My second suggestion for adventurous books for boys aged 7-9 is another older choice, The Indian in the Cupboard. Right away, just by the use of the word ‘Indian’ we know that this book will provide many opportunities for discussions about how much has changed with regard to respect for indigenous cultures. Be warned, there are several uses of the derogatory term ‘Injun’. I approached this by first explaining how and why this term was used in the past, then changing the pronunciation to Indian in every future occurrence, while also explaining that we now use the term Native Americans to refer to the first inhabitants of the United States.
In terms of a fantastical coming of age story, this book has it all. The story opens on main character Omri’s birthday. He is given a tatty, old cupboard by his brother and a small plastic Native American figure by his best friend, Patrick. His mother just happens to collect old keys and has one that will fit the cupboard’s lock. This serendipitous detail is crucial to our story.
That night, before going to bed, Omri puts the toy figure into the cupboard and turns the key. As he lays in bed, he hears a curious scratching coming from inside the cupboard. He bravely investigates the noises and discovers that the plastic toy is now a tiny Native American brave – and very much alive! It seems that the combination of the cupboard and the key turns formerly inanimate objects into living, breathing beings.
The brave’s name is Little Bear and he is a member of the Iroquois Nation. He is at first very distrusting of Omri, which is no surprise given that he has suddenly appeared in a strange new world, and is being spoken to by a comparative giant. Over time, Little Bear grows to trust Omri to keep him safe and to provide a comfortable, if not different, life within the confines of his bedroom.
Lessons about trust between friends and the difference in maturity levels among boys of the same age are learned when Omri’s best friend Patrick learns of Little Bear’s existence. Patrick is not nearly as concerned about the safety of the former toy, instead insisting that Omri create a new friend for him, too. He just so happens to have a cowboy figure and begs Omri to put him in the cupboard. Omri resists but when he leaves Patrick alone in his bedroom (noooo!!!), Patrick quickly morphs the cowboy into the rootin’ tootin’ Boone.
Though Omri is rightfully angry about Patrick’s betrayal, there’s no time to dwell on his mistake. When natural enemies Little Bear and Boone learn of each other, there are predictable conflicts and misunderstandings between the two. It is Boone who frequently disparages Little Bear with the aforementioned ‘Injun’ slur, however as is usually the case when you get to know someone different from yourself, they come to a precarious acceptance of each other. Later, when a near fatal injury results from a skirmish between the two, a bond is formed that results in mutual respect.
In the end, both Little Bear and Boone are returned to their respective times and the cupboard is no longer used for its time-traveling, dimension bending powers. Omri and Patrick remain good friends. It’s all sewn up pretty tidy in the end. I will say this: Omri let’s Patrick off the hook pretty easily, considering the trouble he caused, seemingly without much remorse. If your son is anything like mine, he’s in a justice phase and will not feel Patrick truly answered to his actions. Lesson time! This dynamic makes for a great opportunity to talk about how friends sometimes disappoint us and vice versa.
All in all, if you’re willing to put in the effort to explain the history of mistreatment of Native Americans and your son is ready to receive those lessons, this is a book that will keep him captivated from beginning to end.