Summer Reading

Reading is a good thing. Summer is a good thing. The question before us is how we might ask students to combine these two goods lest their minds lie idle for three months on the one hand or, on the other, that children discover along with Tom Sawyer that their coveted vacations are beginning to hang a little heavily on their hands. Admittedly, there are people who love to read Milton on the beach and keep a copy of The Brothers Karamazov on their nightstand, but we may need a few more years of classical schooling under our belts before such bibliophilism becomes the norm. So I would urge parents to aim for a sensible combination of reading and real adventure in the summer, recalling that we remember Tom Sawyer not for the time he spent reading books but for his exploits and stratagems, in short, his adventures.

The first desirable quality of summer reading is that it be both enjoyable and edifying. A great deal might fit into this category, and enjoyable reading need not be a proper school classic in every instance. For example, there is a reason the Hardy Boys mysteries have been so popular over the years. Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger, so the reader wants to keep going. The mind must stay active to keep up with all the various culprits and clues.

Another possibility for summer reading (which is much harder to do during the school year) is pursuing many books by the same author. If a young lady enjoys reading Anne of Green Gables, she may be happy to learn that L.M. Montgomery wrote a whole series of Anne books and many others besides. Mark Twain called Anne “since the immortal Alice, the sweetest creation of child life yet written.” All of Montgomery’s books are close studies of human character. Anne herself is a budding student of the human condition and, not surprisingly, a lover of poetry. So if a young lady wanted to spend her summer reading Anne of Avonlea, Anne of the Island, Anne of Windy Poplars, Anne’s House of Dreams, and so on, that would be time well spent.

One further reflection on summer reading before we get to a more formal list: while it is certainly a desideratum to read fiction over the summer, there is no rule that says other kinds of reading are not equally enjoyable or profitable. If a young person developed an interest in, say, the Revolutionary or the Civil War, then why not read biographies of the various generals? It would be even better if the family could visit a battle site or two. The mind might be similarly engaged with another study: that of the visual arts. Great paintings and sculptures also tell a story, and often a visit to a museum or just spending a little time with an art book will draw a young person in to the beauty of art.

Having opened up the door to many kinds of summer reading, allow me now to offer something of a loose guide to the classics. My idea here is that students who are older than the second grade might want to visit parts of our curriculum that they have missed. That is not to say that they are behind or that there is reason to worry. Rather, consider a large part of our school mission to be the recovery of the classics: not only for children but for parents as well. Thus the summer reading we shall propose might be something of a family enterprise.

Here is an example. In kindergarten and first grade our curriculum calls for the reading of fables. Fables make great reading for young children. They are pithy and memorable, and they offer useful morals. There is also action in fables: some animals get tricked; others do the tricking; some of the tricksters get their just deserts. In short, the theme in fables is often justice, stated in a way every child can understand. Yet it would be a mistake to think that fables are only for children. The appeal of any good fable is universal: fables make sense to all ages, to all cultures, and across historical eras. There is a reason why The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’ has been used throughout the ages to keep children from, well, fabricating and whining. Abraham Lincoln loved fables, read them throughout his life, and occasionally brought their insights into his speeches. Thus, it would be a great thing for any family to sit down and read fables together. You may be surprised how often the themes of The Fox and the Grapes and The Dog in the Manger come up in the course of a child’s life.

Viewed in this light, summer reading that is in addition to the required classics on our list might consist of students reading for pleasure but also reading (also for pleasure) a few classics from the different grades that the child has already been through. A child going into the sixth grade, for instance, could read some fables, a few classic fairy tales, a case or two from Sherlock Holmes, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. That, combined with a sprinkling of Calvin and Hobbes, travel, fishing, and baseball or softball, would constitute a very productive and enjoyable summer in my book. Further, to add to the family dynamic, parents should know that there is an excellent audio book of Tom Sawyer put out by the BBC. It makes for great listening on long car trips. Such is the case with many of these classics listed below.

Have a great summer reading. We shall see you in August.