Dec 27 2013 10:00am

Is There a Right Age to Read a Book?

Is There a Right Age to Read a Book?

Claire of The Captive Reader, one of my favourite book blogs, has a post about reading books before you are ready for them. She quotes Sheila Kaye-Smith on not reading books when you are too young for them and goes on to explain how she read much Great Literature as a teenager without it doing her a lick of harm. It never did me any harm either, and I’ve talked before about starting to read something and realising it’s too old for me and leaving it for later...and how I’m still doing this with E.R. Eddison at the age of forty-eight. It’s a good habit, because it blames myself and not the book when I can’t get into something. It’s quite distinct from thinking “this is awful,” which I think often enough, it’s “this is beyond me right now.”

But is there a right age to read a book?

Claire goes on very interestingly:

I know there are books I did not understand fully when I read them but does an imperfect understanding ruin anything? Did reading Northanger Abbey or Sense and Sensibility when I was in my early teens dull me for life to the brilliance of Austen? Obviously not. But did I understand Austen’s brilliance at the time? Certainly not. I was reading for plot. I fell in love with the stories. Later I came to appreciate Austen’s skill and the artistry that went into the creation of each book and that appreciation continues to grow with every rereading.

I read Jane Eyre, one of Kaye-Smith’s ‘approved’ books for youths, when I was fourteen in school and hated it. Was this the fault of a too early introduction? Or perhaps a too late one? Would I at twelve, when for one brief summer I understood (thanks to du Maurier) the allure of gothic novels, have been more receptive to the absurdities of the plot and the odiousness of Mr Rochester that irritated me so much a few years later?

The age at which we read a book is of vital importance to the way we experience it but that does not mean that each book comes with a correct age at which to read it. You are not only going to appreciate Vanity Fair if you wait to read it until you are forty-five but you will perhaps appreciate it differently than you did at fifteen and twenty-five and thirty-five. You will understand more and miss fewer allusions but that does not mean you will enjoy it more.

Is There a Right Age to Read a Book?This has been entirely true for me. I read Jane Eyre when I was very young, sometime before I went to school. I loved it to pieces for precisely the wince-worthy Gothicness of it and also for Jane’s voice.

I know exactly what I learned from reading it way too young—I learned that children grow up and are still the same person. Jane the child in Lowood is very precisely characterised and the whole horrible school thing really spoke to me on a level I could understand, and Jane growing up and having melodramatic events made me realise that I would also grow up, and that the adults around me had once been children. I can remember lying on the green hearthrug in front of the fire in our house reading Jane Eyre and looking up from it at the black-stockinged legs of my great-aunt Emma and the fat calves of my cousin Anthea and thinking that (amazingly) they had once been children and I would one day be a grown-up, although I was quite sure that I’d never prefer to sit on the sofa than lie on the rug.

No grown up, or even teenager, reading Jane Eyre would have that insight. They know it already. It’s not Brontë’s insight, though I had that insight because she managed to make Jane growing up work for me as a child reader. Books give people the tools to build the world. This world, the real world.

(The other thing I got from Jane Eyre was horrifying my cousin Beryl on her wedding morning by talking about the wedding scene in that book, but we will draw a veil over that.)

But although I agree absolutely with what Clare says about reading for plot now and understanding the brilliance later, despite the fact that this has very much been my own experience, I also understand Sheila Kaye-Smith:

A friend of my mother’s advised me not to read Thackeray until I was grown up. ‘You wouldn’t understand him now. You’d miss a lot.’ This was perfectly true and I only wish her advice had been applied more widely, for I spoilt a number of books and authors for myself by reading them too early…If I were ever asked to guide a young person in a similar situation I should put Dickens and Jane Austen with Thackeray on the waiting list, also the whole of George Eliot except Adam Bede and the whole of the Brontës except Jane Eyre.

Some people cannot re-read, and therefore what they get out of a book on first reading is all they ever get out of it. She was probably one of them. Tolkien was, he talks about it in one of his letters. Once he had read something that was it, there was no going back to it. So he too advised waiting to read things until you were older—he talked about losing the pleasure he would have had. For people like this, who have to get it all in the first read because there can be no subsequent reads, Kaye-Smith is right. They should wait.

