Summer Reading

The other day, browsing around a wonderful blog about reading and books, I ran across a discussion about what makes a person well read.  There was mention of summer reading lists, the kind schools assign kids who are in academic English literature classes.  The writer said that parents had complained about the assigned reading, and the discussion went on to wonder how it could be possible that parents would not want their children to read during the summer. 

I started to write a long response, but thought better of it.  I’ll just respond here. 

I may be in the minority, but I can see a reason to complain about summer reading lists.  It’s not that children don’t or can’t or shouldn’t read during the summer.  If a child is in a family that values reading (and surely any child who’s in honors English must at some level be a reader from a family that values reading), then that child will read in the summer. 

Part of learning to read for pleasure is being allowed to roam throughout the stacks of your neighborhood library, pulling books out at random, deciding for yourself what you like and what you don’t.  How to lead children gently toward what they might indeed love is tricky.  The summer reading list is one way to do that, but gentle it is not. And in putting a book on such a list, you run the risk that a child will assume it is not very good, just as they do with any other thing an adult gives them and says this is good for you. 

I wish childhood could go more slowly and that great books weren’t thrust at our children like broccoli, but that they had time and space to wander in places where the books are there for them to read, when they are ready to read them and adults wait to be asked, are there more like this?, before they tell a child what to read. 

As the former English major mother of three reading children, it is hard to see them read comic books for pleasure and ignore the books I leave suggestively on their bookshelves.  But then I’ll look up and see that somebody’s decided to read Philip Pullman after all and someone else is deep into a biography of Martin Luther King and the third boy is enacting a complicated dynastic struggle on the living room floor, kind of like the Brontes might have done.  Yes, he is using an Archie comic and The Great Brain as tents for some of his soldiers, but it’s okay for books to serve more than one purpose, on occasion. 

A love of stories is what makes people life-long readers.  Pleasure, physical pleasure in the way books smell, in the way you read in bed with a book under the covers, is part of that too.  So is a feeling that books can surprise you and take you places and that you own them because you chose them, even if you have to return them to the library:  that’s what makes children life long readers. 


20 thoughts on “Summer Reading

  1. That is a wonderful response to the reading list problem. It would be ideal if everyone would forward it to all the schools in their areas. I assume it is OK if I do that.

  2. I am ultra-keen for my baby to be a reader, and I am concerned that I will push him too far. I think I could have a tendency to thrust books on him like broccoli. I am going to take your advice and lead him to books but not be prescriptive.

    Today we took him to the library and he was beside himself he was so happy – sitting on the floor and banging together two plastic cars. The books I read to him got the full-force Disgusted Look. Oh well…

  3. I’ve never come across this idea before. The whole concept of a list of books you MUST read during the summer holidays fills me with horror. What other surefire way is there of putting children off reading for life than giving them a list of books they MUST read. The children I have closest contact with would in all likelihood have read all the books on such a list long before, as they are all very advanced readers. Because they want to be.

  4. Your blog is delightful. Thank you. I remember summer reading lists and they were something to be complained about, but not missed. The most memorable being the summer of mythology, Greek and Roman and how fun the names were and humanly devious the gods.
    My mother’s advice was to always travel with a book and you will never lack good company. It is still true today. I travel with a car book for “jic” – just in case I’m parked in traffic or waiting for someone.
    Life lives in the conversation. Appreciate witnessing your vibrant life.

  5. Hello. Thanks for the nice words and for dropping by my blog! Not having any children myself (only a seven year old niece who has just learned to read and seems to enjoy it), when I heard the story of the parent who didn’t want their son/daughter to read books from the list, to be honest I was sort of aghast. Of course this from someone who is an adult and loves to read all the time–not a parent! I can definitely see your point when you say you think it is better to let a child read for pleasure! I was left to choose what I wanted to read, and it worked out well for me. As I was paraphrasing what the teacher had said–I may not have given all the details. The class was a high school class for seniors and/or juniors. I can’t say exactly that the students were meant to read all the books on the list–or even how many books were on the list–over the summer, but I think it was suggested that were to familiarize themselves with the books and read some of them. It is certainly a tricky question–you don’t want to cram books down the student’s throat and risk them hating reading, but you want to guide them to books they’ll like so that they will want to read more. When I was in school there was no reading lists over the summer, so I am not sure how I would have felt about it then. Anyway–it is certainly an interesting topic!

