Prevent summer brain drain: that’s the reason many backpacks — most likely laying in the same places they were joyfully dropped on the last day of school — contain a rumpled, but hopefully not forgotten, summer reading list from school. Teachers and experts have long suggested that reading over summer break helps kids from losing everything they’ve learned over the school year. And new research shows that reading fiction especially might do more than serve kids academically – it may even make them better people.
Educator and author Jessica Lahey’s summer reading list for her seventh and eighth graders is packed with books that the teenagers will find “interesting but challenging.” One of Lahey’s summer favorites for eighth graders is Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird, both for the stretch it gives kids in complexity and vocabulary as well as supplementing the “easy” summer reading they may do on their own. She also wants to prepare them to think about “bigger issues raised by the books” — in this case the virtues and failings of the rich, complex characters.
Lahey has students write about the book when they get back to school in the fall, and wants them to choose a character and explore their virtues and faults, using examples from the text. “For example, Scout’s sense of fierce sense of loyalty toward her family and her lack of temperance,” Lahey said. “As seen when she attacks Walter Cunningham on the playground because she felt he got her in trouble with the teacher.” While Lahey says her students study To Kill a Mockingbird as part of a character education curriculum, she admits that the book makes great summer reading because its plot draws in teenagers, and the characters are faced with complex moral decisions.
Reading high-quality fiction may serve a larger purpose than preparing students for college and tests. Several recent studies show that reading great literature makes individuals more empathetic and more able to understand the world from another’s perspective, writes Annie Murphy Paul in “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer.” The results of the two studies Paul cites in the article, performed by Canadian psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley, were similar when applied to children: Raymond Mar’s study on preschoolers showed that, even when controlled for age, gender, vocabulary and parent income, young children who were read more stories developed a stronger “theory of mind,” or the ability to imagine the beliefs and intentions of another.
More Summer Learning Ideas
Increasing empathy isn’t the only way fiction makes us better; in a New York Times article on how the brain processes fiction, Paul breaks down research that shows human brains don’t really distinguish between fictional situations and real ones. “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life,” Paul writes, “in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” For instance, when researcher Véronique Boulenger of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France had study participants read “Paulo kicked the ball,” brain scans revealed activity in the motor cortex region of the brain, which is responsible for body movements.
According to the psychologists, fiction creates a vivid real-life simulation in which humans get to experience the world through another’s thoughts and feelings. While even more research points to ways the brain “feels” fiction — from experiencing sensory details like smell to freely experiencing characters’ deep emotions as if they were our own — Paul writes on her blog how it may feel for fiction to work magic on our brains: “Who hasn’t felt, at the end of a truly great novel, a little exhausted and wrung out—as if, as [William] Styron says, we’ve been living several other lives in addition to our own?”
Rising fifth grader Hart Wilkinson of Nashville, Tennessee, agrees, adding that a great story makes her feel as if what happens to the character also happens to her.
“Sometimes, when something sad is about to happen [in a book], I get really sad, sometimes I feel like I’m about to cry,” she said. “Sometimes I’m so into the book, I feel like I’m the person. I don’t even notice that I’m doing it – it’s like real life, but on paper.”
Wilkinson combs her library shelves once a week in summer, choosing stories she thinks she’ll like by an exciting or colorful cover. Then she hauls her stash home and plops into her front-porch hammock, or gets under her covers at the end of the day to read. Nowhere to be, no homework or lessons to run off to, Wilkinson says that she loves to read fiction all summer “because it’s so much fun to figure out an adventure without my feet getting tired, to just read in a hammock but still have an adventure.”
Why does fiction whisk us away during the long, leisurely days of summer? “I think we read fiction in the summertime because we want to allow our minds to travel (whether we actually go anywhere or not),” Paul said. “Given a little more time and freedom than usual, we want to use it to get lost, to leave workaday concerns behind. Nonfiction can do that too, of course, but there’s something about fiction that takes us away, even if we’re just sitting in our backyards.”
Los Angeles children’s librarian and NPR contributor Mara Alpert and Scarborough, Maine children’s librarian Louise Capizzo offer titles for kids of all ages rich in sensory details, with great characters who will take kids on summer adventures “without their feet getting tired.”
KINDERGARTEN – GRADE 3, chosen by Mara Alpert
Bad Kitty Gets a Bath by Nick Bruel
Even the most mundane activity can be the seeds for an exciting and/or funny and/or terrifying tale, as is the case with Bad Kitty and her bath (which is definitely exciting AND funny AND a little terrifying as well). The entire experience of Kitty’s bath is described in great detail (with accompanying illustrations that will have ‘em rolling in the aisles). Kids will look at chores and everyday events in a whole new way. First in a very funny series.
Awesome Dawson by Chris Gall
Young Dawson’s motto is “Everything Can Be Used Again!” This “Hero To Toys Everywhere” has been recycling… well, everything to make his creations since babyhood. In his secret he prepares to make a new body for his robot friend Mooey. Unfortunately, his mom wants him to do his chores. Hey, what better way to use his talents then to build a robot to do the chores for him! Until, of course, it runs amok… Dawson makes recycling look awesome, indeed.
Ralph Tells a Story by Abby Hanlon
“Stories are everywhere!” insists Ralph’s teacher, but this kid has the worst case of writer’s block in the history of the world. He’s got nothing to write because NOTHING ever happens to him. Even when he learns that his classmate Daisy has written a bunch of stories about things that have happened to Ralph, he doesn’t believe it. Then he remembers the inchworm in the park, and with the help of his friends, Ralph discovers the joy of crafting personal stories. The creative and collaborative process, laid out neatly.