I find this difficult, because I love re-reading so much—I actually prefer re-reading something to reading it for the first time. The first time there’s a certain amount of anxiety about whether it’s going to stay good, and also about what’s going to happen. On a re-read I know I can relax and trust the book. I recently re-read a friend’s unpublished manuscript (I don’t usually do this, but its particularly brilliant and I kept thinking about it) and I found myself noticing just how much more I was enjoying it this time through because I knew where it was going.

So I see the “read once and never again” thing as an affliction, and it’s certainly a thing that goes with a particular kind of brain.

There’s also the thing where one can come to a book too late. I’ve sometimes advised reading books with your twelve-year-old head—and it isn’t always easy to do that, even if you can see you’d have loved it when you were twelve. This is much harder than waiting until you’re old enough, because it means you missed it. I missed E.E. Doc Smith this way. When my son was twelve I gave him a lot of old books wrapped in gold paper—the “golden age” books that you have to read when you’re twelve. His appreciation of Hal Clement is consequently better than mine will ever be.

This is similar to the way one can grow out of books generally—books you’ve read. Sometimes it’s possible to find the twelve-year-old head to read it with, and sometimes it isn’t. This is why there are children’s books and YA that can be read by adults and others that can’t—and of course, the same goes for things that were ostensibly written for adults.

I think it would be a good idea for people who cannot re-read to have suggested ages on books—not just classics, and certainly not just children’s books. But it would be so hard to decide. How old should you be when you read A Fire Upon the Deep? Teenagers can get a lot out of it, but I get more out of it on every reading. How about Nova—that’s me in 2009 and here’s me in 2010 and I know I definitely didn’t get it when I was fifteen. Maybe we could have panels at conventions in which we discuss the perfect age to read different books? Or maybe authors could be asked about their own books. Or maybe the age at which the author wrote it should be taken into account? And we could have “read this before you’re twenty” labels as well. Then once we had a consensus (ha!) the people with this problem could have reading lists they’d start on their birthdays.

For the rest of us who can re-read, this is a non-problem. We can read ahead of ourselves all we like and keep coming back and getting more out of things every time.

Thank goodness.


This article was originally posted January 15, 2013 on

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Jerome Stueart
1. Jerome Stueart
Thanks for this, Jo! I'm a re-reader too. And a re-watcher of movies, able to "forget" how things are going to work out once I restart the story. Still I wonder if I could see Edward Eager books as I saw them as a child. Or if I really understood much of Tom Robbins at 17.

I grew up in a religious home so we were all reading the Bible at, like, seven. Oh my. The things over our head. And yet, there's a concept in Christianity that calls the Bible a "living word". It's used in such a way as to make you believe that the meaning changes over time, or that the words mean Somethjng different as you read it at different ages. I don't want to de-Spirit the Book, because I do believe that it continues to speak to me at different ages and those characters facing midlife crises are screaming at me now--but I think that any good book has a way of speaking to You the child and You the adult and that good books deserve treading because they too are "living words". Certainly that's why we keep re-performing Shakespeare. And why I keep reading the Great Gatsby. It keeps "changing" at least in my perception. If we see more books as Living Words, able to still speak to us, then maybe in some ways they too can become sacred.

I was told that I'm nearly too late for Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again--but I have a feeling that when I sit down to read it, it will have something important to tell me even now.
James Braun
2. Queggy
For me it's like reading Calvin and Hobbes or watching any Disney movie. They're perfectly fine and enjoyable at a young age, but you go back to re-read/re-watch them at a later age, and they're much more fun because you realize all the different things you didn't pick up on when you were younger.
Jerome Stueart
3. Lachlan99
Farmer in the Sky.
I read it as a teenager, and identified with the narrator, a boy my own age...then again a few years ago, as a father and found myself following his father's story. Two different books. The narrator has a rousing adventure, but the father experiences loss, and heartbreak, and more loss, and it damn near broke my heart.
4. hoopmanjh
I think there are different ways to be the wrong age to read a book. In one case, when I was relatively young I was plowing through my father's old Heinlein juveniles, came to Stranger in a Strange Land, and just kept going. I read the book beginning to end, and could kind of make sense of the story on a surface level, but obviously missed a whole lot of what was going on there.

In another case, when I was in probably junior high I was going through the paperback spinners at the public library and came home with Samuel R. Delany's Triton and couldn't make heads or tails of it.
Tom Smith
5. phuzz
I think it makes a big difference if you're a re-reader or not. As a kid there was never going to be enough books for me to read, so I had to re-read.
I think the only book (a series in this case) that I've had spoiled was CS Lewis, when I read another book pointing out the christian analogies when I was about 7 or 8.
I think if I'd had that pointed out to me later on I'd still have been able to enjoy Narnia, but at the age I found out I felt 'cheated' that these books I liked were secretly trying to preach to me, and consequently I could never go back.