  6. Danielle, you’ve given me an idea (thanks to that enticing description of the box of books you just received from England). If somebody had sent my childhood self a box of books (especially if they were Nancy’s summer reading consisting of books about myths!) all wrapped up beautifully (and maybe even from an independent bookstore), I’d have been hooked in a moment. Now, of course, that’s not going to happen, not in my family anyway. (I didn’t actually own a book until college.). Still, it reminds me that getting people to read is a little bit of a seduction — nice covers, good wrapping, that sort of thing. In the public library, there’s something about the easy access you have to books that can be the hook. Thanks for your thoughts about this. Both of my older boys have summer reading lists and I’ve got to think about how to approach them! This helps.

  7. I am not surprised at the comment made by that mother about summer reading. I read somewhere that the U.S. publishes more books than any other country in the world but I would hazard a guess that it does not equate to a public that read regularly or even reads at all. The competition offered by TV is seductive. Why engage your brain actively when you can just sit back and passively absorb hours of time wasting programming.

    While I agree that children should not be force-fed books there has to be some sort of a trigger. In my case, there were several bookshelves around the house filled with all sorts of books from the classics to the “trash” as my father called it. Everybody in my family read but I was not forced into it. During summer I would read at the rate of one book a day but after moving to the U.S. it has slowed subtantially even though I buy more books than I can possibly read.

  8. SF Gary, That reminds me — one trigger is the absence of other things to do! There’s nothing like a really boring day at home, one where all the screens are off and all your friends are out of town, to make a book look like a good thing to do. (Add: a long car ride, summer nights when there’s a lot of light and you can’t get to sleep.) Those are the things that get kids reaching for something to read and before you know it, they’re preferring to read. Sometimes, anyway.

  9. BL– Here’s a question. It sounds like you are addressing the question of reading good writing–literature, in general. In most ways I wish I had had that guidance, but I actually didn’t read a “recommended” or ” required”book of fiction until my mother made me read a book when I started high school, The Robe, followed by Nevil Shute’s, Round the Bend, and two more of his prepositional phrase titles (speaking of your treatise on titles). But, in junior high school, I found the library during study periods and the shelf of adventure books about Daniel Boone types of guys. There were also books about heroic quarterbacks on high school football teams. I still remember a most catchy title, “First and Ten.” Heros of all sorts were fascinating. (All the Zidane types were on the losing teams. Funny how that happens.)

    Nevertheless, I was wondering if a topic of extreme passion counts on your reading scale for young people even if it isn’t literature. If someone becomes interested in how computers, cars, or galaxies work and reads every book and magazine he or she can find, does that satisfy whatever criteria you might have for doing something better than watching TV–reading rather than watching.
    In some ways I’m guessing it does, but I’m also guessing you have at least a slight preference for the liberal arts side of reading, given your writing and reading passions mentioned here, which I dearly admire. Ideally, it would be nice if everyone could grow up with a balanced education of arts and science, at least to some level, as a result of both school and self (or mom)-directed reading, but, in fact, each person does develop a passion for at least one topic (hopefully) and drops to a low interest in most others.
    You can probably tell that I am lobbying for some reading lists to include, if not actual books on chemistry, biology, astrophysics and neuroscience (for ages 6-18 and 25-95), then biographies of some heroic and ground-breaking scientists. Maybe they already do. As I let on, I’ve never seen a reading list.
    Onward, and thanks for another stimulating topic to mull over.

  10. I love that “thrusting books at them like broccoli” – it makes books sound so worthy, which they are, but they should also be appealing. I loved browsing my parents’ bookshelves freely as a child, selecting and tasting. Apparently I read Jude the Obscure at nine. I’m sure I didn’t understand a word, but it was that freedom to choose that has helped me love books. Now I read a smorgasbord. I read to my children daily, though none yet are readers, and I hope that they will grow up to love books not as broccoli, but as some other kind of soul food.
    Thanks again, bloglily, for a stimulating post. Charlotte

  11. I remember that when I was due to start the fourth form (year ten), I read and enjoyed Wilkie Collins’ “The Woman in White” during the holidays. What a thrill it was when that appeared on our list of prescribed reading, and I’d already finished it. What a thrill also, to have been able to just enjoy it rather than having to discuss and disect it as I read.

