As the temperature rises so does our anticipation of everything summer: swimming, trips to the beach, cookouts, camp outs, catching fireflies on a clear, starry night. While reading might not top the list of summer expectations, some of my fondest summer memories include losing myself in the pages of a book. I spent summers hanging out with Scout, Lucy, Huck, and Margaret. Yes, I also enjoyed time with real, live people, but to me, the characters on the pages were as real as a neighbor, and their quandaries always provided insight into solving my own authentic dilemmas. Summer also meant swinging lazily on my grandmother’s front porch swing, book in hand, or riding my bike to my great-aunt’s house, eager to sit on her front porch and discuss our latest read. Cookies and lemonade always complemented our serious discussions on character analysis and unexpected plot twists. Often, she would throw in stories of her own, usually more entertaining than a best-seller. Summer wasn’t summer without a list of books to savor on those lazy, humid afternoons.
As a language arts teacher, I’m often asked by parents for recommendations of good books for summer reading. I’ll share my list, which includes my favorites and recommendations from others, in a moment, but first, I wanted to address the importance of, not just summer reading, but reading in general. Sometimes summer reading can seem like another item to add to an ever-growing checklist, yet reading may just be the most important item on that summer checklist when it comes to preparing your child for future academic success. As an ACT/SAT tutor, the question I hear most often by parents of children of all ages is, “What is the one thing I can do to improve my child’s scores?” The answer: Read to your children and make sure they read to themselves. Not that higher ACT/SAT scores should be the end goal, it’s just a question I’m asked almost daily.
Tom Parker, former admissions director of Amherst College, tells parents, “The best SAT preparation course in the world is to read to your children in bed when they’re little. Eventually, if it’s a wonderful experience for themselves, they’ll start to read for themselves” (Trelease, xiii). In The Read -Aloud Handbook, Jim Trelease, who interviewed Parker for his book, shares that “Parker told me he’s never met a student with high verbal SAT scores who wasn’t a passionate reader.” In my work, I can tell within minutes of working with a student whether he or she likes to read and whether or not he/she reads often, and the students who succeed in raising their scores are the ones who have read consistently throughout their lives. This result tends to be true for most forms of standardized testing. Studies find students who read regularly score higher than those who don’t.
While we often blame schools when our children fall behind in reading, research shows that “the seeds of reading and school success are sown in the home, long before the child ever arrives at school” (xvii). In homes where parents read to their children and read themselves, children show a much higher interest in books: 78.6% if the child is read to by parents, 80.4% if the mom reads the paper, 95.2% if the mother reads novels. It’s not just important for us to read to our children; it’s also critical that we model reading for our children. Eighty percent of the books in this country are read by 10% of the people (Healy, 23). Numbers like this suggest that, across the board, we are not setting a good reading example in the home. Consider the following from The Read-Aloud Handbook:
* Among fourth-graders, only 54% read something for pleasure every day.
*Among eight-graders, only 30% read for pleasure daily.
*By twelfth-grade, only 19% read anything for pleasure daily.
Time doesn’t seem to be the issue because young adults between the ages of 15 and 19 report spending only 12 minutes a day reading, yet they are able to watch 2.23 hours of television (1). I believe reading is one of the most critical components of academic success, and the experts I’ve read also emphasize its importance. Reading aloud to children improves their reading, writing, speaking, listening, and attitudes about reading (xxiv). It also “builds vocabulary, conditions the brain to associate reading with pleasure, creates background knowledge, provides a reading role model, and plants the desire to read. One decline of students’ recreational reading is that it coincides with a decline in the amount of time adults read to them.” (Trelease, 6). The U.S. Department of Education conducted research and released its findings in a report titled, A Nation of Readers. They discovered that “the single most important activity for building knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children and it is a practice that should continue throughout the grades” (4).
According to Jim Trelease’s research, “by eight grade, 24 percent of students are below the basic level in reading, 42% are at basic level, 25% are at proficient level, and only 3% are at advanced level” (5). One last fact before I move on: Research confirms that students who read “regardless of gender, race, nationality, or socioeconomic background….read the best, achieve the most, and stay in school the longest” (6). Readers are also more likely to succeed in the workforce. Researcher Mark Taylor found that “reading is the only out-of-school activity for 16-year-olds that is linked to getting a managerial or professional job later in life….the positive associations of reading for pleasure aren’t replicated in any other extracurricular activity, regardless of our expectations” (Miller, 318). Establishing good reading habits also benefit children as they grow into adults, creating lifelong learners who know where to go when they need information. And while these are all great reasons to encourage our children to read and to encourage us to read to our children, I like the reason that Donalyn Miller in The Book Whisperer gives: Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education. Through characters-the saints and sinners, real or imagined, reading shows you how to be a better human being (18).
Hopefully, I’ve adequately made the case for just how important it is for us to both read to our children and to model reading for our children. Practice is the key to proficiency, and summer offers the time and opportunity to practice. For those of you thinking, “But my kid hates to read” or “I hate to read” don’t fret. Most studies I’ve read find that when parents read good books to children and provide good books for children to read, the child’s interest is piqued, and reading usually becomes a more desirable activity. I tend to read at least an hour a day to my children and assign a minimum of thirty minutes of silent sustained reading (SSR) each day. At first, my children preferred only nonfiction and didn’t like fiction very much. Wanting to encourage both, I read to them some of my favorite works of fiction, ones I knew they would enjoy, and within weeks, they were begging to read more fiction. Reading aloud increased my children’s desire to read and to read a wider variety of books. They still love nonfiction but are also learning to enjoy fiction, too.