On a related note, I do wonder if some books work better when you read them around the time they were released. I wonder in particular if William Gibson's Pattern Recognition will hold up as well many years after 9/11.
Jerome Stueart
6. kid_greg
I would never discourage a book to reader due to age, except of course for a book that is too explicit for a kid. But on that same note, I think when I was in school, too much of the required reading at that time, namely the classic literature, was written too long ago and was too complex or old for many new readers. I've long suspected that is why so many people of my generation don't enjoy reading and, in fact, are so puzzled that anyone would do such a thing.
For myself, not only was my mother and avid reader who took me on library trips but I also was introduced to the joy of reading through comic books as young as 4 years old. Subsequently, the reading material we had in my early grade school years bored me to tears so much that I spent 1st through 4th grade in a special class for problem readers.
Comics let me to reading the ERB's Tarzan books, which let to Howard's Conan, which let me to Westerns, and my life long passion for adventure genre novels was born. (I remember getting a little flack over some of the riske' covers on my Tarzan and Conan books, -Boris and Frazetta. )
Sidenote: For me, it's Tarzan that I could never re-read as an adult but I still get a warm fuzzy feeling when I remember reading them for the first time as a pre-teen.
I guess what I'm getting to in a round-about way, is that I think you have to be careful, when it comes to books for kids. Especially for required reading. "Required reading" of itself is a turn off, so anything of that nature needs to be readily entertaining to a wide audiance of young reader. As far as suggested reading for kids; I wouldn't suggest any books that are written for adults to children or teens, but if they pick up an adult book on their own, - and it doesn't have elements too mature for their personal level of maturity- and they are enjoying it, by all means encourage and engage them about it.
Rachel Howe
7. ellarien
I read Vanity Fair for the first time when I was eight. (It was a mistake; I was looking for more of the 'Vanity Fair' cartoons like the ones in my mother's copy of the Life of Madame Curie, and for some bizarre reason it was on the classroom 'silent reading' shelf.) I don't think I understood any of it; the one sentence that did stick in my head turned out to mean something completely different when I read it properly in my teens.

On the other hand, I was perfectly happy reading Dickens and Trollope and so forth for plot (and atmosphere) from the age of 12 or 13.
Jerome Stueart
8. corig123
I read Les Mis when I was 12, and all I remember was being angry about 100 pages describing some irrelevant battle field. That may or may not be accurate, but it's what I remember.

I picked up my first C. J. Cherryh book around then, realized it was beyond me, and came back to it a few years later. Really glad about that, as she has been my favorite author since I tried again, and it'd have been a shame to have missed out on that because I couldn't get through it as a kid!
Jerome Stueart
9. Clarentine
I think there is a minimum experiential age at which a particular book might be read - where a certain set of experiences introduces the background that makes a book intelligible - but I don't think that's necessarily the same physical age for all people.

I am an avid re-reader, and now I'm wondering if the books which did not catch me sufficiently to encourage a re-read are simply books I came to too soon?
Bruce Arthurs
10. bruce-arthurs
Back in my teens I had a list of "bomb shelter" books, works I wanted to grab and take into the (hypothetical) bomb shelter with me when the Commies started WWIII (this was *ahem* a while back), so they'd be preserved for future generations. I think the only books from that list I'd still hold in that high a regard are Catch-22 and Tom Sawyer. (Sorry, Heinlein. Sorry, Zelazny.)
Jerome Stueart
11. DougL
Heh, should have seen my grade 5 teacher freak when I did a book report on King Rat. Later in grade 6 & 7 I had an ex nun for a teacher, whom I didn't like, so all my book reports were on...Shogun, Godfather heh

After Godfather even my Dad told me to stop, so I had to do normal books from there on out.

It's not that I didn't love the Chronicles of Narnia and such, I still read those. I guess the answer to this question depends on your child's reading level, I would have been much better served being home schooled I think, because if you let schools dictate the pace of your child's learning you end up with the lowest common denominator.

I don't think going back and reading the Hardy Boys now would be a good idea even if I'd never read them before. Let nostalgia stay where it is with some titles, I know I will just poison that memory. It's the same with TV, I will not go back and watch the A-Team, just a few clips on youtube is good enough.

