Summer Reading Rant

Over the last few weeks, I have been fielding a lot of questions from friends and family regarding summer reading. Many a parent has placed a list of 5-6 preselected books in front of me saying, “Which of these should my child read? Which one will be the least painful? Which one will help us actually enjoy our summer instead of making it erupt into a mass of screaming and fighting parents and children?!”

Ok, maybe those aren’t their exact words. But the look of fear in their eyes says more than their words ever can. And that’s a lot of pressure!

Yet, inevitably, the list that I am handed is dated, frought with “classics”, and BORING!

I do the best I can, pointing out books that the student can probably enjoy, but it’s usually a difficult task. Most of these summer reading lists look like they have not been updated in over a decade. And while I am all for kids reading the classics, like The Secret Garden, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer , and Gulliver’s Travels , I am not sure summer reading is the place for them.

Most of the classics require a good deal of scaffolding- the vocabulary is difficult, the situations are usually unfamiliar, and the context of the stories has not always been explained. While these novels can certainly be enjoyed by rising 7th and 8th graders (the lists I usually see them on), without that scaffolding they do not enjoy or even necessarily understand the books! All too often I see students reading the “Great Illustrated Classics” edition of the story, slamming the book shut at the end, and calling it a day. That’s it! They consider themselves well-read and some will even make it to college telling those around them that they have “read all the classics”. Yes, the abridged, illustrated versions! Are we really doing them any service at all by requiring these books as summer reading when students will not get the support that need and might even be turned off to these books for the rest of their lives?

And if the lists don’t consist of 5 classics, they are made up of middle grade or YA novels published 10, 20, 30, maybe even 50 years ago. And the choices are few- maybe 4 books of which the students must choose two. And worst of all, they all seem the same to me! There is no diversity, the books are not high-interest, and heaven forbid we include ANY YA or newer middle grade novels. Not to say that the books on these lists are bad- in fact, it is just the opposite. It seems like someone, somewhere along the line, grabbed a list of award-winning books, looked for a few that were age-appropriate, and then put them on the summer reading list. The problem is that that list hasn’t been updated since then! Most of these books have great literary merit but they don’t always “fit” the reader. In fact, when you only offer 5 books, very few of those will fit the majority of your readers! The problem with only allowing students to choose from older award-winners is that they see these awards as old and stale, not at all relevant to their lives. They don’t even realize that books written this year will be up for the 2009 Newbery or Printz award. In fact, I would venture to guess most students don’t realize those awards are still given out today!

Summer is the time for students to expand their reading horizons. They should be reading all those books they didn’t get to read during school because of their homework, sports, and activities schedules. When we force them to read what we deem to be worthy literature, we all to often force them to hate the books, and by association, hate reading.

This is my plea to administrators, teachers, media specialists, and parents- revamp your summer reading lists! The best decision would be to do away with specific required books while letting students choose their own reading material during the summer. But if this is not a reasonable request, then I beg of you-update those stale summer reading lists! Put together a committee of well-read teachers, students, administrators, and parents. Have them come up with the list. And no list should be stagnant. It should be alive, and it should be allowed to change as the years go by.

Even better? Make up a suggested summer reading list and include the reasons why each particular book was placed on the list. Or just have each teacher from the next grade choose a book and write a quick paragraph explaining why they are recommending that book. This allows rising students to become familiar with each teacher’s personality through their choice of book(s). This will also ensure a varied list. I would be willing to bet you would see classics right alongside newer books, award winners next to beach reads. And the students would see that each teacher values reading in a different way, just like them! Some teachers would recommend fiction, others non-fiction. You would see a variety of genres. And a list like this could easily be updated each year!

Summer reading should not be a time of torture, arguing, and cheating (I’m talking to you, movie-watchers and Sparknotes-readers!). Summer reading should be fun and enjoyable. It should allow students to try new books, read the latest in their favorite series, or try out those great classics. Without any pressure. It shouldn’t be miserable. I firmly believe that miserable summer reading experiences are just one of the reasons we are raising a generation of bookhaters instead of booklovers.