Another benefit of reading aloud is that I’m able to read to my children books that are above their grade level, so they’re exposed to a richer vocabulary and to more intricate plots. I’m also able to provide background knowledge and offer insights that help them to better understand the text. During SSR, they are able to read at or below grade level to build confidence. It takes time to read to my children, and like all working moms, I worry that I sometimes can’t afford the time to read extensively to them, but with all of the proven benefits of reading aloud, how can I afford not to?
Now for the fun part! What do I recommend for summer reading? I like to offer a wide variety of texts to my children, including a mix of classics and contemporary literature. Some experts recommend only reading the “good” stuff, but as a language arts teacher, I have watched students connect to a variety of texts and walk away with a deeper appreciation of and love for reading, so I am not a proponent of severely limiting literary choices. I see value in quality young adult literature. Once children are comfortable reading what some consider “dumbed down” texts, they usually are more willing to attempt more difficult literature. I have also included texts recommended by Jim Trelease in The Read Aloud Handbook, selections from Donalyn Miller in her book The Book Whisperer, and selections recommended by Susan Wise Bauer in her book, The Well-Trained Mind.
This list is intended for younger and middle-grade children-2nd-8th grades, but as C. S. Lewis said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally- and often far more- worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond,” so I think all ages will enjoy reading these beloved books! This list is by no means exhaustive; it is a compilation of personal favorites and favorites of students I have taught over the years. Two great resources for book lists are Jim Trelease’s The Read-Aloud Handbook, which includes selections for younger children, and Donalyn Miller’s Reading in the Wild. Feel free to leave more suggestions in the comments! The list is in no particular order; I just listed them as they came to mind.
My Top 50+ for Young to Middle Readers
1. The Chronicles of Narnia– C. S. Lewis
I began reading these to my daughter in first grade, but she wasn’t able to grasp them, yet. I picked the books back up in second grade, and she loves them!
2. Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little by E.B. White
3. Little Women Louisa May Alcott
4. The Harry Potter series J.K. Rowling
5. Aesop’s Fables
6. Books on Greek mythology (D’Aulaire’s is a good one; there are also good children’s translations of the Odyssey. My daughter loves anything on Greek myths.)
7. The Story of the World by Susan Wise Bauer. These are fantastic non-fiction books on world history but told at a level children will enjoy and understand. I use these as my children’s social studies curriculum, and they love them!
8. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi Rudyard Kipling
9. Biographies of great men and women make great read-alouds or SSR books. My daughter’s favorites include Helen Keller, Ruby Bridges, Susan B. Anthony, Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Neil Armstrong, etc.
10. Baseball in April Gary Soto
11. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Barbara Robinson
12. Because of Winn-Dixie Kate DiCamillo
13. Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo
14. Series like The Magic Tree House, The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne of Green Gables, Ten Girls Who Changed the World, Ten Boys Who Changed the World
15. The Secret Garden Frances Hodgson Burnett
16. Heidi Johanna Spyri
17. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn & The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Mark Twain
18. Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson
19. Books by Christopher Paul Curtis The Watson’s Go to Birmingham and Bud, Not Buddy
20. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry Mildred Taylor
21. Hatchet Gary Paulsen
22. The City of Ember Jeanne Duprau
23. Newberry Winners always make great reads: The Westing Game, The View From Saturday, The Bronze Bow, A Year Down Yonder, Walk Two Moons, The Giver, Maniac Magee, Caddie Woodlawn are among favorites
24. The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt This is one of my all-time favorites.
25. Schooled by Gordon Korman
26. Dear Mr. Henshaw and the Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary
27. Loser Jerry Spinelli
28. To Kill A Mockingbird Harper Lee
29. Mr. Popper’s Penguins Richard and Florence Atwater
30. Scorpions Walter Dean Myers
31. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and SuperFudge really, anything by Judy Blume
32. Where the Red Fern Grows Wilson Rawls
33. The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom and The Diary of Anne Frank and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry and The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit Judith Kerr (all Holocaust books)
34. Walk Two Moons Sharon Creech
35. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Other Dickens novels are also good read alouds; there are great children’s versions of his novels.
36. Surviving the Applewhites Stephanie Tolan
37. Pictures of Hollis Woods Patricia Reilly Giff
38. Inkheart Cornelia Funke
39. The House of the Scorpion Nancy Farmer
40. Eragon Christopher Paolini
41. The Lightning Thief Rick Riordan and all the Riordan series
42. Stormbreaker & other books in the Alex Rider series Anthony Horowitz
43. Gulliver’s Travels Jonathan Swift I loved this book as a child
44. The Adventures of Robin Hood and books about King Arthur
45. Black Beauty Anna Sewell and The Black Stallion by Walter Farley
46. Shakespeare, I know, right? But, just like Greek mythology, there are excellent children’s versions of his plays. If they learn to love him now, it won’t be such a struggle later
47. Al Capone Does My Shirts Gennifer Choldenko
48. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Ring books by J.R.R. Tolkein
49. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
50. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
51. A Long Walk to Water Linda Sue Park
52. The One and Only Ivan and Wishtree Katherine Applegate
53. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane and Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo
54. Swindle series by Gordon Korman
55. Refugee Alan Gratz
56. Wonder R. J. Palacio
57. Crispin Avi and any Avi book, really
58. Chains, Forge, and Ashes Laurie Halse Anderson
59. Serafina series Robert Beatty
60. The Penderwicks series Jeanne Birdsall
61. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate Jacqueline Kelly
Bauer, Susan Wise The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home
Healey, Jane M Endangered Minds
Miller, Donalyn Reading in the Wild: The Book Whisperer’s Key to Cultivating Lifelong Reading Habits
Miller, Donalyn The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child
Trelease, Jim The Read-Aloud Handbook