Sunday, July 1, 2012

YOUNG ADULT SUMMER READING: Lots of Choices and Places to Look

While some books may be more equal than others in terms of summer reading benefits, they can be found in all kinds of places and formats. And, while I personally side towards non-fiction or historical fiction, my hair stood on end a bit when reading an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times.

In the New York Times (June 24th) Sunday Review section, there was an opinion piece by Claire Needell Hollander, an English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan: "Some Books are More Equal Than Others."

In this article, Ms. Hollander states that:
For least experienced readers [my note: how she defines this group is unclear], who attain knowledge every time they read...this age group is fast acquiring verbal knowledge (an increase in word recognition) and world knowledge (an increase in understanding about the world around them), even when they're reading comic books or relatively simple narratives. For newly fluent readers, usually 8, or 9, any reading is indeed good reading.
But for the middle school and high school, reading selection does matter. Students attain more knowledge of both kinds reading Stephen Crane's "Red Badge of Courage" than they do reading the "Hunger Games" series. When the protagonist of "red Badge" reflects on his pride n having "donned blue," it requires both verbal and world knowledge to comprehend that he is proud of having enlisted as a Union soldier.
I propose focusing on accessible nonfiction guaranteed to increase world and vocabulary knowledge...These nonfiction books provoke students to desire an expanded world knowledge, to consider the flawed moral decision making of the past and the imperiled morality of the future...
While I agree that nonfiction selections ARE great summer options and DO typically offer a wealth of knowledge, not all kids or adults enjoy or embrace this type of read. So, while beneficial, parents have to weigh the value of nonfiction only with the struggle to get the book open.  Furthermore, I also agree that not all books are created equal in terms of vocabulary and 'world knowledge'. BUT many non-fiction books lack the inclusion of metaphor and allegory and by sticking to only the classics and nonfiction as Ms. Hollander suggests, dismissing 'comic books' and other 'hot' cultural tomes, young readers can miss a great deal - on so many levels. Here are just a few items it take issue with:

ISSUE #1: There are INCREDIBLE graphic novels requiring a great deal of critical thinking and world knowledge while inviting readers of all likes and ages to ACTIVELY participate in a great read. There are ALWAYS moral decisions, many are non-fiction gems, and ALL require critical thinking and reasoning as readers navigate verbal and non-verbal messages.

Some summer reading graphic novel recommendations:
  •  Laika by Nick Abadzis (Grade 4+)  is about Laika the first sentient being (a dog) sent into space by the Russians in 1957, and a story of the space race. It is all about character and political trade-offs.
  • Resistance (and the sequel "Defiance") by Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis - (Grade 5+)  historical fiction about friends growing up in World War II occupied France who must decide how they want to survive: resist, remain 'indifferent', or befriend their German occupiers.
  • The Silence of Our Friends by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos and Nate Powell (Grades 6+) - a true story about a white male reporter and his family living in Texas during the Civil Rights Movement who must make career and life choices while trying to do the 'right thing."
  • City of Spies by Susan Kim and Laurence Klaven  (Grades 3+) - historical fiction - depicts life in New York City in the summer of 1942, and Evelyn and Tony who uncover a German spy ring after seeing newsreels asking citizens to help in the war effort.
  • Americus by MK Reed and Jonathan Hill (Grades 6+) is about a book-loving boy from Americus, a small town in Oklahoma whose mother leads the town in a book-banning frenzy.  This story deals head on with book-banning and adolescence in a sensitive, honest manner and is full of ethical dilemmas.
  • Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick (Grades 8+) visually and verbally relates Nobel winning physicist Richard Feynman's life from childhood, to his work on the Manhattan Project, his exposure of the Challenger disaster, to his work on quantum electrodynamics, and his antics in art and music.  Plenty of vocabulary and world knowledge here!
  • American Born Chinese  by Gene Luen Yang (Grades 5+) is all about Chinese, American, and Chinese-American cultures, clashes, and issues faced by the only Chinese-American Student in a school who desperately wants to fit in.
  • Northwest Passage by Scott Chantler (Grades 4+) non-fiction -provides a wonderful account of this pivotal story in American history (with author annotation to help those novice visual readers AND provides additional reading suggestions and historical details).
  • Lewis & Clark by Nick Bertozzi (Grades 4+) another non-fiction visual/verbal gem recounting how the expedition was organized and the perils its members faced.
  • Tribes: The Dog Years by Michael Geszel, Peter Spinetta and Inaki MIranda (Grades 10+ for some violence and mature content) is a brilliantly illustrated story about life on Earth's future after a medical lab's research goes terribly wrong.  This book deals with scientific research and ethical issues (and is a great read with Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" as both make powerful statements about the responsibilities of medical research.)  Again, lots of world knowledge and flawed characters to spur interest and imagination.
  • The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation  by Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell (Grades 6+) is one of the BEST books I've ever read dealing with our Constitution - for kids AND adults. It describes the precipitating factors and events that led to our Nation's birth and clearly and succinctly details our Constitution's preamble and twenty-seven Amendments. It portrays the story of our history with incredible power, depth, and insight.
  • Baby's in Black: Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and the Beatles by Arne Bellstorf (Grades 6+) is the true story of the early Beatles (pre-Ringo) and their life in Germany before Ed Sullivan and their rise to fame. It is a wonderful look at Europe and 1960's pop culture and the significant cultural 'happenings' and salons that shaped our modern culture today.
ISSUE #2: While I am reluctant to recommend "The Hunger Games" to many young adult readers as I find the topic incredibly mature, there is tremendous amount of "world knowledge" necessary to truly appreciate this work.  It is a dystopian novel - one must understand what that means.  Furthermore, it is based on the concept of Ancient Greek games - sounds pretty worldly to me, and trust me, there is a lot of "flawed moral decision making" in these books to learn from.