  12. I wanted to chime in a little with Smokey… I remember reading Paul de Kruif’s The Microbe Hunters as a boy. It made science exciting! Later as a teenager, I remember a doctor in the small town where I went to school gave me The Ghost in the Machine by Arthur Koestler to read. Besides being flattered, this book on man’s nature and the biology of the brain again made the scientific enterprise meaningful. But then, summer reading, it’s probably not. I may have been reading all this stuff because the books were available, and we didn’t have TV.

  13. My son loves being read to, and so most of his reading we do together at bedtime. He is particularly happy if I get as hooked on a book as he is, not least because it extends his hours awake. But when I look back we have got through the most enormous pile of books, and it means I can read books that I think will interest him through their ideas, that are perhaps a little advanced for his reading age. He always takes over the reading when we reach poignant moments and I can’t keep going for the tears in my throat. Very useful.

  14. Smokey and Fencer, I think all of us fiction readers sometimes forget there are other wonderful subject and books, including science and math. Thank you for the recommendations — and the encouragement to look beyond the fiction section of the library on the road to becoming a well-read person.

    Charlotte & Litlove — Of course! Reading to your children is a wonderful way to inroduce them to a wider range of books — it’s also a fun way to re-experience things you liked as a child. There’s something about having your parent in your room at night as you’re going to sleep that’s incomparable.

    RealRuth, What a nice experience, to run across Wilkie Collins like that, and to enjoy it the way you did.

  15. Such a great post, bloglily. I remember watching my parents read books ‘without pictures’ and wanting to learn to read so badly I ended up teaching myself! And when my mom insisted on only reading a chapter to me a night, that was further encouragement to gain control of my own reading habits. I ALSO remember turning 12, which seemed like a magical age to me because it meant I no longer had the ‘children’s’ book limit at the library and could check out AS MANY BOOKS AS I WANTED. I truly believe I was born a reader – after all, my brother grew up in the same household and isnt’ as passionate about reading as I am, although he does read some. But I always rebelled from my summer reading lists and NEVER completed them and I think part of the reason was because I simply didn’t understand the texts enough without instruction. The Heart of Darkness was difficult enough in graduate school, and yet I remember having to read it the summer before my junior year of high school. I HATED it, and simply stopped. Actually, reading lists inspired great fights in our household – my dad the english teacher totally humiliated by the fact that his daughter, and one who loved books and writing, simply would not read Civil Disobedience on her own.
    I agree completely with you – I became a reader, and next a writer, first because I loved stories. My ability to devour, as a child, good stories, has helped me now become a good reader, one willing to try new books and old books and all the books in between. But for me it was always story first, language second. And to some extent, I still am that way!
    Thought-provoking post. Lots to think about!

  16. My summer “reading list,” which means whatever I beg, borrow, steal or find hiding on my bookshelf.

    God’s Debris by Scott Adams
    The Religion War by Scott Adams
    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
    The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson
    The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
    The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene
    The Prince by Nicolo Machiavelli
    All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
    Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson

    That’s it so far. Some rereads but a good book has to be reread.

  17. Courtney — It’s not always easy to figure out how to be a parent — sometimes you forget what it was like to be a child, and sometimes you forget your child isn’t just a younger version of you. It’s a bit of a muddle. I liked hearing about what made you into a reader. I’m just back from the library with my youngest, bearing Susan Cooper books (I’ve got to cancel my Amazon order; I’d forgotten they’d be right there waiting for me.) Now, I’m going to scatter them around like seeds and wait…..

    Dr. G. — What great reading! I just got a Hitchhiker’s Guide from the library today. It’s stacked up behind Alan Furst’s Foreign Correspondent and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. But I read the first chapter anyway, and I can tell it is going to be quite a ride.

    Happy reading all!

  18. Yes I did! I think for Harper Lee reading is a physical pleasure and a necessity. That’s true of a lot of readers. I was happy that Lee came out of her long silence to say just that to an audience of people for whom reading may not always seem urgent and sometimes might seem a little intimidating.

  19. It’s A Reading Thing:Help Your Child Understand was highlighted in a July 16, 2006 WASHINGTON TIMES article, p. A-7. See article
    “Educator Wants Parents To Lead The Way on Reading”. Share it with

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