Detail from the cover of Summer Reading Is Killing Me! by Jon Scieszka
See John Kelly's summer reading picks for first grade through middle school.
Also for Grades 4-6: Find Where the Wind Goes: Moments From My Life, by Dr. Mae Jemison. An inspiring and accessible autobiography by the first woman of color in space, who knew as a youngster that she wanted to be an astronaut and was determined not to let any obstacle stand in her way. (Excerpt unavailable)
I think of it as the summer of Tom Brokaw. He hung around our house like an uninvited guest.
His World War II book, The Greatest Generation, had been assigned to rising seventh graders at my daughter's middle school. It seemed that wherever I looked that summer, there was Tom: on our bookshelf, on the dining room table, on the floor of Gwyneth's room.
Everywhere, it seemed, but in Gwyneth's hands. As June turned to July, I could predict — with the unique clairvoyance that comes from being a parent — that the book would be tackled in a desperate, last-minute, tear-stained frenzy.
And so it was. Gwyneth hated that book.
She hated it just like kids through the ages have loathed Johnny Tremain, Where the Red Fern Grows, All Quiet on the Western Front, and all those other earnest, dull and occasionally disturbing books that populate summer reading lists.
As one preteen girl from my Sunday school class said when I brought up the subject, "The problem with summer reading lists is I never like any of the books you have to read."
Uh, yes, that would be a problem.
And it's a problem that we grown-ups don't have to deal with. When the weather gets hot and the beach beckons, we trade in our nutritious, fiber-filled reading for a diet of delicious junk: gruesome mysteries, trashy romance novels, tell-all autobiographies.
Meanwhile our kids are on a forced march through books in which a dog dies and a child learns a painful lesson, or a parent dies and a child learns a painful lesson, or a child dies and ANOTHER child learns a painful lesson.
I exaggerate, of course. And asking kids whether they like being forced to read a particular book during summer vacation is sort of like asking them if they enjoy having their braces tightened. Not many say yes.
Not every school has a single book an entire class must read before the fall. Some have a list of authorized books from which students must pick a requisite number. Then there's the looser conglomeration of titles recommended by librarians for summer reading clubs.
Just as some books are better than others, some of these lists are better than others. Kids, though, are quick to detect the telltale tang of dust and embalming fluid: too many official classics.
That's a shame, says Sharron L. McElmeel, a literacy consultant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
"There are no 100 books that every child must read before they grow up," she says. "They need to read 100 books before they grow up — and many, many more — but there is no list."
And the kids most likely to read don't need any lists. Readers read.
"The trick is to entice the rest of the school population," says Vicki Velsey, who recently retired after 29 years as a school librarian in Washington, D.C.
Velsey compiled her summer book lists by asking clued-in kids what they had enjoyed recently and what they were looking forward to that summer. The goal of summer reading, she says, is to help limit "summer learning loss," the term for the drop in skills that occurs when school is out.
Proponents also point to another reason that specific, mandatory books are a good idea: A summer book is a way to engender solidarity among students, to create a shared experience. Too often the media that kids talk about — deconstruct, analyze, argue over — aren't books, but TV shows, movies or video games. A required book is one way to focus the spotlight on something more positive, more — dare we say it? — educational.
"You've got a frame of reference that's universal within that classroom," says Judy Fickes Shapiro, a children’s author and bookstore owner in Ventura, Calif. "When you're creating community in the classroom, you've got to start with something common."
There's no doubt kids should read over the summer, and even as many schools tweak their lists to make them less ponderous, some version of the dreaded required book will probably always be with us.
So what can you do to help your foot-dragging child through his or her required books? You can take turns reading them aloud, or find copies on cassette tape or CD to listen to in the car. You can rent the movie versions to make the narrative accessible. And of course, encourage your kids to pick out their own books to serve as palate-cleansers between required courses.
I make no claims or guarantees about the summer reading I assembled here, other than to say I asked librarians and teachers for titles you'd probably never see on a mandatory reading list. Give me books that are just fun to read, I said, painful lesson not required.
Oh, except for Gwyneth. She'll be reading The Odyssey this summer. Fortunately, she still has the whole summer ahead of her. Plenty of time.
John Kelly is a columnist at The Washington Post and was the founding editor of KidsPost, a daily news page for the 8- to 12-year-old set.