For some of my favorites (and some that I recommended to my classes at the end of the year), check out my Amazon store here.

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27 Responses

  1. I agree 100% with everything that you’ve said here. If even one administrator or teacher reads this post, and acts on your recommendations, you’ll have made a meaningful difference in the lives of kids. Here’s hoping!!

  2. P.S. You inspired me to write about this, too, though mostly to send people your way.

  3. A 6th grader had #1 Ladies Detective Agency on her list. A co worker and I got a good laugh at that. Maybe her grandmother can read it next. I enjoy this series just not for sixth graders. The girl went with something else
    On the Up Side a few authors I’ve seen on summer reading list
    Jay Asher Sarah Dessen
    Gilda Joyce E. Lockhart
    Lauren Myracle Jennifer Allison
    Roland Smith A.M. Jenkins
    John Green Nancy Werlin

  4. In cleaning my files today, I found some old lists from grade school. back in 1967, my elementary school gave parents a booklet with titles I still see on lists. Who reads Born Free by Joy Adamson for “science and nature” reading these days?

    I happened to read your post just after reading the lists and decided t write about it.

  5. Thanks, Jen!

    Terry, I happen to love “Born Free”. ;) Then again, I would never push that on all of my students. Do I have a student or two that I think would fit the book? Maybe. Should it be on a mandatory list? Heck no!

  6. Doret-

    Don’t you wonder who put those books on the list? #1 Ladies Detective Agency for 6th grade?!

    Thanks for the list of authors you have been seeing. That definitely makes me feel better!

  7. At my previous job as a HS librarian (which I quit a month ago), I was excited about having a conversation with the head of English curriculum to discuss additions to the summer reading lists. Imagine my horror when she told me that the books I was suggesting were “too edgy and dark” that “the students’ needed to read something they could relate to” and that a “classic marker of a YA novel is a happy ending.” All I could think was that she had been out of the classroom way too long and had no idea what teens (and good YA novels) are like today…

  8. I came here via Jen’s post! I’m very much of a fan of free choice reading during the summer, but as a public librarian I do see a lot of school summer reading lists. The great thing is, the lists from our local schools don’t fall prey to the pitfalls you mention! For example, our middle school’s reading list (suggestions, not requirements, so far as I know) includes The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, You’re a Brave Man, Julius Zimmerman, The Battle of the Labyrinth, Heat, The Calder Game, The 7 Professors of the Far North, Penny from Heaven, The Dangerous Book for Boys, and The Daring Book for Girls. My only objection is that half those aren’t available in paperback yet. Thank goodness for interlibrary loan!

  9. Your post was incredible — very timely for me both personally (as a mom) and professionally. Thanks so much for your thoughtful, and very wise, words!

    We should all be fortunate enough to work in a district like the one that accesses Lisa’s library!!

  10. Also here via Jen. What a brilliant and important post. I honestly think you should send a copy of this post to every school in the country.

  11. Great piece! My personal experience as an 8th grade teacher is that my fellow teachers read very little themselves. It is difficult to create an updated summer reading list when the last book you read yourself was MOBY DICK. It’s a shame.

    My middle school encourages summer reading for grades 5-8 by opening a classroom (mine – I have over 2000 books) once a week. Students can sign out books and also after reading them, they can take the online tests our school uses to get a jump on the next year’s reading requirements. We have found that kids who like to read come as well as kids who struggle during the school year. The summer gives them a more relaxed environment to read. We do not have any requirements. The choice is theirs!

  12. I love this article. I couldn’t agree more with what you said. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard parents gush over how much their children are enjoying the “classics” (of course, the abridged versions). Not that this is bad, but considering the plethora of exciting, high-concept, literary, age-appropriate, intriguing novels at our local bookstore…well, it just baffles me.
    Thanks again. Good stuff.

