Summer reading 2007

Summer reading lists are dropping those fusty classics, such as The Grapes of Wrath, writes the Christian Science Monitor.

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 Monitor prints reading lists from varous parts of the country. No Dickens at all. One list has a second-string book by DaVinci Code author Dan Brown; another features Barack Obama’s pre-campaign biography, Audacity of Hope .

Books featuring teen-agers are popular.

“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. (English Professor Aileen) Nilsen says this theme is crucial for reading list inclusion, as youth need to feel a connection to the literature.

Actually, The Lovely Bones is a coming-of-death book narrated by a ghostly victim of a serial rapist-killer. I wouldn’t recommend it to young readers — or to parents. Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, another reading list favorite, is an excellent book but includes homosexual rape. These aren’t beach books.

Update: Teachers are assigning too many hard-to-read classics, argues teacher Patrick Welsh in USA Today.

About Joanne


  1. So many of the classics are also “comming of age” books. How about Huck Finn? Doesn’t that qualify as such? They’re simply looking for books that will be easier to consume i.e. less challenging.

  2. In my opinion, this reflects the decline in reading skills documented in the recent NAEP report. One can debate which is the chicken, which the egg, but when there’s a wholesale shift from Dickens to ghostwriters and supermarket paperbacks, low expectations on the part of the schools are involved. In my opinion, the schools are ratcheting down achievement.

  3. When did we as a society decide that being ignorant and stupid was a virtue? When did we decide that education must be fun and easy? When did we decide that asking students to work hard and actually learn something was going to damage their fragile little ego’s? Finally when did we decide to commit cultural suicide?

    Just want to know so I can tell my grandchildren someday why they live in a ignorant, culturally vapid society.

  4. Nels Nelson says:

    In the summer of 1989 my assigned reading for 10th grade honors english was All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, so this is not just a very recent phenomenon.

  5. Hey Jah, when did society become filled with cynics like you? I’ve been teaching for 15 years, and do you know why kids don’t complete their summer reading? Because it’s not fun! So, the first thing you can tell your grandchildren is we don’t live in the 1940s anymore, so kids have many more choices.

    The sad truth is that reading is not tops on their lists. It’s not even in the top ten for most. The bottom line is that if teachers want to keep kids interested in reading, we need to give them something that’s fun. Then, maybe they’ll begin to enjoy learning and be more interested in it, in general.

  6. Richard Cook says:

    uh Bell…

    Reading by its very nature is work. You stay in one place and concentrate on what you are reading. Couple this with the more visual nature of kids and reading is eventually going to only be practiced by few. You can;t make reading fun. The subject matter yes, but, reading requires certain things I don’t think the kids have.

  7. BELL,

    You proved my point. It’s not fun so they won’t do it. I’m sorry but where did this attitude come from, that everything must be fun. There are times when you just have to work things through for a greater reward.

    I am sorry but big deal that it is not fun, if it is required as part of the work then students need to be taught they have to do it no matter how hard it is. In the workplace you do not get to pick and choose what work you get to do. You may have to wind up doing things that are not fun but you have to do them any way.

    I studied engineering, guess what it was hard work and I had to sacrifice time and effort to get through. When I first got out of school and started working as the new guy I was given the grunt work, I had to prove myself to get more resposibility and more exciting and challenging work. Grunt work wasn’t fun but I did it and learned all I could from it.

  8. My question here is what part of the concept of fun for a teenager includes reading hackneyed tales of depressed teenagers facing the same problems they do in real life. When I was in high school, these teen “coming of age” books were viewed as a colossal waste of time as they were neither well-crafted nor at all interesting. In fact, some of my more cynical classmates believed they were designed to keep us from enjoying literature at all.

  9. I also tend to find that what the teacher does with the summer reading makes a profound difference as well. If the instructor does little with the summer reading, word gets around and students tend to brush it off. It must be seen as vital and relevant, even if just in the context of the course.

