Friday, August 10, 2007

Summer Reading Lists

I'm a bit late mentioning summer reading lists for students, but if students are the same as I was at their age, they're probably just starting to worry about the required reading about now anyway. I've noticed that both the Barnes & Noble stores that I frequent have separate tables set up to display the reading list contents of the various high schools in the area, and I find it interesting to compare the contents of the displays set up for the different schools. There is some variation even among the schools within the same districts, but the most noticeable differences come when comparing the tables at a district level.

Some lists seem still to be emphasizing the classics and other books that were on the list when I was in high school about 100 years ago. Others have moved toward being dominated by books written in the last two decades. According to The Christian Science Monitor, the inclusion of recent books is becoming more and more common.
"Most teens spend the summer doing whatever, and then cram the reading in during the last two weeks," says 2007 high school graduate Henry Qin of Boston.

Precious summer minutes spent poring over Shakespeare or Nathaniel Hawthorne may seem less than appealing to teens, but some experts say there is a slowly growing trend to infuse more modern literature into summer reading. As a result, the revered literary canon, which includes such classics as "Hamlet," "The Grapes of Wrath," and "The Scarlet Letter," may be due for a shake-up. Glance at high school summer reading lists across the United States and you are likely to find more recent authors such as Alice Sebold, Walter Dean Myers, and even Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong alongside Dickens and the Brontë sisters.

"The natural evolution of these lists is that they expand and include voices that are underrepresented," says American Library Association (ALA) president Loriene Roy. "If you don't include authors like Amy Tan or Virginia Woolfe, what does that mean? A lot of discussions have come up over the last 20 years over what one needs to know. [The question is], 'Who do you bump off?' "
Practical concerns such as budget and time cause administrators to resist including recent young adult literature, or literature geared toward 12- to 18-year-olds, on required lists, says Beth Yoke, executive director of Young Adult Library Services Association, which is the fastest growing division of the ALA. But Ms. Yoke says she sees a trend to include more diverse literature in required reading. "Kids want books that they can identify with," she says. They want to see an African-American character, or a Muslim character, or a strong female character."

Yoke says that it often takes at least a generation for a new young adult book to make required lists.

"If you're doing required reading in schools, you've got to buy a bazillion copies of these books and you have to have developed the lesson plans of all that supplementary material," she says by telephone. "Teachers have been teaching 'To Kill a Mockingbird' forever and a day, and they don't want to have to develop all new materials."
But not all novels take a generation to catapult to required summer reading lists. Some new staples in summer reading lists: "Life of Pi" by Yann Martel, "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini, "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time," by Mark Haddon, "Monster" by Walter Dean Myer, and "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold.

"Ten years ago, these reading lists didn't have new books like that," says Alleen Nilsen, Arizona State University English professor and co-author of the textbook Literature for Today's Young Adult. "These are really popular new books."

So what catapults "Life of Pi" and "The Lovely Bones" to the elusive reading list club? Both are bildungsromans, or stories of young people coming of age. Ms. Nilsen says this theme is crucial for reading list inclusion, as youth need to feel a connection to the literature.
The article includes bits of sample reading lists from high schools around the country and, for the most part, I don't have much of a quarrel with what the school systems have chosen to include. I do find it a little discouraging to see a Dan Brown book on the Old Bridge, New Jersey, list and to find a political book from Barack Obama on the Dallas list. I was also a bit surprised to see Freakonomics on the Dallas list but I can imagine how many lively discussions will grow out of that one, so I think it's a good choice. Take a look at the sample lists at the end of the article and you'll see quite a bit of diversity in the choices made by educators around the country.


  1. Hmm...I'm not thinking that I would include Dan Brown on any required reading list. For fun, maybe not required.

    My 16 yo son has read many of the books listed so I guess we are in good shape. ;)

  2. Sounds like he's off to a head start, Amy. Good for him. :-)

  3. When Pope John Paul II died, my son's quip was that everything he knew about the election process for the papacy, he knew because of Dan Brown...

    It made me laugh.

  4. I don't believe in assigned summer reading lists, because the kids who love to read would be reading anyway, and the kids who don't like to read simply don't read the assigned summer books. They just get essays from the internet or read Sparknotes. Suggested reading for the summer, that's a good idea, because kids who do love to read will get ideas from the list.

  5. Those are good points, Dewey. It must be frustrating for English teachers to read the same old cribbed reports on books over and over again. I wonder what that's done to the grading process.

  6. The kids could care less about whether they're reading classics or newer books; they only care how big the book is. I've even seen them buy a trade paper over a mass market because it's thinner (they haven't quite figured out that it's taller and wider and, therefore, the same size).

    From what I've seen, many schools have some required books and then a list of books they can pick from to fulfill other requirements. In my opinion, they should keep the specific required ones classic titles, and have a mix of classics and new books in the second list. I also think they should have a minimum page total or something. If they have to read 3 books, some kid could read "Tartuffe," "Animal Farm," and "Into the Wild"; another kid could pick "Great Expectations" as one of their 3, and read more in that one book than the other kid in all 3 of their's.

  7. voices that are underrepresented

    It couldn't be because the classics are actually better than some current fiction, could it?

  8. Nah, it couldn't be THAT, could it? :-)

    In today's PC world, you can get stoned for even thinking that kind of thing.