No More Pencils, LOTS More Books: Overhauling My Students’ Summer Reading List

Even as an avid reader, Summer Reading was the stuff of my teenaged nightmares.  Every June it was the same thing: Our English teacher would trot out a mimeographed sheet of paper featuring two musty classics and a list of essay questions.  An early September due date–traditionally the first day of school–would be handwritten at the top in huge capital letters, underscored for emphasis. Each Labor Day Weekend found my friends and me scrambling to the library for the Cliffs Notes or to Blockbuster for a VHS copy of the crusty classic du jour.  It was hell.

When I started teaching high school English 13 years ago, my private school didn’t even have a Summer Reading program in place. My classes, small but chock full of reluctant readers, proved a challenge to teach on every level (grammar, vocabulary, and writing) because of their dislike of reading.  Reading truly is the gateway to all Language Arts skills and without independent reading, teaching these other skills became an effort in futility.

Thankfully, I am able to plan and implement my own curriculum in my four classes (basic skills track English grades 9-12) and this allows me a fluidity and freedom that my other teacher friends only dream about.  This freedom carries to our school’s Summer Reading program (which I implemented in 2003).

Instead of torturing my reluctant readers with classics we all know they won’t read, I offer up contemporary trade novels and save Of Mice and Men and The Glass Menagerie for the school year–when we read, listen to, and watch them.  I need books that are, in teaching lingo, high interest and low readability.  In other words, the books generally need to feature high school aged characters (and their ensuing dramas) but be written on an upper grammar school or middle school level.

This year I’ve worked really hard to add some books that are very high interest level and varied readability levels.  The books need to be relatively snog-free–my school is pretty conservative–but most of my students still want a love interest of some sort.  Sex is out and profanity needs to be minimal, so even though I have the freedom to choose my own books, it’s difficult to find YA to fit these parameters.  I sometimes sacrifice literature for fluff but as long as they are reading, I’m happy.  The fluff books might inspire these book-phobes to pick up other books!  When parents call me crying because their student is reading at home, I’m happy.

Here are some of the titles I’m working on for this summer–I haven’t finished them all yet so this isn’t my finalized list.  I did a test run on one of the books–Pride and Popularity–and it was a big hit with my sample demographic.  The student I lent it to texted me to say it was: THE.BEST.BOOK.EVER. (direct quote).  She then gave it to her best friend to read so she could have someone to talk to about it. Interestingly, this is a self-published series and I wasn’t sure how it was going to play. (Updated: I heard from the author via comment and she does have a publisher. My mistake!) I’m happy it was a winner.

  • Rules of the Road by Joan Bauer
  • The Future of Us by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler
  • If I Stay by Gayle Forman
  • Soul Surfer by Bethany Hamilton
  • Pride and Popularity by Jenni James
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Young Reader’s Edition) by Michael Pollan
  • Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different by Karen Blumenthal
  • Where I Belong by Gwendolyn Heasley

I’m also considering The Book Thief–a favorite of readers everywhere–even though I’ve never been able to get through it.  My students have also been asking for a Nicholas Sparks and/or Jodi Picoult option.  I know Picoult has a new YA coming out in June so I’ll check it out and it might possibly be a late addition to the list.  Another option is The Mother-Daughter Book Club series.  I did the first book with my 9th grade this year and the other books in the series are equally cute and clean.

If you have any suggestions or comments on my books, let me know.  I’m always looking for suggestions and would love to hear from you guys–you’re always the best source of information. Have you read any of the books on my list?  


  • At 2012.05.30 05:32, Vivienne said:

    What about a bit of historical YA in the shape of the new Philippa Gregory one – Changeling?

    Skin Deep and Wonder were beautiful books that look at how teenagers perceive themselves. Ideal subjects to cover in school.
    Vivienne´s last blog post ..Hot Books for June

    • At 2012.05.30 06:58, bermudaonion (Kathy) said:

      I’m surprised you’re looking for low readability. I’ve read the Jodi Picoult YA book – it’s good and would fit your parameters.

      When my son was in high school, they were given an extensive list that was divided by genres. Between the two of us, we usually read every book on his list! lol
      bermudaonion (Kathy)´s last blog post ..Wondrous Words Wednesday

      • At 2012.05.30 17:19, Natalie said:

        well, for summer reading i’m looking for a mix of reading levels. if the books are too sophisticated (either with too many characters or challenging vocab), the kiddos might eschew them. 🙂 if the books are too juvenile or the slang is babyish, they’ll put those books down too. with my students, i have about 30 seconds to reel them in with a book…not easy but it keeps ME reading to find stuff for them.

      • At 2012.05.30 11:11, Christy @ The Daily Dish said:

        Michael Pollan – HOORAY!!

        • At 2012.05.30 17:20, Natalie said:

          well, i actually LISTENED to the audio version of the full length book a few years back. it was narrated by scott brick, so i was in heaven.

          ps. how are you—done cooking for the rest of your life, or what?? xoxo

        • At 2012.05.30 11:11, Christy @ The Daily Dish said:



          • At 2012.05.30 17:22, Natalie said:

            yeah, yeah. that’s me. mwa ha ha.