    I also see some value in contemporary texts, but they must be chosen for the same literary value and qualities which justify the reading of the classics in the canon.

  10. My complaint with my local school district’s high school reading list was the near total lack of science fiction. No Heinlein. No Asimov. No Clarke. No Bradbury. The inclusion of Brave New World and 1984 as the only tomes from the genre is questionable in a number of ways.

  11. Andromeda says:

    I disagree. Not about the dropping the classics part — of course those should remain on the reading list as options — but about the inclusion of modern books. I’ve read The Audacity of Hope and it’s actually very good — well-written, thought-provoking, morally complex for the most part, and not campaign shilling in the way you imply (it was written a decade ago and in no way reads as campaign literature). Many of my coworkers (disclosure: I’m a schoolteacher) read and adored Life of Pi (I hated it, but de gustibus, you know?). One of my best friends loved Kite Runner.

    What I’m getting at is: why should reading lists only contain books that the vast majority of adults would not read voluntarily? Why shouldn’t we be asking kids to read the very same books that we ourselves are interested in reading — books that exist outside the schoolhouse and give the message that reading is part of life? Why shouldn’t we be asking kids to read the same books we’re talking excitedly about, so we can include them in the conversation?

    Dan Brown, it’s true, I can’t go quite that far on a school reading list. But for the same reason I wouldn’t go to the “beach reading” your conclusion seems to suggest; this is school; we should be asking them to read something of literary merit, something that asks them to grapple with ideas. Things of that nature are being published these days. Let’s include them.

  12. I think it is roughly 50-50. When I was in high school circa 1960-1963 I dreaded stuff like The House of the Seven Gables with its over-stuffed extraneous prose (how many pages does it take to describe just how black a kettle is?). To those who have objected above to having any “fun” when reading, I respond much as Ogden Nash did in his addendum to “the Three-L LLLama”: POOH!

    I have long been thankful that I started reading before being forced into the “classics.” Had I not started reading my sisters’ Nancy Drew books at about seven, and discovered science fiction via my uncle’s stash at about eight, the reading material stuffed into me at school might well have taught me that reading is an arduous chore to be avoided.

    While I am ranting about the Fifties-Sixties experience… Can someone explain why e.e.cummings is required reading but Ogden Nash is not only unrecommended but actually discouraged? Or why Nathaniel Hawthorne is “better” than H. G. Wells? Or even why Longfellow’s poetry is touted but his prose is dismissed?

  13. The Lovely Bones and The Kite Runner are not “hackneyed tales of depressed teens.” While I would not recommend either book to young readers, if I were a teacher who taught 11th or 12th grade, I would recommend these books to that age group. I think that by giving kids variety in their reading and not just limiting it to classics provides students the opportunity to expand their reading.

  14. Walter E. Wallis says:

    No Fat Freedie’s Cat?

  15. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Fat Freddie’s Cat. I am coverd with chagrin.

  16. I simply don’t get this summer reading thing at all. Period. I’m not saying students shouldn’t read during the summer (or anytime), I just don’t get where the school gets off telling the students what to read during the summer.

  17. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    My summer reading list from 1991 consisted of zero classics, but reading that I (gasp!) ENJOYED! Books from that time included (the highlights): Payne Harrison’s “Storming Intrepid”, Larry Bond’s “Red Phoenix, and Dale Brown’s “Hammerheads”. Stephen King’s “The Stand” took me that entire summer to read, and as I read that, I took swipes at other books.
    It also got me into much trouble in school. Indeed, an English teacher sent home a progress report to my parents (I took summer school that year) whining endlessly about how I read too much!
    Point being: the “classics” aren’t going anywhere. Trust me, every reader starts to go after them at some point as they need to be further challenged and forced to look at things differently. No one should be concerned because our students aren’t instantly devouring Shakespeare and Milton at age 10. Appreciation for such masterworks takes some time and effort.