Some prose novels that are non-fiction, fictional history, or pure fantasy recommendations:
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry (Grades 6+)  about a dystopian society that has eliminated pain and suffering, at the cost of it's "giver." As any story of a dystopian society is a mature read, this is a very powerful book full of 'flawed moral decision making' and lots to learn from and lots to think about.
  • The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Grades 4+) about a bright motivated young Indian who must decide about 'commuting' to a better all-white school off the reservation and face ridicule (by whites he must befriend, and his local friends he must leave), or remain with his friends who are heading know-where fast. Lots of world knowledge and cultural perspectives for the reading.
  • Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes (Grades 5+) is a fictional history of Johnny Tremain a budding silversmith apprentice in Colonial Boston who suffers a debilitating accident and when his dreams are shattered, finds himself working for the Sons of Liberty.  GREAT history and a fun read.
  • Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse (Grade 4+) - an incredible read - takes place in Oklahoma's 1930's Dust Bowl. The story is told completely in verse and is an absolute gem about Billy Jo, an incredibly strong young woman who faces life's hardships with as much grace and courage her pre-teen years can give her.
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (Grades 7+) a super story that is still so pertinent to our lives today as we continue to debate the ethical issues and responsibilities of "scientific" research.
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (Grades 9+) is historical fiction set during World War II Germany and is  the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich.
  • So Far From the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins (Grades 5+) -semi-autobiographical - takes place during the last days of World War II as Yoko and her family flea from their home in Nanam, North Korea and end up, eventually in the United States.  Plenty of history, adventure,  self-doubt and world knowledge here.
  • Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston (Grades 5+) a true story of a Japanese-American family sent to an internment camp near San Pedro California during World War II. This is a riveting, thought-provoking and heart-wrenching story of prejudice, hate, and fear. Remnants of the camp remain and are now a national park - well worth a visit after reading the book.
ISSUE #3: ALL Readers gain insights and knowledge EVERY TIME THEY READ.  They gain:
  • greater word recognition
  • increased facility using and recognizing vocabulary
  • they learn about types of characters, behaviors and consequences of various behaviors
  • they learn strategies for reading, for reading comprehension, and they learn about character and social interactions
  • readers learn to compare worlds, and strategies for effectively and ineffectively dealing with their worlds
And I fully agree with Ms. Hollander when she notes that:
  1. "I cannot always anticipate what a book will say to a reader."
  2. "Summer assignments should be about why we need to learn and why we need to talk about what we think."
And finally, in response to an age-old issue Ms. Hollander raises about how to select a book ...
Reading literature should be intentional. The problem with much summer reading is that the intention is unclear.  Increasingly, students are asked to choose their own summer reading from Web sites like ReadKiddoread...but how will the seventh grader determine which one to pick? are a few suggestions:

Thanks again for your visit and consideration.  What do you think - Are all summer reading books created equal?  What are your favorites?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments.


  1. I was taking a Children's Literature class when I was assigned to read the graphic novel that you mentioned called "American Born Chinese". I was not excited about it because I dont read this Type of book, but I am SO GLAD That I did!!! It is an amazing and meaningful book that I adore! It is always worthwhile to try something new. I totally recommend this book for is fun and has great life lessons. I love your site and your post :0)

  2. Hi Meryl. I am unsure how to get in touch with you so at last I am posting here in your comment section...I love your article so much that I wanted to feature it on my education post. If this is NOT alright with you please contact me at Thank you. jenny at dapperhouse

  3. Very interesting and thoughtful post, thank you.

  4. I think this is a wonderful post ~ lots of info for every age really ~ especially good for Parents/Caregivers ~ Wow!

    thanks for linking up with Magical Monday at A Creative Harbor! Great addition ^_^

  5. Thanks so much for joining Flock Together on 6/12 at Mom’s Best Nest . You're welcome to join in this week at 6 p.m. tonight!