Bottom line, it's never early enough in my opinion, maybe for really wonky and disgusting stuff, but for everything else, hope your child devours it early.
Jerome Stueart
12. harmonyfb
The right age to read a book is when you want to read it. :)

I have realized, though, that some books speak in different languages at different ages. I read The Lord of the Rings at 13, and fell instantly in love with it. It was one of those books, whose significance to me can't be captured by describing it (I know all of you know what I mean.)

I re-read it at 20, and was surprised to find things I missed at 13. Different bits of the narrative stuck out for me, different scenes caught my heart, different characters made me weep. Ditto for my re-read at 30. And 40. And 50. And I imagine that when I'm in my dotage, once again visiting the Shire, I'll discover even more things I was too young to notice before.

My youngest daughter - age 8 - is working her way through Harry Potter, and I have no doubt that when she re-reads them in her 20's, she'll find all sorts of treasures she was too young to appreciate before.

Books are magical that way.
Robert Barrett
13. rwb
Heh. Try teaching Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan to American undergraduates (18-21). They're always so upset at the way the lovers are treating poor King Mark--no tolerance for adultery, no sense of why it might be individually liberating (in a context of arranged marriage). Part of this is cultural, of course, but another major part is age.

When I get an occasional non-traditional (i.e., older than 21) student, they always side with the lovers against Mark. The more romantic experience one acquires (which strongly correlates with increased age), the more sympathetic one finds adulterers. :)

I personally have less of an issue with being the wrong age to read a book and more of one with being the wrong age to watch a TV show or movie. As a kid, I was utterly cold to the charms of Tom Baker's Doctor. Same for the original Star Trek cast. Once I turned 13, I suddenly got the appeal of those shows.
Michael Grosberg
14. Michael_GR
Jo, give Eddison another chance. The first twenty pages of The Worm Ouroboros suck and it took me four years to get past them (four years of leaving the book on the shelf, not actively trying to read them, of course), but then the akward framing device is uncermoniously ditched and the real plot begins. I read the rest of the novel in four days.
Jerome Stueart
15. BenjaminJB
Like you, Jo, I'm a big fan of re-reading, and so, like you, I don't think I'd put a downward limit on reading a book (i.e., a "you must be this old to read"). I mean, I started Tolkien when I was 8 or so--before I really understood anything about anything. (Even the relation of books to movies, which leads to the ridiculous scene of me trying to read along in the book while watching the old animated movie, as if the book were the script.) But that didn't stop me from reading him later and enjoying him. (And then reading him many times over and feeling a little oversaturated to all of it.)

And then, on the other hand, many books that I've been assured are greats I've read far past their recommnded period, so I might put a soft upward limit--a "you must be this young (at heart)." Reading with a 12-year-old mind is a hard task, one that I'm not always too good at.

Which is a long of saying I wish I'd read Salinger's Catcher in the Rye when I was younger.
Brian R
16. Mayhem
I definitely think there is a right "level of worldliness" to read certain books and get the most out of them.

A good example is the Earthsea series. The first three are definitely great books to read as a teenager - simple, thought provoking, and great entertainment.
Tehanu on the other hand ... isn't. Everyone I know who read it as a young adult hated it. Everyone I know who read it first as an older reader liked it a lot.
Jerome Stueart
17. Brandoch Daha
Well, I can claim to have re-read at age ten, a book which was definitely beyond my age. My dad was interested by the Russian novelists, and he had a copy of Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 on his shelf. I likewise found it fascinating - and totally beyond my comprehension, except for various passages which intrigued and fascinated me - like one of the characters encountering a friend of his, and not wanting to talk too long in case she tried to give him a farewell kiss. She was rather strait-laced and he was not impressed with her femininity .... likewise the scenes of the army council, where I can distinctly remember the general who suffered from incontinence, but nothing of what was said.

I've never re-read it again, but on the other hand I've re-read most of his other works. He did deserve that Nobel Prize: A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch was well worth the read.
Jerome Stueart
18. The_Lex
I'm not a re-reader. I think I could enjoy "the Classics" better as a younger reader (especially Romantic essayists). I had a lot more patience and imagination to go through long blocks of meandering text.

