The summer has always been about reading for me: curled up on the porch swing, sneaking off to sit under a tree when I was supposed to be doing my chores. I remember staring up at rustling tree branches and listening to my mom’s voice as she read The Little House on the Prairie, or Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, or Hank the Cowdog. I remember cuddling on the couch with my siblings as my dad read us Little Britches. I remember trips to the library, bringing home my little pile of books full of promise and mystery.
Summer can be an expensive time for parents, writes KJ Dell’Antonia for the New York Times: there’s pressure for kids to participate in dozens of extracurriculars, to pay for expensive summer camps and activities. But instead of spending hundreds of dollars on summer learning programs, why not challenge your kids to read books—and read a couple with them?
A New Yorker article from last Tuesday collected various parents’ accounts of reading with their children: it’s a delightful compendium of reminiscences and hopes about summer reading, with anecdotes about children spanning a variety of ages. They read everything from the Harry Potter series to a delightful little cardboard book called Click, Clack, Moo.
Reading with your kids needn’t be a time intensive task. It’s easy to institute this ritual in the evening, as part of a bedtime routine. And getting children to read by themselves is also possible: it just requires establishing the right incentives. Say, for example, a local library reading challenge: many award prizes to children for reading a certain amount of books, or for reading a certain amount of hours.
If programs like that aren’t locally available, parents can still organize challenges for their children. Challenge them to read 10 books by the end of the summer; challenge them to read the whole Harry Potter series, or the whole Chronicles of Narnia series. Challenge them to read one book in four or five different genres (mystery, science fiction, history, fantasy, et cetera). Challenge them to memorize five poems, or to discover one new author they love. For the child who loves facts over fiction, consider a biography, a history book, or a book about science.
When they meet a reading achievement, reward them. Reward them with a gift card to a bookstore, or a hardback copy of a new book they might enjoy. Reward them with a visit to their favorite restaurant, or (if possible) a visit to the historic home or town of a famous author. Reward them with a trip to the local ice cream place, or a favorite meal. Store up incentives that are experience and learning-related, ones that will stick with them longer than a toy or a dollar bill.
I remember participating in my first reading challenge as a kindergartener. I got a medal, and a free meal at Pizza Hut. Later on, in high school, a group of friends put together a summer reading competition: whoever read the most books by the end of the summer would get a prize (a gift card to a local bookstore, I think).
If we keep kids reading during the summer, it can help stem some of the decline in learning that can often take place during those months, while simultaneously building reading comprehension and writing skills, serving as distraction and entertainment, and fostering plenty of “scope for the imagination.” Personally, I cannot overestimate the impact those months of reading had on my development as a learner, a writer, and a person. They’re some of my favorite childhood memories. Those challenges to keep reading, along with the times we spent reading aloud—my mom and dad to my siblings and me, me to my brothers—were vital to formulating the love of books I have today. It’s a gift I’m hoping to share with my daughter as she gets older.
What books encouraged your love of reading? Did you have any favorite summer reads as a child? Please feel free to add more in the comments. I’ve shared some of my own below:
For young readers
Not only do these books feature wonderful characters and stories—the illustrations are delightful.
Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton
This book—along with The Little Engine That Could—emblazoned upon my young mind the shining power of persistence over all incredulity and doubt. It’s also a lovely story about friendship, camaraderie, and loyalty.
Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey
The story of a delightful duck family, braving the perils of urban life in Boston, Massachusetts.
The Story of Ferdinand, by Munro Leaf
The tale of a bull who doesn’t want to fight—because he prefers smelling flowers. Delightful, simple, and sweet.
The House at Pooh Corner, by A.A. Milne
Winnie the Pooh is a classic character—but many children, while familiar with the Disney films, may not have encountered A.A. Milne’s original masterpieces. The original Winnie-the-Pooh and House at Pooh Corner are well worth the read (as are his collections of poetry: When We Were Very Young, and Now We Are Six.)
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This classic story of a little prince who loves his flower is full of thoughtful, lovely passages and illustrations. There’s a beautiful pop-up book version that I highly recommend.
(Also: all of Beatrix Potter’s books are must-reads. The illustrations are beautiful, the stories are sweet and unique, and the vision Potter paints of English countryside is enchanting.)
For older readers
Many of these books—especially the latter ones—are still read and beloved by my siblings, friends, and me on a regular basis. As C.S. Lewis once put it, “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” Thankfully, we’ve reached that blessed age.
The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DeCamillo
DeCamillo’s story of bravery, chivalry, and forgiveness features a kindly mouse, misunderstood rat, spoiled princess, and hurting servant girl. Their ability to show courage and kindness brings restoration and hope in the darkest of places.
The Princess and the Goblin, by George MacDonald
George MacDonald wrote several classics: his Phantastes was a huge inspiration to C.S. Lewis. He was also a mentor to Lewis Carroll. But out of all his wonderful novels, The Princess and the Goblin holds a special place in my heart. It’s just what a fairy tale should be: delightful for all ages, brimming over with fantastical characters, impossible to put down. If you’ve already read this book and its sequel, The Princess and Curdie, I’d recommend At the Back of the North Wind.
Holes, by Louis Sachar
Sachar’s book features a narrative that is extremely creative and unique: Stanley Yelnats and his family members are plagued with bad luck. But just when everything seems at its worst, an intricate web of events unfolds, leading to redemption and hope. The eccentric characters and tangled plot feels almost like a modern Dickens.
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster
Perhaps my favorite children’s book of all time—a perfect read for those with synesthesia, although it’ll be enjoyable for kids of all ages and interests. Juster’s narrative features numbers, letters, colors, sounds, tastes, and smells that blend and mesh in this beautifully creative book.
Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls
The book that will make all children everywhere want a dog of their own. Rawls’s classic tale of a boy and his hounds is, I will warn you, tragic—but also sweet.
Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery
No summer reading list would be complete without Anne of Green Gables. Montgomery’s heroine is perhaps one of the most beloved of all time, and her imaginative adventures in Prince Edward Island have inspired fans all over the world. Every little girl should read this book.
The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
Each book in this series is unique and delightful—and many of us who grew up with the stories have a favorite character or book in the series. Lewis’s classic tales about Narnia, the Pevensie children, Shasta and Aravis, Reepicheep, Eustace, and Aslan will continue to inspire and enchant for decades to come.
Laddie, by Gene Stratton Porter
A book about love of place and of nature, the importance of family and community, and the virtues to be found in a simple, well-lived life. Porter’s books are often as much about her place and its beauty—the various plants, trees, animals, and birds that made up her corner of Indiana—as they are about the characters themselves. Though perhaps best known for Girl of the Limberlost, this book and Freckles will always be my favorites.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Of course, The Lord of the Rings is a famous trilogy, and much beloved by readers. I would also highly recommend it. But something about The Hobbit seems perfect for summer reading: it’s more lighthearted and jovial than LOTR, full of songs and feasts and laughter.
Learning to read isn’t always easy. And it isn’t always fun, not for every child. My brothers hated reading for a while. But two things that seemed to help were 1) Calvin and Hobbes comics—with their snarky humor, lovable characters, and brilliant writing, and 2) reading aloud. Both boys quickly became glued to adventure books and classics, even the big books like Ivanhoe and The Lord of the Rings, when read aloud.
So try checking out a few books from your local library, and spend some time reading beneath the trees this weekend. Your kids may thank you for it—and you might even enjoy it, too. It’s cheaper than summer camp, and builds as many (or more) lasting memories.