I teach in the summer, but the classroom dynamics are different. Instead of meeting two or three times a week for 50 minutes each, I see my group of students Monday through Thursday for 1 hour and 15 minutes each day. It’s a lot of time together. One of my favorite aspects of teaching in the summer is that the class sizes are significantly smaller, so it’s much easier to build a strong “community-like” feel in the classroom, plus I get to work with my students more one-on-one.
This summer I’m teaching an English 1102 course, which is “Critical Reading and Writing.” As you might imagine, we spend most of the course reading texts, discussing them, and writing about them, and I can’t think of a better way to spend the summer (although my students might disagree!).
While most teachers take a break from teaching in the summer, that does not mean that the learning has to stop: critical reading should be a year-round endeavor, and my summer book reviews will offer informal ways (discussion questions, etc.) to engage with texts. I’d also suggest encouraging your kids to keep a reading journal (if not year round, at least for the summer!) in which they record titles of the books they read and draw/write/create in response to these books. It’s something I have my college students do as well, and you might want to start one for yourself, too—I do!
There are some who think English majors (or readers in general) read books to escape reality. However, I strongly disagree. Books are a way into reality, and in my teaching, I always address the real-world applicability of what we read and write. To use one of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes, “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”
Each of the books featured here, I believe, have value not simply because they have received awards, but because they inspire significant (“real-world”) discussion and are perfect picks for lazy mornings in bed, afternoons at the beach, or long evenings on the porch with your loved ones.
Picture Book (3-5): Last Stop on Market Street (2015) written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson.
The Last Stop on Market Street is the 2016 John Newbery Medal Award Winner.
The story follows CJ, a young boy who spends Sundays after church riding the bus across town with his grandma. CJ begins to wonder about people’s differences—such as economic status, physical appearance, and family dynamics. CJ’s grandma answers each of his questions with patience and wisdom, helping him to see the beauty in diversity and the grace in self-acceptance.
After sharing this book, take your kids for a drive (or a bus ride!) through your town or the nearest city. Talk about the differences you spy and encourage them to ask questions, like CJ. Reinforce the message that diversity should be acknowledged and valued rather than viewed on a scale of bad to good.
Early Reader (6-8): A Boy and A Jaguar (2014) written by Alan Rabinowitz and illustrated by Catia Chien.
A Boy and A Jaguar is the winner of the 2015 Schneider Family Book Award for the way it artistically represents an experience of being disabled for young audiences.
In this autobiographical book, Alan, a young boy with a stutter, feels a kinship with the animals in the Bronx Zoo. Alan begins to wonder why the jaguars in the zoo seem sad, and, bothered by their lack of voice, he is moved to become a bold voice for the jaguars—despite his stutter.
Use this text to talk about the privilege of having a voice, the importance of advocacy, and the very vital message that what we perceive to be our weaknesses can turn out to be our greatest strengths: as in the case of Alan’s stutter which enables him to empathize with the animals in a very unique way.
Middle Reader (9-12): The Thing About Jellyfish (2015) written by Ali Benjamin.
The Thing About Jellyfish is the 2016 EB White Read-Aloud Award winner for middle readers.
After Suzy’s best friend Franny drowns in the ocean, Suzy becomes convinced that Franny, an excellent swimmer, did not drown but was instead killed from the sting of an Irukandji jellyfish. Suzy hatches an elaborate, well-researched plan to prove her theory, but this is much more than a scientific quest; this is a journey of working through a loved one’s death.
This is a great summer book to read along with your kids together out loud or individually. Either way, be sure that you take advantage of the rewarding discussion this book inspires: How do people process grief differently? Why do friendships change as we get older? What does Suzy teach us about resilience and recovery?
Young Adults (13-17): American Born Chinese (2006) written by Gene Luen Yang.
American Born Chinese is the 2007 Printz Award winner—which recognizes it as the best book written for young adults that year.
The graphic novel follows three different high-school characters: a lonely Chinese-American student that wants to be a white all-American kid, a Chinese mythological figure who longs for immortality, and an American boy who is dealing with the yearly visit of his purposely stereotypical Chinese cousin. All plotlines come together seamlessly to communicate a story about the challenges of accepting who you are and allowing yourself to become the person you were created to be.
Have your teen consider the following questions: What stereotypes are exploited in this text, and what function do they serve? When do you think the pictures and text come together most effectively? How have you struggled to belong, and what advice would you offer to the characters?
College/Adult (18+): Fates and Furies (2006) written by Lauren Groff.
Fates and Furies was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award and named the best book of the year by The Washington Post, NPR, and TIME.
An ambitious novel, Fates and Furies covers the story of one complicated, yet undeniably strong, marriage over a period of twenty-four years and from two perspectives: husband and wife. Groff’s lyrical language, intricate plot twists, and threads of Greek mythology ensure that this novel is one to read not only this summer, but again and again as it slowly reveals its secrets.
Rally your friends, read the book, and come together to discuss. Here are some questions to get the conversation started: What do you make of the form of the book—the split narration? What purpose do Lotto’s plays serve in the book? Is this a story of a happy marriage or not? Why would this book be considered the best book of 2015?
I would also caution anyone reading this blog that, as noted above, this book is only appropriate for adult audiences and contains objectionable content. While a vast majority of literature–even Shakespeare!–is not without questionable language and scenes, this presents an opportunity to discuss the good and bad aspects the author chooses to include with your college-aged children, book club, or your spouse. However, if this is an uncomfortable area for you to tread, I would recommend skipping this book.
I hope you have a chance to get your hands on at least one of these reads this summer—whether for your kids or for yourself—and, if you do, or if you have any great reads already lined up for the summer, please share!
Photo Credit: First image graphic design by Charity Klicka.