The only books I've re-read as an adult and really enjoyed (for different reasons), is Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It's funny. Fellowship of the Rings was my favorite as a younger reader, then I love Two Towers so much more as an adult. Also as a younger reader, I liked the parts with Frodo and Sam more. As an adult, I liked the parts with Aragorn more.
Shelly wb
19. shellywb
I don't think wanting to read a book is a good indicator that you should. I read at least one book far too early, William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. I ordered it at the library when I was 12 because some musician I liked mentioned it. It made no sense to me, shocked the heck out of me, and frankly battered me with images I wasn't ready to process. When I was checking it out, the librarian skeptically asked me "Did I know what this book was about? Was my mother aware that I was reading it?" but I was cocky and blew her off. I always regretted that read. And I never read the book again because of it.
Jerome Stueart
20. Eric Saveau
There were three books that I read when I was seven years old that hit me like a truck and have remained frequently re-read favorites ever since - Heinlein's Have Space Suit, Will Travel, Lester del Rey's The Runaway Robot, and Alexander Key's The Golden Enemy. Books that made me think and punched me right in the heart at the same time. They haven't held up all that well in the intervening decades, especially the first two books, but I still return to them and remember how it first felt to follow these characters through their adventures and see their worlds through their eyes.
Derek Broughton
21. auspex
I don't know. I would never tell a child that a book was too "old" and, while my parents never much pressed me to read, consequently they never once told me I was too young to read any particular book, either. But I pretty well ruined myself for Dickens by reading David Copperfield at 5.

I reread, but I can't bring myself to read more Dickens (even though I read and enjoyed Tale of Two Cities in high school).
Theresa Wymer
22. Tekalynn
I hope one day you're old enough to read ER Eddison, because I would dearly love to read your take on his books.
Jerome Stueart
23. Twila
I was reading all sorts of things when I was a child that I was too young for (including some very risque histories of the New Orleans Storyville district), but I do not feel that this did any damage to my reading habits, or should have. I absorbed what I could understand, and allowed the rest to go over my head. As a result, when my children were growing up, my only restriction on their reading was that they had to be capable of reading and understanding the text (in terms of the word difficulties) and that I should also read the book. (In case of any content concerns, but also because I liked knowing what they were currently reading.) Both of my children turned out to be avid readers/re-readers. While I do censor books for my grandchildren a bit more heavily (I am NOT letting my 11 year old grandson read A Game of Thrones on my watch, particularly not since I found it a bit too grimdark to read for myself...), they are more than free to browse my bookshelves and read whatever they wish to.
Nancy Lebovitz
24. NancyLebovitz
11. DougL

I bet you mean Clavell's King Rat, not Mieville's.

16. Mayhem

I was about 45 when I read Tehanu. I hated it. I could tell LeGuin was trying to write a feminist book, but it still seemed to be saying that being a woman is a lousy deal.

I have stage of life issues with (Trouble on)Triton. I read it when I was about 25, enjoyed the glitz, and was bewildered about why Delany was so hard on Bron. Then I got more interested in people, and can't read the book because Bron is insufferable. I'm hoping that I'll reach a point where Bron will seem like an interesting character study rather than someone I'm spending time with while I'm reading.

Sidetrack: How could anyone have thought that Trouble on Triton was a better title?
Kerry Dustin
26. rocalisa
I'm catching up on my neglected feed reader so I don't know if there's still activity on this post, but as the mother of a voracious reader who is 10 in two weeks, I'd love some suggestions for that list of books you should read with your 12 year old mind so I can give him some ideas.

He's read The Hobbit and started The Lord of the Rings but, having ADHD, is struggling to stick with such a long book and not be distracted by other books. The first 4 Harry Potter books, Doctor Who Target novels, some DWJ (he did a novel study on Eight Days of Luke at school last year which was very different from what the other kids picked). Anything with dragons. He hasn't read as much SF and I'd like to add some to his reading diet.

Any suggestions gratefully received.
Brian R
27. Mayhem
10-12 is a tough age to reccommend as it really depends on how much they read - in my case I'd finished the entire childrens section of my local library and half of the YA by 11 and was well into adult books, if with limited understanding.
Off the topof my head, here are some that got me hooked (more) at that age, and still read well for advanced younger readers, weighted towards boys.

Only You Can Save Mankind ... should get him on Terry Pratchett if he isn't already. Follow ups are Mort or Pyramids, or try the Tiffany Aching books.

