On Summer Reading
The following article is adapted from blog post, June 26, 2014.
“Tom presently wondered to find that his coveted vacation was beginning to hang a little heavily on his hands.” —Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
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 be so oppressed by a regimen of reading that they grow to loathe their teachers as the hijackers of their summer and all that is good in life. Admittedly, there are people who love to read Milton on the beach and keep a copy of The Brothers Karamazov on their nightstand. Yet we shall probably need a year or two 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 June and July, 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 enjoyable—yet without it being junk. 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. Similarly, reading clever comic strips puts the mind to work. I know several English professors who grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes and who still read it with their children. Having taught a variety of books to students of all ages—from tall tales to second-graders all the way up to Aristotle to college students—I can honestly say that the toughest teaching I have ever done is explaining some of the jokes in Calvin and Hobbes to my six- and nine-year-old. For example, here are a couple of captions from Calvin as he is holding a secret meeting of his G.R.O.S.S. (Get Rid Of Slimy GirlS) Club:
As we’re all aware, the enemy has infiltrated our territory and is spreading disinformation to the effect that homework ought to be done right after school!As my mom may have covert girl sympathies, we must eradicate the hostile forces! Any questions?
Infiltrated, disinformation, covert, eradicate: that is some pretty sophisticated vocabulary for an elementary student. Another strip required me to explain what inflation is. Try explaining inflation to a kindergartener! So if you catch your child reading and laughing at Calvin and Hobbes, by all means do not rip it out of his hands and say, “Here, child, do your SUMMER READING for this new school you’ve never been to and that’s going to be harder than anything you’ve ever seen!” Such a prescriptive approach could throw us in a bad light. Besides, didn’t Aristotle say that a sense of humor is a sign of intelligence?
Another possibility for summer reading (which is much harder to do during the school year) is pursuing many books by the same author. For instance, my wife, when she was a young girl, loved (and still loves) reading Anne of Green Gables. It turns out 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. Those books, though, are anathema to Calvin’s G.R.O.S.S. Club.
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 simply that students who are older than the second grade, might want to visit parts of our curriculum they may have missed. That is not to say that they are “behind” by any means. Please do not worry or think that there is any reason to panic. 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 Atlanta Classical’s 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 would consist in students reading for pleasure (as I have stated at the outset) 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.
There are three caveats to this plan. First, we do not mean this list of books to be read in toto. What follows constitutes years of study. A person couldpossibly get through all these books in two-and-a-half months, and doing so would certainly constitute reading. It just would not be much of a summer. Second, this list is by no means exhaustive and only includes readings from the school’s own curriculum. In future years, we may very well recommend books that are not read during the academic year but are still considered classics. Particularly in the early grades, we have not tried to list all the great children’s books that are worth reading. Surely, anything written by Dr. Seuss will amuse children, or Syd Hoff, and fun series such as Frog and Toad andCurious George. Third, we do not want students reading the books that will constitute their curriculum in this coming year or in future years. Much of the pleasure of reading books as a class consists in the element of anticipation and surprise. Netflix has spoiler alerts for armchair reviewers who can’t restrain themselves from giving away the ending. Nothing would be more of a spoiler than some Hermione showing up on the first day and telling all her classmates everything that happened in all of the great stories for that year. Other than these three dicta on the warning label, have a great summer reading.
(for students who have completed Kindergarten; obviously, some of these books will be read to the children):
- Aesop’s Fables: The Tortoise and the Hare, The Lion and the Mouse, the Grasshopper and the Ants, etc. (By all means, keep reading fables if the child likes them; that will not spoil those read in the next grade.)
- Fairy Tales: Little Red Riding Hood (there are different versions to many of these tales), The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Ugly Duckling, Cinderella
- Non-curriculum books/authors: Dr. Seuss, Syd Hoff, Arnold Lobel (Frog and Toad), Curious George, Beatrix Potter, Little Bear, etc.
(for students who have completed First):
- Aesop’s Fables: The Boy Who Cried Wolf, The Dog in the Manger, The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, The Maid and the Milk Pail, The Fox and the Grapes
- Stories: Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, The Pied Piper, Pinocchio, The Princess and the Pea, Puss in Boots, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beauty
- See also non-curriculum books/authors for First.
- Greek myths: Prometheus, Pandora, Theseus and the Minotaur, Swift-footed Atalanta, Hercules
- Tall Tales: Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Pecos Bill
- Stories: Beauty and the Beast, The Emperor’s New Clothes (Andersen), How the Camel Got His Hump (Kipling), Charlotte’s Web (E. B. White)
- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
- Tales from The Arabian Nights, esp. Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
- Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods or Farmer Boy
- Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (try the original version, may need adapted)
- Washington Irving, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
- Longfellow, “Paul Revere’s Ride”; Legends of King Arthur
- Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes (various cases)
- Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
- Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel
- Jack London, The Call of the Wild (has been moved from seventh-grade curriculum to sixth)
- Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe (try original version)
- See also fifth- and sixth-grade readings.
- Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac
- Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
- Stevenson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
- See also sixth-seventh-grade readings.
See you in August!
T. O. Moore, Principal
June 6, 2014