  6. Fantastic post. I was getting grumpy reading that statement, but you countered with everything that ran through my mind. I have a very hard time getting into non-fiction unless very well-written, so I think to confine to classics or non-fiction only is a far stretch and will result in the opposite of what it intended (encouraging a love of reading).

  7. I would really like to check out the Constitution Graphic Novel. Sounds like a good one. I am stopping by from Mom's Best. I am a new follower. Hope to see you at True Aim. Thanks for sharing all of these great books.

  8. Thanks so much for giving me such a terrific round-up of books to share with my 9-year-old. He loves graphic novels and although I wish he were reading chapter books with as much enthusiasm I know I should let him read what he likes (not what I think he should like!). So, I'm excited to have a list of several books from which to choose. I've already put the United States Constitution and Lewis and Clark on hold at the library.

  9. I think Ms Hollander is an elitist snob.
    (Did I say that out loud?)

    As someone who used to sell comic books, I've discovered that almost anything can inspire reading.

    TOG, ABC Wednesday team

  10. That should be ROG - yeesh, can't write my own initials...

  11. I think I need to read most of the books on your list.
    Harry Potter and the Hunger Games are not my cup of tea but I know there are many people that are finally reading for enjoyment because of them.
    Thank you for the list of books. I'm going to print it for reference and for my Grandkids.

  12. Wow-what a great (and comprehensive) reading list!

  13. This is a great list for young adults! I remember The Book Thief and So Far From the Bamboo Grove...they were some of my favorite books from when I was a kid! Definitely sharing some of these suggestions with the kids I babysit.

    Now following you from the blog hop Get Connected Tuesday. Come check out my blog at Thanks! :)


  14. Wow! What a great post! Thanks so much for popping by and commenting on my blog! I'm glad you did, otherwise I wouldn't have known about your fabulous blog! Will catch up on the rest of your posts later tonight! :)

  15. I'm a new follower now. i wish you'll follow back me too ;)

  16. Great post for the letter Y. My daughter took after me and always read a lot. Our problem was trying to carry all the books to the car when we went to the library. Carver, ABC Wed. Team

  17. In my life I've read a lot, but I noticed that I like reading fiction and literature for entertaining and I let my children choose the books themselves. One of my daughters prefers psychological books, which I avoid, because I had to read too many of them thoroughly' when I studied psychology and philosophy. Speaking about today's subject of my entry: I love reading Chaim Potok's books.
    Thank you for your heartfelt comment.I agree with you.

  18. Fantastic. I love this list. My reluctant reader tends to lean towards non-fiction. So glad this list has lots of choice for him. He is 7. I stumbled this and pinned it too. Thank you!

  19. Great post,I need to find more time to read books :) Thanks for linking up to Creative Mondays :)

  20. Two out of three of my kids love to read, as well as me. I guess those stats are good lol.

    Happy 4th!

  21. As a teacher, I appreciate this post! Happy 4th of July!

  22. My 7 year old love to read geographical books but not much on character books. Thanks for these recommendations.

    Y is for...
    Rose, ABC Wednesday Team

  23. Your post made a lot of sense to me. Throughout the school year, kids have a good portion of their reading material dictated to them. In their vacation, they may make some poor choices, but they will eventually figure that out and find their way to material that will hold their interest. I found a parallel to this in teaching music.

  24. While we aren't there yet, I appreciate all that you've put together here! My little guys love to read.

  25. Thanks for the suggestions and analysis of reading benefits! You linked up at the Super Sunday Stumble on Why We Love Green, and that's what brought me here, but I'm making sure to follow you on GFC as well so that I can keep tabs on your future posts. My mom has a website,, where she tries to help families find young adult books that aren't trashy or offensive! I'll definitely tell her about your blog--and thought you might appreciate her site as well. Thanks again for the great post!

  26. Great blog! Just found you through the Super Sunday Stumble hop and stumbled you. :)
    Have a great Sunday!

  27. Hello Meryl- I actually am visiting from Friendship Friday but scrolled to this post...I have a daughter who is such a great reader...gifted and high IQ but her choices leave us battling regularly...thanks for this excellent post! Dawn @Beneath The Surface : Breath of Faith