          • At 2012.05.30 13:57, Chrisbookarama said:

            How about A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly? I thought it was very good and not much snogging.
            Chrisbookarama´s last blog post ..Pin It and Do It: Another Update

            • At 2012.05.30 17:22, Natalie said:

              i haven’t read that one–for a second i thought you were talking about north of beauty, about a girl with a birthmark on her face. i’ll check it out and let you know. thanks for taking a minute to suggest! 🙂

            • At 2012.05.30 16:29, Ti said:

              You did an excellent job with this list. It’s got a little bit of everything and all of it, highly readable.

              • At 2012.05.30 17:21, Natalie said:

                thanks, ti! i picked up a few more titles today–13 little blue envelopes and a holocaust story (i will plant you a lilac tree) for a bit more variety. this list is a work in progress.

              • At 2012.05.30 17:45, Kari said:

                Instituted the summer reading program….you’re too fabulous for words. You are the librarian’s dream! Too bad I’m not taking my YA Lit course until Fall semester. I’ll have to help you out then!
                Kari´s last blog post ..Fiction | An Enticingly Meandering Mystery

                • At 2012.05.30 19:22, Jenni James said:

                  Wow! This came through on my google alerts. Thank you for choosing my book. 🙂 And I’m happy to hear your student loved it. It’s super fun and easy to read. I know of a lot of teen authors who write some pretty amazing books. Let me know if you still need more books to add to your list. Also, let me know if you’d like to do a skype conference chat with your class next year and I’ll talk about writing and finding a publisher and all that jazz. Which might be fun for the ones who’ve read the book. I do it for a lot of schools that read my books and it’s something I love and I don’t charge for. (Mainly because I’m a mom of seven and I don’t think authors should charge money to inspire kids to read and write.)

                  Anyway, thank you again! You totally rock.

                  Oh, and I’m not self-published. I actually have two different publishers one for The Jane Austen Diaries and one for my Faerie Tale Collection. However, due to movie deals being in the works for the Austen Diaries I almost self-published so we could get them out fast enough to grab the interest. But, I had several publishers step forward at the last minute. Lol! And there is my life story… okay, I’ll stop gabbing now. Let me know if I can help. 🙂

                  • At 2012.05.30 20:29, Jenners said:

                    You’ve got quite a challenge in front of you!!! I admire your dedication, and I hope you have great success in getting reluctant readers to read … during summer even! Love it! Have you considered “When You Reach Me” by Rebecca Stead? That might be a good addition. Time travel + confusion about friendships + mentions of A Wrinkle In Time = a great read.
                    Jenners´s last blog post ..Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

                    • At 2012.05.30 20:56, softdrink said:

                      What, no Twilight?

                      (Kidding!! Totally kidding!!! But I couldn’t resist.)

                      What about Justina Chen Headley. I liked Girl Overboard and North of Beautiful. Can’t remember if there’s snogging…I’m pretty sure there’s not, although there are boyfriends.
                      softdrink´s last blog post ..Reading update

                      • At 2012.05.30 21:52, Cindy Hudson said:

                        I’d like to recommend Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King. She’s got a quirky writing style, but she doesn’t flinch from the issues. In this case, it’s about a kid who is being bullied and how everyone in the family is affected by the bullying. Feel free to check out the lists I keep at, too.

                        • At 2012.06.06 12:11, Victoria said:

                          I have always loved reading (even the classics) but I *wish* that my teacher had given me a list like this to read over the summer! I would have been reading them anyway! I just stumbled upon your page today and I think I have found my new favorite blog!

                          • At 2012.06.06 14:24, Megan (Best of Fates) said:

                            It’s great you’ve implemented summer reading – and that you’ve made it stuff students will actually want to read! Though I absolutely adore reading and read constantly, I can well remember faking it with many summer reading essays. There was just something about being forced to read a book that made me find every single other book far more interesting!
                            Megan (Best of Fates)´s last blog post ..4 Rules for Avoiding Death at the Drive-In

                            • At 2012.06.09 10:02, Lisa said:

                              What a fantastic idea to give the kids choices to read during the summer that they might actually want to read. I understand that reading the classics is important but I think the idea of reading during the summer is to keep kids brains working and for that, especially for reluctant readers, any book will do. My oldest loved the Goosebumps series when he was around 8, just devoured them. My mom was horrified by the covers but I figured that anytime you can get a kid to understand that reading can be enjoyable, it doesn’t matter what the book is. He’s a big reader now – is reading the Game of Throne books and Huckleberry Finn is one of his all-time favorite books. So keep up the good work getting books that the kids will want to read into their hands!
                              Lisa´s last blog post ..Armchair BEA – Asking The Experts

                              • At 2012.06.25 00:33, Kathleen said:

                                You are such a great teacher to focus on your students reading something they might enjoy as opposed to a classic that will be better suited for when you can discuss in class. My son always seemed to have pretty bad choices for his summer reading. One year he had to read the Aeneid and the translation was horrible and all of the kids ended up hating it.
                                Kathleen´s last blog post ..My European Travels

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