Okay, so my husband seems to think that I am overreacting but… Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times on Sunday that he is shocked to learn that children lose reading skills over the summer. His solution is to suggest some hoary old favorites and invite readers to go to his blog and provide their own suggestions.
Oh, and then he warns those who suggest comics that he will report them to their school librarian.
Yikes! (For the record, I am a school librarian and I am for comic books).
Libraries have been on the forefront of summer reading for over twenty years. Children’s and Young Adult librarians have been killing themselves every summer to provide rich literary experiences, yet Kristof doesn’t feel the need to consult those experts.
It should be obvious to any adult that children who read over the summer will maintain their literacy skills, perhaps even improve their comprehension and vocabulary. And, yes, that is exactly what all those studies and hours of testing have shown. Reading during the summer break is good; not reading during the summer break is bad. So what’s the problem? Why are so many families filled with dread when that summer reading assignment arrives home in at the end of the school year?
The key word is “assigned.” Many of those summer reading lists are too short and stocked with just the kind of hoary classics Kristof recommends. Reading is personal. My interests are not the same as my husband’s or my neighbor’s or the librarian at the school down the street. I am longing to get back to The Starry Rift: Tales of New Tomorrows, a collection of original science fiction short stories edited by Jonathan Strahan. I can state with certainty that my husband wouldn’t read it even if it were the last piece of print matter in the house.
Free Voluntary Reading is the Answer
Free – “Free,” means I pick my own reading material: magazines like Sports Illustrated, Garfield comics, adventure stories like Silverfin: Young James Bond and Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City:…
Voluntary – Well, how is it “voluntary” if someone is standing over me saying I can’t do what I want until I finish slogging through my daily page allotment? Children are more likely to choose reading as an activity when it isn’t forced upon them. I can hear you already, “If I don’t force her to read, she won’t get it done (making me a bad parent)”. So be a good parent; make time during the day to read. Don’t be so busy yourself. Model reading by curling up with a good book. Plan weekly trips to the public library and visit bookstores for author events. Parents can give the kids a set amount of money to buy a few books and just let it go when their child chooses the Day My Butt Went Psycho. If you really want to understand what your kids are going through grab a copy of Summer Reading is Killing Me or Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little.
Reading – “Reading” is not defined by just reading books but also magazines and zines, graphic novels and comics and listening to audio books. And, don’t forget non-fiction; our kids are in love with Nic Bishop, naturalist photographer and writer. Nic Bishop’s Frogs is a showstopper.
According to the 2008 Kids and Family Reading Report, sponsored by Scholastic, “Among children age 9-17, ‘having trouble finding books that I like’ is among the top reasons for not reading more books for fun.” Peer recommendations are a great way of helping kids find more of the kind of books that they like.
First things first, get the kids involved. At the Bank Street College School for Children, our summer reading list contains hundreds of titles that are peer recommendations.
That’s right, it includes books that kids have picked. Let go of expectations. There is no such thing as too easy. There are eleven-year-olds who are still looking forward to the further adventures of Jack and Annie in the Magic Tree House, (Number 39!) Dark Day in the Deep Sea.
As we collect recommendations from our students, a pattern emerges. Series books are the number one picks, followed by favorite authors. Why series books? Predictability; half the hard work has already been done. We know the characters, the plot is usually similar, so it’s all the enjoyment with half the work.
Here are just a few of the series and authors that our kids enthusiastically recommend.
Early Chapter Books, First and Second Grade
The hands-down first pick for the early chapter book is Cynthia Rylant with the Mr. Putter and Tabby and Henry and Mudge series. Recommenders cite interesting characters, interesting story and that they are easy to read.
Bridging from those early chapter books are transitional readers, if your kids love the Magic Tree House they might enjoy A-Z Mysteries, if they have finished all of Louis Sachar’s Wayside School, they will be overjoyed to discover Dan Gutman’s My Weird School. For kids who enjoy real stories like Clementine, they will be pleased to get aquainted with the best friends in Ivy and Bean. Kids who were enjoying the supernatural adventures of The Zack Files will be enthralled by the Secrets of the Dripping Fang by the same author Dan Greenburg.
For proficient readers on their sixth re-reading of the Harry Potter series (which, by the way, is not a bad thing), there are a few other fantasy series to dip into:
- The fully realized world completely different from our own in The Edge Chronicles.
- The adventures of a boy half-Greek god and half-human beginning in the Lightning Thief.
- A spirited quest tale that begins with the mystery of a the magical seventh son of the seventh son in Magyk.
- Anything by story teller Eva Ibbotson whose work is most reminiscent of Roald Dahl at his snarkiest.
Not to segregate, but there is a genre known as “girl books.”
- For the Baby Mouse crowd, our girls recommend the Doll People by Ann Martin and Caldecott award winner Brian Selznick.
- Gail Carson Levine’s fairytale retelling fans, who were passionate about Ella Enchanted, might want to try E.D. Baker’s Tales of the Frog Princess, now available in a boxed set.
- My favorite new book for this age group is Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdoch. Benevolence (nicknamed Ben) is a reluctant princess who has been placed in the care of her cold and heartless aunt after her parents have been cruelly murdered. This is the perfect novel for those who adored the Princess Academy.
Listen Up, Mr. Kristof!
Some fun facts from Power of Reading: Insights from the Research, by Stephen D. Krashen, professor emeritus University of Southern California:
- Children read more when they see other people reading. Adults need to be models by reading for pleasure themselves.
- The longer free voluntary reading is practiced, the more consistent and positive the results.
- Reading as a leisure activity is the best predictor of comprehension, vocabulary and reading speed.
- People who read more, write better.
- If children read one million words a year, at least one thousand words will be added to their vocabulary. (One study found this could easily be accomplished by letting children and teens read any format reading material they wanted, including comic books and teen romances.)