Beatrice, and their new friend, a bullied middle-schooler named Roy, lead a protest.

Fun fact: Hiaasen used to be an investigative journalist in Florida, where he exposed businesses’ schemes to despoil the natural beauty of his state for profit. Most of his mystery and thriller novels are for grownups, but you will also enjoy his kids’ novels Flush (2005) and Scat (2009).







The Mysterious Benedict Society (2007), by Trenton Lee Stewart.

Twelve-year-old Kate Wetherall is a resourceful, athletic orphan who always carries useful stuff: a Swiss Army knife, a rope, a magnet, and so forth. She is recruited for a dangerous mission—along with 11-year-old puzzler Reynie Muldoon, 11-year-old mnemonist (look it up) Sticky Washington, and Constance, a precocious brat—by the mysterious Mr. Benedict.

So far, there are two sequels: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (2008), and The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma (2009).