Summer Reading? Good! Assigned Reading? Bad.

Summer Reading Moxy

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.

Getting started

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.

Transitional Readers

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.

HP Fanatics

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.

The Girls

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.)
The Power of Reading, Second Edition: Insights from the Research
Stephen D. Krashen
Retail Price: $27.00
Paperback: 180 pages
Publisher: Heinemann – (2004-08-19)
ISBN / EAN: 1591581699 / 9781591581697

19 Responses to “Summer Reading? Good! Assigned Reading? Bad.”

  1. Andrea Vaughn Says:

    If only this post was in the Sunday Times. Sigh.

  2. Rita Soltan Says:

    Amen, Lisa. I could barely get through his article yesterday without my blood boiling! His message with all good intentions was ineffective by his obvious misunderstanding of the subject and of children’s literature!

  3. Lyn Miller-Lachmann Says:

    I was shocked at the narrow range of this list, especially since in his other writing Kristof has advocated for young people exploring the world. Where are the international settings and non-U.S. or U.K. authors, or authors who trace their roots to other places in the world?

    On your other point, peer recommendations are useful both for identifying popular, accessible books and for motivating reading because everyone else is doing it. But there is a place for adult-recommended books that go beyond the light and popular. For instance, my daughter would never have picked up Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go had it not been assigned reading–and it’s now one of her all time favorite books. And what about the child or teen who feels out of step with his or her peers, due to personality, interests, abilities, or life experiences? “Special reader” lists are good to have too.

  4. Clay Carmichael Says:

    Thanks, Lisa, for expressing many of my own irritable thoughts.

  5. Tina Says:

    I love your post!

    Maybe another way to chilld out and read for families is to have a daily group reading time. It can be as simple as Mom and Dad taking a section of the paper after lunch or dinner, and inviting their kids to do the same (or bring a book/magazine). Half the fun of reading is getting to talk and share your ideas.

  6. jessica Says:

    Excellent post. I really liked your use of research to back up your points. Krashen’s work is excellent and it’s always great to see it used. The Scholastic report looked so interesting, I’ve downloaded the entire thing to read this afternoon.

  7. Monica Edinger Says:

    What I would like to see is another piece by him focusing on the issue of at-risk-kids and some examples of excellent programs to help them. Book suggestions are all well and good, but the kids who need help do not have parents reading the New York Times much less Kristof’s blog. (My own blog post on this:

  8. adrienne Says:

    Rah, rah, Lisa! I couldn’t agree more.

  9. LisaV Says:

    I stand corrected- Libraries have been producing summer reading programs for over 100 years! Lisa

  10. Mary G Librarian Says:

    Yay!!!!!! I am bookmarking this column to e-mail to my daughter’s fifth grade teacher in the fall when she asks why I did not force my daughter to read from the required summer reading list (with required book report – ugh – way to kill any enjoyment out of reading a book!).

  11. Sharon Says:

    Excellent post! I laughed when I saw his trip down nostalgia lane and then I sighed. The comments section isn’t much better. Many of the entries are much of the same “I lovingly remember…” There are some comments that help but they are lost in the massive line up of classic homework assignment books. Now, if you’ll excuse me I think I need to read a comic book right now to clear my palate.

  12. Jay Fung Says:

    Thanks so much for saying what I was thinking. Emily sent this to me and I was so dismissive of it, I didn’t even tell her that I had read it already.

  13. Kathryn Says:

    Hi – I thought I’d share what parents see when they click the link for our middle school reading list – which is basically “why we don’t have a list”. Our administration and Language Arts chair actually bought into this :-) and I’m sure they catch some flak from some parents who twitch for The List .

    I think I’ve pasted the link above, but just in case:

  14. Janna Morishima Says:

    I had a funny experience last night related to Kristof’s editorial. I hadn’t read it or heard about it at that point.

    I was visiting a friend of mine who has four grandchildren, and as we were about to say good-bye, she suddenly said, “Janna, since you work in children’s books, I didn’t want to forget to tell you about the most wonderful editorial in the New York Times this weekend. It was recommending good summer reading books for children, and I saved it so that I can send them all to my grandchildren.”

    “What books did the writer recommend?” I asked.

    “Hmm, Charlotte’s Web, and The Wind and the Willows, I recall…. And a book called “Lad, the Dog.””

    I was briefly stunned. With all the rich, diverse, compelling children’s books being published this year and in the past few years, these were the books being recommended by the New York Times?

    I felt compelled to act so these four grandchildren wouldn’t be sent a library of books published before the second World War. I started rhapsodizing about what interesting writers are working now, such as Kate di Camillo, Phillip Pullman, Cornelia Funke, Nancy Farmer, Trenton Lee Stewart, Suzanne Collins, etc. etc. My friend was making a list assiduously as I spoke so I feel hopeful that my intervention was successful!

  15. Alicia Conklin Says:

    Thank you, Lisa. I was depressed, not shocked, by the adult-o-centric list of books Kristol (who I love!) presented. Unfortunately, however, I’ve come to expect this sort of thing–most people are woefully out of date on children’s and teen’s reading choices.

    It kills me that high school English teachers still assign the same “classics” that I read back in the 1960s! (Just one example: Orwell was never that great a writer to begin with, and the leftism/Communism he parodied in Animal Story is a dead issue. Even the dystopic future of 1984 is dated–there’s newer, better stuff out there now.) Mostly it’s inertia–they have the books, they have the lesson plans, and the choices certainly aren’t considered controversial any more, so they feel safe.

    And they try to loosen up when they’re doing the summer reading list, but they haven’t read any of the newer books, so they’re clueless. Plus, it’s all about control. What if some of the kids don’t read “serious” books! So the dead books continue to get assigned, along with a few newer ones that middle-aged teachers enjoyed.

    I’m going to make copies of your article and put them in our teachers’ mail boxes, so that maybe, next spring, they’ll take a chance and let the kids contribute to the list. Many thanks!

  16. Babette Says:

    You DID send Kristof a copy of your article, yes? (I love Kristof; I can’t believe he was so off base).

  17. LisaV Says:

    I sent a copy to the Times but not to him personally. (not sure that would be appropriate) The Times did not respond. Thanks for the support. Lisa

  18. Camilla Says:

    Lisa, you are my 21st-century hero! This is just brilliant. I agree completely that reading should be voluntary, not forced, and it kills me to hear that many of my friends’ children HAVE to read for a certain amount of time every day. Way to build reluctant readers! I never had summer reading lists when I was in school, but one of my best memories is when my middle-school librarian got a slew of new books at the end of the year, and let me take home DOZENS of them for the summer to enjoy at my leisure. She, and you, and anyone who encourages children to read just for the fun of it, are why I am in the children’s book business today. Bravo!

  19. Choosing Summer Reading « Bank Street College Center for Children's Literature Says:

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