  18. Does someone have to make the point about the importance of having some commonality of cultural reference points?

    I wonder if we are denying our young people some of the context needed to understand and navigate their society. An aspect at least of that context comes out of those classics, and out of the discussion that is sparked by those books in a well-led classroom.

    Not to mention that my year would not be complete without the response of teenagers to the amazing last paragraph of chapter 10 of The Scarlet Letter! So maybe this is all just self-serving anyway.

  19. Bill Leonard says:

    I admit to being a rather conflicted by discussions like this. As a teenager 48 to 50 years ago, as now, I found most of the “classics” (stuff largely written in the 19th century, much of it in the Victorian era) just plain unreadable.

    On the other hand, Huckleberry Finn is timeless. So is The Grapes of Wrath — unless, of course, one does not consider the seminal novel about the Dust Bowl migrant experience classic or important enough to be read by teenagers. Indeed, substituting drivel like Life of Pi for any of Steinbeck’s more important works amounts to travesty.

    I also sense a great deal of political correctness at work; consider the comment by the librarian about how teenagers want characters they can identify with: a Muslim (oh?) and so forth.

  20. People! Get a grip! This is SUMMER reading, not the regular curriculum. Maybe they’re not reading Huck Finn or Grapes of Wrath or Dickens during the summer because they’re reading them during the school year (my kids are). We all have a right to enjoy what we read. The purpose of these reading lists is to make suggestions that the kids might try. Kite Runner is a really interesting book — perfectly appropriate in our current political situation — and the protagonist is very “relate-able” in my opinion. I don’t care what my students are reading during the summer; I just want them to read. I’ll nail ’em with A Tale of Two Cities in September. (Full Disclosure: my students do have one required reading novel every summer that we start with the first week of school… I’m assuming they’ll start scrambling for it next week).

  21. The bottom line is that if teachers want to keep kids interested in reading, we need to give them something that’s fun. Then, maybe they’ll begin to enjoy learning and be more interested in it, in general.

  22. M.Paddock says:

    As a mother with a junior in high school who was assigned the Grapes of Wrath and the Scarlett Letter over the summer, I object to this turn of events. He was gone most of the summer as a camp counselor at a church camp and mission-work. He’s an avid enthused reader, but never found the time to do it. Shame on all of them, I know, but the teacher’s response to them was to give them three days to read both books in, plus turn in chapter summaries on both. He’s waded through exactly one of them so far and now dislikes Steinbeck intensely. How very sad.

    I read both these books in high school, on my own time, and while I can’t say that I enjoyed either of them, I can say that I probably got more out of them than he will.

    Asking students to read over the summer, giving them a list of books to choose from and requiring them to write reports about them is not unreasonable, but handing them two books which the teacher herself has admitted she doesn’t like, is ridiculous. If you’re going to read Grapes of Wrath in high school (Not even Steinbeck’s best work) or the Scarlett Letter (Why are we still assigning this book? There are better, more recent classics out there which accomplish the same end), then they should be done during the year. The only real benefit they receive from reading these books lies in learning how to communicate their opinions about them.

  23. Jah– You commented, “I’m sorry but where did this attitude come from, that everything must be fun. There are times when you just have to work things through for a greater reward.” I disagree. Shouldn’t learning be inherently fun? Those of us who enjoy learning, isn’t it because there is a large element of fun in it? Making the learning process fun is a HUGE aspect of my teaching. I’m ashamed to think that there are those out there who believe that learning shouldn’t be fun and that “if it is required as part of the work then students need to be taught they have to do it no matter how hard it is. ”

    Let’s enjoy life. You only live once, so find a career/life path that allows you to have FUN! If you’re life is fun, you’re happy. Enough said.


  1. […] Jacobs brings us a report on summer reading lists and how they have changed over the years, i.e. many of the classics are no longer on the […]

  2. […] Joanne Jacobs describes 2 of the books: Actually, The Lovely Bones is a coming-of-death book narrated by a ghostly victim of a serial […]