  13. To play a bit of Devil’s Advocate, and only because the summer reading lists I’ve experienced this year is for the most part contemporary, I’ve experienced a pretty solid amount of complaints that students are assigned Stephanie Meyers, American Born Chinese, etc. as assigned reading. Granted, with my end as a bookseller there’s nothing I can do about it, but I always suggest to these parents that they should speak with the teachers, administration, etc. (Particularly since as a lowly bookseller I can’t do much about it myself!)

    But ultimately I am in complete agreement with you. I have overheard so many bitter conversations expressing loath towards The Great Gatsby, Candide and The Grapes of Wrath that I know these books are receiving a great injustice. Then again, I can’t blame the kids. I definitely think free choice reading (with the tagged on assignment of journaling about the book/experience perhaps) is a much better option that might actually get kids interested in reading.

  14. As a novelist, I’m glad to hear of people like you who are promoting reading AND writing. I had a teacher in high school who said to us ever single day, “You have to read kids!” He was a voracious reader and influenced my own career path. Thank you and good luck from us here at http://www.bentpage.wordpress.com.

  15. […] Posts Summer Reading RantBreaking Dawn- Stephenie MeyerReading Recommendations?About MeGood Morning America Book […]

  16. Great article!! I couldn’t agree more!!

  17. […] inclusion (or lack thereof) of YA books on summer reading lists has set off quite a few people.  I’d like to give an example of a pretty good summer reading list that I got to help […]

  18. http://www.debrennersmith.com

    My nieces and nephews call or email their mandated reading lists (all year round, not just summer) and ask me to book bless them. They need the discussion to decide which book to read. My own children are so used to the book talks, it is interesting hearing the discussions between the cousins. My children can summarize and retell a book easily without giving away the ending. The cousins are learning. The interactions are awesome. Great discussion you started!

  19. I am an avid reader of everything; YA, IR, and adult fic/lit. The only complaint I have these days, is so many of the female authors write “sex and the city” type books for young females. Really? Is this what they would want their daughters reading? Is this the only thing they think young adults are reading or want to read? Can they not be a better role model? How ’bout a little more substance. I would skip Lockhart and Myracle from the list of authors printed above. I preview or preread almost everything my children read and I’m glad to say they make mostly good literature choices.

  20. I am an elementary school teacher and I just want to say thanks for writing what the rest of us have been thinking for so long! I stood up and cheered when you recommended getting rid of the summer reading lists! What ever happened to the time when you would go to the library and poke around until you found a few books that peaked your interest? Perhaps we went to the library so often as children because it was the only air conditioned place, but some of my fondest memories were of going up and down the bookshelves deciding which books to choose! I am totally committed to getting kids reading over the summer, but let them choose! We tell them what to read all year long. It is summertime… time to enjoy yourself! Show them that reading is fun and enjoyable….. let them pick what they would like to read!

  21. […] The Reading Zone is talking about book lists. Get over there, quickly! […]

  22. […] YES YES YES! These are the classics middle schoolers should be reading. Take note summer reading list […]

  23. […] assigned summer reading that was such a buzz on blogs earlier this summer (see summer reading rant, The Reading Zone, Jen Robinson’s Book Page, and  the Reading Tub […]

  24. […] public links >> readinglists Summer Reading Rant Saved by SweetJanie on Fri 10-10-2008 Summer Reading Lists Available on Library Website Saved by […]

  25. […] when I read Jennifer Armstrong’s In Praise of Lists over at I.N.K., and then I read the Summer Reading Rant at the Reading Zone, I had a nice laugh as I started wandering down memory […]

  26. […] Reading: Take 4 Over at The Reading Zone, Sarah wrote a Summer Reading Rant about how summer reading lists are often filled with outdated titles. These lists send shivers down […]

  27. Thanks for a great article. I use Nancy Atwell’s approach and let my middle school kids browse from our collection and take home up to ten books of their choice. They sometimes have to negotiate who gets to borrow what book; it’s great fun to see. Last year, by the way, every single book came back in September. The first week of school, we “Book Talk” our favorites. I ran into one of my students yesterday and she said she was almost finished reading hers. Awesome.

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