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.

Happy Independence Day!

For Poetry Friday, I decided to include a little Bruce Springsteen.  The Boss grew up in my area and still lives here today, so he is a hometown hero.

Independence Day (Bruce Springsteen)

Well papa go to bed now it’s getting late
Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now
Ill be leaving in the morning from st. marys gate
We wouldn’t change this thing even if we could somehow
`cause the darkness of this house has got the best of us
There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too
But they can’t touch me now and you can’t touch me now
They aint gonna do to me what I watched them do to you

So say goodbye it’s independence day
Its independence day all down the line
Just say goodbye it’s independence day
Its independence day this time

Now I don’t know what it always was with us
We chose the words and yeah we drew the lines
There was just no way this house could hold the two of us
I guess that we were just too much of the same kind

Well say goodbye it’s independence day
All boys must run away come independence day
So say goodbye it’s independence day
All men must make their way come independence day

read the rest here

Have a great holiday!

Brooklyn Bridge by Karen Hesse

Karen Hesse has outdone herself with this one! I love her work, and The Music of Dolphins was one of my favorite read-alouds this year. Her verse novels are wonderful and Out Of The Dust is a Newbery award winner. Lately though, Hesse has been taking a break from writing novels. Her last novel was published in 2003. When I saw that there was a new Karen Hesse novel coming out this fall, I knew I had to read it, just to see what she had been up to. I did not expect the masterpiece that I encountered.

Brooklyn Bridge takes place in New York City at the turn of the century- 1903. Joseph and his family are lucky. They seem to have achieved the American Dream. You see, Joseph’s mom and dad are Russian immigrants. They were doing all right, running their candy store in Brooklyn and being part of the neighborhood. And then they saw the Teddy Roosevelt cartoon in the newspaper. That Teddy Roosevelt cartoon depicted President Roosevelt declining to shoot a baby bear on a hunting trip. Suddenly, Joseph’s life is turned upside down, thanks to his mother’s brilliant idea to make two stuffed bears inspired by the cute cub. Those bears catch on like wildfire and suddenly the family is spending every waking moment

You’d think Joseph would be happy to be entering the upper-middle class, to be achieving the American Dream his parents struggled to attain. Except that now his parents have no time for him. He spends his time watching his little brother, hanging out with his sister (who is pretty cool for a little sister), or being quality control for the burgeoning teddy bear business. It seems like his dream of visiting Coney Island will never come true.

Joseph knows he is lucky. And he is grateful. But he misses his parents. And he hates that the neighborhood kids look at him differently now that his family is making more money than average. I know it sounds like Joseph is a whiner, but his hurt and confusion ring true. I think a lot of kids will identify with his desire to have his parents around. It is all too similar to kids today who live with two working parents. And his desire to fit in with his peers without drawing attention to himself reminds me a lot of some of my students.

Interwoven throughout the chapters are shorter chapter which focus on children very different from Joseph and his family. The bridge children are the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. They live under the Brooklyn Bridge, forging a strange sort of family. They congregate there every night to try sleep and stay out of harm’s way- for some that harm is their families, for others it is the police or City of New York. Some have nowhere else to go, others have run away from horrific situations. These kids watch out for each other, share with one another, and simply try to survive from one day to the next.

For much of the book, it seems like the bridge children are only mentioned as a foil for Joseph and his family. It is not until near the end that the tragic connection between them is revealed. I was swept up in this climax and turning pages at a mad pace, trying to tie together the clues in my head before the answers were revealed. Hesse is a master storyteller

Brooklyn Bridge is another one of those books that defies conventionality. It is clearly a historical fiction novel, but it also includes dashes of magical realism and a pinch of a ghost story. This is one of the reasons I think this books skews toward a slightly older audience, probably 12 and above. The dual stories and genres that are presented might be a bit difficult for a younger reader to grasp.

Hesse also touches on some heavy topics, including a terrible scene where a Cossack brutalizes a young girl in Russia. There are also horrible beatings, violence, and there a few allusions to suicide. While none of these scenes are over the top or even particularly detailed, they are there. This would make a great read aloud for a middle school class and I can even see some high schoolers reaching for this book. It will be great for reluctant readers because the protagonist is older (14) and the story skews to an older audience. And it doesn’t preach! It’s not that heavy-handed historical fiction that kids dread reading. The story flows and the historical aspects are an integral part of the story without jumping out at the reader.

Hesse has really outdone herself with this one. Dare I say I heard the word “Newbery” whispered over and over as I turned the pages? Hmm….I just may have.

Reading Recommendations?

My youngest sister is 9 years old and a voracious reader. She called me today for some recommendations- I gave her a few ideas and she immediately ran out to the library. She ended up with Toys Go Out: Being the Adventures of a Knowledgeable Stingray, a Toughy Little Buffalo, and Someone Called Plastic, Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little, Midnight (Warriors: The New Prophecy, Book 1), and Ivy and Bean and the Ghost That Had to Go (Book 2) (Ivy & Bean). These should appease her for a few days, but I need more ideas!

Admittedly, younger chapter books are not my forte. (I really need to work on that). I am looking for recommendations and your expertise. She reads at a high level, is entering 4th grade, and will give almost anything a shot. Some of her recent favorites include Frindle, the Clementine books, Oggie Cooder #1 (Oggie Cooder), and Lunch Money. Oh, and she read the entire The Spiderwick Chronicles series at the beginning of June. She LOVED them.

I am planning on recommending the Just Grace series next.  But I need more ideas!  I counting on you – do you have any recommendations for great books for 4th graders?

Summer reading?

It’s officially summer now that we have entered July! Even though I feel like I have less time for reading after starting my summer job, I am trying to get in as much as possible. What are you reading right now? What do you plan to read this summer?

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