I recently read a post on another blogger’s site about summer reading books. Gianna asked the question, “Is it useful or a waste of time?” I’d like to offer a seemingly unpopular opinion on the subject of summer reading books, because now that I’m in graduate school and am far beyond the years of having summer reading (the last summer reading book I had was in 2011…that’s how old I am!), I think I’m far enough removed to have a relatively unbiased opinion.
I grew up reading books by the dozens every month. (Seriously – I kept track of all the books I read in 2011, and I read 218 books that year.) I never dreaded summer reading books, because for the most part they were interesting. I still own all of them, and they’ve got their own dedicated shelf in the office at my parents’ house (because my sister had to borrow them when she was going through high school four years after me). Books like Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Huckleberry Finn, and Night all look out from that shelf, among others.
Were there books I didn’t like? Yes. Were there books I didn’t finish? Yes. Were there books I reread? Yes. Were there books I slammed back on the shelf and refuse to even touch to this day? Yes.
But I still think we need summer reading.
As Gianna points out, it’s one of the few times a year that people who don’t read books do read books. (For the most part; a lot of my classmates simply looked things up on SparkNotes.) For some of those book-hating kids, this was their only introduction to the world of literature outside of the classroom. And it sucks that that introduction is only because they’re being forced.
The main problem is that in a lot of schools, students aren’t getting a choice of which book they’d like to read. In middle school, I had three or four books I had to read over the summer. They were short, and I had no choice in whether I wanted to read one or not. In high school, however, we were given a list of about ten to fifteen books, usually in one to three categories, and were told to choose two from each category (one from each category if you were in non-honors English classes). It allowed people who enjoyed history to read more historical books, those who were more science-minded to read matching books, and those who weren’t “in tune” with the classics to pick something more modern. It was a fantastic system, and I think it’s one that people need to implement in other areas if they haven’t already.
By giving students a choice, you are letting them have some sort of say in what they do, giving them a little bit of freedom. That’s something huge for someone who still has to raise their hand to go to the bathroom. It gives them some autonomy, and allows them to make decisions for themselves and find something that interests them. Not into vampires? Skip over Dracula and hit up Huckleberry Finn instead. Too scared of 1984‘s dystopian take on our modern era? Tear out your hair with Wuthering Heights instead.
By giving students a choice, they’re more likely to find something that interests them, which means they’re more likely to return to books on their own. When I worked at Books-a-Million, I helped hundreds of people find books, and the ones that stand out the most to me are the ones that always declared themselves a “non-reader” (like that’s something to be proud of) and then came back a few weeks or months later to tell me they enjoyed the book I helped them find, and would I mind helping them find another?
If you want students to become interested in reading, you need to make sure they’re reading things that interest them. It’s not that hard of a concept to understand, but a lot of people don’t seem to get it. They’d rather force-feed children the same books decade after decade, never expanding their criteria and driving people away from reading. (My sister’s boyfriend, for example, takes pride in the fact that the only books he ever read were the ones from school reading, and now he doesn’t have to read. She’s working on him.)
In short, reading can expand your mind in ways you’ve never even dreamed of before, but forcing kids to read specific books for school just isn’t the way to do it. Give them a wide variety, mix some new hits with some classics, and see what you get in your classroom. In college, we’re usually allowed to pick from a list (that’s where I got A Well-Made Bed from) and that list is usually a dozen or more titles long. Choices make everything better.