Nonrequired Reading

children-studying-670663_640Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.
Maya Angelou

Yesterday I saw a sight that warmed my heart. A little boy, on his way home from our local library, just couldn’t wait to read one of the books he’d just checked out. He meandered along the sidewalk, once nearly bumping into a tree, while reading one of his books. I don’t know what book captured his attention, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t one of the books on a required summer reading list.

I remember riding my Schwinn Hollywood home from the library, the basket piled with books. Some were books I’d read before, some were below my reading level, some were what is now called “inappropriate”; very few were the kinds of books teachers would be likely to assign. If I didn’t like a book, I didn’t finish it. If I liked it a lot, I’d read it again. No one paid any attention, as far as I could tell, to what I read. The school didn’t send home a list of books that were required summer reading.

Here is the information on required summer reading my old elementary school publishes on its website:

Summer provides a wonderful opportunity for nurturing self-directed learning experiences, but it is equally important to give students more structured activities that keep them from losing ground over the long break from school. This summer’s reading requirements closely align to the English Language Arts Curriculum so that students are prepared to jump right into their first unit of study. Below you will find an overview of the summer reading program with directions explaining how to access the reading list and assignments.

The assigned fiction title will prepare students for their first unit of study in English Language Arts. Each grade has one specific novel and an accompanying assignment. No substitutions will be accepted. Grade six has an additional link to a teacher model of the assignment. Remember that the fiction title and assignment are on the same document, and is accessed the same way, as nonfiction.

61iWdIYvLcLPretty grim . . . doesn’t exactly make you want to pick up a book, or even “nurture a self-directed learning experience”, does it? (And by the way, what is “English Language Arts”? Maybe the school couldn’t decide whether to call the subject “English” or “Language Arts”, so they came up with this weird compromise?) When I reviewed the “assigned fiction titles”, I was very glad I wasn’t entering fifth grade, because I would have been forced to read Avi’s Something Upstairs (published in 1988), a horror story about a boy who discovers a ghost. I hated those types of books when I was 10, and guess what — I still do. I did enjoy S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (published in 1967) when I read it in the early 1970s, but it seems like an odd, dated choice for today’s seventh graders.

The school district in the town where our bookstore is located has a slightly more upbeat attitude toward summer reading. I say “slightly” because the school refers to summer reading as a “task”. What was the last “task” you enjoyed? Warning parents that “while the summer months are a wonderful opportunity for fun and relaxation, the break from the rigors of school can cause a lag in learning”, the school does acknowledge that an additional goal is “to foster and encourage a lifelong habit of reading — for pleasure as well as knowledge — in our students.” I wonder how many eighth graders will find reading And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie, to be a pleasure. A few will, I’m sure, but the school has required students to read this book for many years and I don’t think I’ve ever had a child come back to the store and ask for more Agatha Christie books.

At least, from a bookseller’s perspective, it’s easy to hand over the requested copy of And Then There Were None. What we dread are the requests for sixth grade reading, which is supposed to center on themes of hope and gratitude:

For your summer reading, we’d like you to read 2 – 3 books of various genres that focus on the themes of hope or gratitude. Look for books where the characters may have overcome struggles or where, despite the conflict within the book, it has a “happy ending”; you believe the characters will be OK.

I suppose almost any book could fit this description, especially since the school mentions Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl as an example of a book that focuses on optimism. (News flash: the “characters” were not OK.) If an important goal is to develop a love of reading, wouldn’t it be better to ask children to read a few books — on any subject and on any reading level — and tell why they liked these books? Anything, from graphic novels/comics to series books to sports biographies, would be fair game. The only requirement would be that kids find something to read that they enjoy.

Is that an unrealistic idea? Schools are understandably concerned about students losing ground over the long summer vacation. Our school website says: “Research demonstrates that students must read at least three challenging books during the summer break simply to maintain fluency and comprehension skills; a minimum of five such books is necessary to improve on any reading weaknesses.” But what is the cost of forcing children to read books they don’t enjoy? What good is “fluency and comprehension” if children don’t want to read? I’m curious to hear what teachers and parents of school-aged children think.