Cooking with Henry and Elliebelly by Carolyn Parkhurst
Inspiration can come from anywhere – in this case, the world of reality television. Five-year-old Henry and his little sister pretend to be TV chefs, creating a fantastic concoction, complete with commercials, technical difficulties, creative differences, and a mom who stands back and lets it all happen (then provides snack at the end). A yummy reminder of the fun of pretend play.
Clementine, by Sara Pennypacker illustrated by Marla Frazee.
Make room, Ramona Quimby and Junie B. Jones. Clementine charges onto the scene with the story of an absolutely disastrous week. Second-grader Clementine was just trying to be helpful when she cut off all of Margaret’s hair. And when she assisted in coloring what was left with a red marker. And when she cut off her own hair in solidarity. And… well, Clementine’s mind works in strange and mysterious ways, but she always makes a certain mad sense. She’s a feisty, creative soul, and kids will enjoy getting to know her.
GRADES 4 -8, chosen by Mara Alpert
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger
A group of sixth-grade kids, friends and enemies alike, try to work out the mystery behind Dwight’s Origami Yoda. Dwight is definitely the class oddball, prone to all kinds of unusual behavior, and this year he starts wandering around with a little Yoda figure made out of origami, which he claims gives advice and answers questions just as well as the real Yoda. And to everyone’s amazement, it seems to be true! Each kid offers their own take on the situation, including illustrations (plus food stains, commentary by other kids, and more). The first book in a series that continues to be just as strong as it explores creativity, differences, belief, what makes a piece of really good advice, and does it truly matter where in comes from, and the importance of friendship.
Hold Fast by Blue Balliett
Early Pearl, her little brother, and her parents share a one-room studio in a not-so-great neighborhood in Chicago, but it is a home rich with library books, imagination, and love. Then her father disappears, their home is destroyed, and the three remaining Pearls find themselves in a homeless shelter, learning survival skills they could never have dreamed they’d need. Early is a smart, resourceful, creative, and loving girl, who rises to the challenge of this new life, and of figuring out what really happened to her father, with fierce determination. The poetry of Langston Hughes, the glory that is the Chicago Public Library, and importance of reading play a major role is this ultimately optimistic tale.
Larklight, or The Revenge of the White Spiders! or To Saturn’s Rings and Back! A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space by Philip Reeve, illustrated by David Wyatt.
Just look at that title. ‘nuff said. In a Victorian era that never happened, Art Mumby and his annoying older sister Myrtle share a rambling old mansion that travels through space with their dad. When he is kidnapped during an attack of space spiders, Art and Myrtle hook up with a band of youthful space pirates to try and save him, and the universe. Oh, and to figure out what happened to their mother. This is world-building at its finest, told in a rousing, Saturday-Afternoon-Matinee style, complete with weird aliens, mad scientists, the beginnings of a romance for young Myrtle, and the opportunity to save the entire universe. Huzzah! First book in a series.
City of Fire by Laurence Yep
In an alternate 1941 universe where magic and technology exist more or less comfortably side-by-side, 12-year-old Scirye, a princess with a miniature griffin, gather around her an unlikely group of allies (including a motherly dragon who happens to be an assassin, an orphaned boy who happens to be the assassins target, a shape-changing trickster, and a Hawaiian goddess) begins a quest to avenge the death of her older sister and the loss of some of her family’s greatest treasures. World-building, interesting characters you want to learn more about, breathless adventure, and a determined and intelligent heroine, make this trilogy-opener a winner.
GRADES 9-12, chosen by Louise Capizzo
“These are books that I love and still think about from time to time,” said Capizzo of her teen selections. “Do you ever have that feeling of sadness after reading a wonderful book, a book that kept your interest; a book that had you racing through chores or rushing home so you could get back to your characters. And you didn’t want to finish the book too quickly, because then the story would be over. When that happens to me, I feel a bit sad because I will never be able to experience this book for the first time ever again.”
One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke
With all the chaos from her family as they prepare for her grandfather’s eightieth birthday, Lily’s wish is to have just one whole and perfect day. Set in Australia, many threads come together in this thoroughly engaging novel.
Finding Somewhere by Joseph Monniger
Hattie and her friend Delores kidnap a horse slated to be put down because of age. The three embark on a road trip across America and find many surprises, but most importantly the power of friendship.
The Thief by Megan Turner.
One of the best books I have ever read. Set in fully imagined medieval land, Gen, a thief, has one chance to save himself from life imprisonment by stealing Hamiathes’s Gift. Yet, things are not what they seem.
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
Two high-school misfits find love and friendship in this warmly told story that takes place in 1966 over the course of one year. Their path to romance is gentle, sweet, believable, and some scenes – how Park strokes Eleanor’s hand – will leave readers breathless. Achingly beautiful.
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Set in New Orleans in a futuristic world, Nailer works by scavenging copper wire from beached tankers. When he finds a luxurious clipper ship with a survivor aboard, Nailer must decide whether to sell her or help her. Gripping. Exciting, with plenty of action.
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
Set in Britain under Roman rule. Marcus Flavius Aquila, a Roman soldier, sets off beyond Hadrian’s Wall; a land ruled by native tribes, to discover what happened to the First Cohort of the Ninth Legion that was commanded by his father. Historical fiction at its best.