Younger weighted :
Douglas Hill - last legionary, Huntsman, and Colsec series
all of the Redwall books by Brian Jacques are superb,
I also quite liked Tamora Pierce - the Allanna books.
Susan Dexter, the Ring of Allaire series.
Lloyd Alexander - the Prydain series
Tove Jannsson - Moomintroll books
Susan Cooper - The Dark is Rising series

And I have to put a shoutout for The Phantom Tollbooth, Norman Juster, which is a delight at any age.

For slightly older :
The Belgariad by David Eddings,
Magician, Raymond E Feistt
Alan Dean Foster - the Flinx series especially, or Icerigger.
Anne McCaffrey - the Harper Hall novels of Pern to start
Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar.
Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman did a lot of entertaining stuff together, particularly the Darksword trilogy and the Rose of the Prophet.
Jane Yolen - Pit Dragon trilogy

For young teenagers I heard good things about RA Salvatore, but I was too old when I started reading him, same with Richard Knaak.
Kerry Dustin
28. rocalisa
Thank you Mayhem @27

That's a good pair of lists. It is a hard age, which is why I was asking for help. He's about at the point of moving between those two lists you've made. Thank you very much for a suggestions. We have several of those saved from my reading childhood, so maybe we'll start with those and expand out.
Jerome Stueart
29. MiriamR
Sherwood Smith's Wren to the Rescue (and sequels) is a book that I absoluted LOVED as an early teen, and have always been disappointed that it was out of print for most of my childhood and teenage years, so that by the time it was reprinted when I was in college and could finally get my friends to read it, they were all too old and couldn't reclaim the uncritcal delight necessary to enjoy it properly. So, Rocalisa, I would definitely recommend that one.

I really like Scott Westerfeld's books. Leviathan etc. are probably just right for right now, and The Risen Empire will be good in a couple of years. (His Uglies series is probably most popular, and . . . eh. It's okay. Intensely readable.)

Hilari Bell has some really good stuff. A lot of her work is fantasy, but A Matter of Profit is sci-fi and in my mind some of her best stuff, and Trickster's Girl/Traitor's Son is also excellent near-future sci-fi.

If he's not already too old, I strongly recommend My Father's Dragon.

I read Jane Yolen's dragons books at about that age, but they're not quite as fast-paced and can have more complex themes so you might want to look them over first.

Mercedes Lackey's series with the dragons in north Africa-ish is long, but fun and fast-paced. The protagonist starts out as a young teen, but I don't remember how quickly he grows up.

Thoughts on really solid children's books/authors, some of which are sff and some aren't:
Edward Eager
Elizabeth Enright
Sylvia Engdahl's Enchantress from the Stars (but the sequel is definitely a wait-a-few-years)
The Green Knowe books
Eva Ibbotson (check that you've got the fantasy ones, rather than the soft romance, which are also fun but in a popcorn chicklit kind of way)
OH OH OH: Patricia C. Wrede Dealing with Dragons - do not pass go, get this one right away. Also the sequels.
The Dragon of Lonely Island
E.L. Konigsburg (strongly recommend From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The View from Saturday, and Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place - I like all of her stuff, but some better re-reading as a grownup)
If he likes Diana Wynne Jones, keep going with that, although wait a few years on the single novels that are over an inch thick.
The Gammage Cup and The Whisper of Glocken
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (and sequels, though some of the later ones are very strange)
Margaret Peterson Haddix
Robin McKinley has one with a 12-yr-old ish boy protagonist: Dragonhaven
I was charmed by If that Breathes Fire, We're Toast! though it's more of a 2nd or 3rd grade reading level.
My cousins are big fans of The Mysterious Benedict Society, which I haven't actually read yet, but seems good.

I could keep coming up with more, but that should hold him for a week or two.
30. hoopmanjh
Not technically genre but I'd also add L.A. Meyer's Bloody Jack series to the list of suggestions. Fast-paced and witty adventure stories about an orphan girl in London ca. 1800 who, in the first book, dresses up like a boy and joins the British navy.
Jerome Stueart
31. umbrarchist
I deliberately searched to see if there was any mention of being too old for a book. It is "impossible" to get that 12-year old mind back. I started reading science fiction at 9. I would be a different person if I had not gotten hooked on SF.

I went to Catholic schools but found the ideas of ahteism and agnosticism in science fiction. I decided I was an agnostic at 12. They say we learn at the edges of what we know. At 21 the edges won't be the same as they were at 9, or 12. Science fiction expanded my edges. A Fall of Moondust probably sent me into college for engineering.

I don't much like PKD either. LOL

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