Bring Back Summer Reading

Remember?  Nestled among cushions on the window seat or lolling in the hammock under the big tree in the back or hidden in the closet for perfect privacy, we relished long summer afternoons of uninterrupted reading time. We were 8 or 9 or 10 when we became serious serial readers—Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Cherry Ames, or in Kentucky, the Little Colonel series. If we were lucky to live near the library or trade with friends, we could avoid the dreaded “end” of a book and move seamlessly to the next one in the series.  Dr. Montessori called this immersion the doorway to total reading.

Of course I am remembering summers before electronics invaded our spaces. There was no Xbox nor iPod, not even TV to distract me when I was so enchanted.  Twenty years later, my son, who did have a TV in his room, became a total reader when he discovered L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series.  At the time there were eight or ten volumes, paperbacks with white covers beautifully illustrated. Elizabeth Gilbert, author most recently of The Signature of All Things, said the Wizard of Oz series changed her life:  “These books taught me to love reading, but more important, they taught me to love adventure and to believe in the heroism of adventurous little girls from small family farms (not unlike my own.)”

As Dr. Seuss would say, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”

I’ve been talking to 9-12 kids this summer about what they’re reading.  One fifth-grade friend said he had been reading Erin Hunter’s Warrior books and was sorry to be almost at the end of them. That wasn’t amazing until I went to the bookstore and found there are about 30 Warrior books organized in five series! While I was browsing, a fourth grader (yes, I’m guessing) called my attention to the new Dork Diaries series. Similar to the graphic Wimpy Kid books, which have been making kids laugh out loud for years, she praised the new series because the main character is a girl—with siblings, which she considered more realistic—and very funny.

I was glad to see many classics still featured on the Young Readers shelves:  Wrinkle in Time  by Madeleine L’Engle,  Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DeCamillo, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by e. l. koningsburg, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, and Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, one of the few authors writing books for this age with African-American characters.  Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars was there along with The Giver quartet.  J.K. Rowling’s beloved Harry Potter books occupied one long shelf.  Rick Riodan’s Percy Jackson series took up another.  Several children were browsing in the popular series section.  The accompanying adults seemed lost in the maze of offerings.

As teachers of children entering this period of total reading, we can point the way to the classics, perhaps reading them aloud or with small groups. In meetings with parents, we can talk about books. We can drop names of our favorite books before taking children to the library. If a movie like “The Book Thief” is based on a good book, we can suggest it. Reading Because of Winn Dixie and Despereaux with students who had already seen the movies provoked rich conversations.  Already knowing the plot, they seemed better able to appreciate the richness of literary description and depth of characters.

Perhaps the best recommendation is one from a peer. This fall I’m planning to designate a special shelf  in the classroom for “Good Reads” and encourage students to supply it with books they enjoyed and would be willing to lend.  I look forward to overhearing them talk more about books and find out what they have been reading this summer.