Obligatory Summer Reading?

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I’ve been spending some time with the 14-year-old grandson of a good friend, who is visiting. He came out to California fired up about learning to play golf and intent on keeping up with baseball (he’s a Cubs fan but checks other box scores daily). He’s also been glad to help out with gardening and other chores. What he has NOT been excited about is READING.

Listening to him complain took me back to an encounter with my nephew, then in middle school. It was summer time and he had a big reading assignment: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. He was reading it, but very reluctantly, and with a certain amount of disdain. I remember his saying, voice dripping sarcasm: “I don’t know why people say this is a great novel. The girl that wrote it is sure wordy.” I did wonder about that choice of text, certainly not one I would have thought would have great appeal for middle schoolers!

Well, at least my friend’s grandson isn’t assigned to read Frankenstein. Instead, his obligatory summer reading is of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. I looked up the book and found out that it’s YA novel set in a society where everyone gets extreme cosmetic surgery at 16 to become “pretty.” You can imagine the complications and tensions (and triumphs?) this premise leads to, and I read a few pages, enough to see I could easily read more. But not my young friend. He declared it endlessly boring and not what he wanted to be doing during his summer holidays.

So—is it the fact that it is required reading that makes this task so objectionable? In this case, that seems to definitely be part of the problem. I have seen the same kind of resistance in Stanford students, who are assigned three books to read before they arrive on campus for their frosh year. When I had an opportunity to choose the three books, I selected Lynda Barry’s 100 Demons!, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. But I and the other faculty members who have chosen these books have a good ace in the hole: the authors of the books come to campus during orientation for interviews and Q & A with the frosh. The year I chose the books, some of the first year students confessed that they hadn’t read the books during the summer. But the session with the authors was so riveting that they all rushed back to their dorms to read them after the fact.

So. If we want kids to be reading books during the summer, it would seem like a good idea to provide some hooks. One might be to let them choose the books they want to read. That’s worked well with my grandniece Audrey, now 11 and reading away this summer at five books of her choice. Another might be to engage the students with the authors in some way, most likely online. Still another might be to assign a graphic novel or narrative, or a book along with a movie version.

There are probably lots of other good reading programs out there, along with hooks to get students engaged in reading. If you know one, please write!

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About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.