Your Worst Required Summer Reading?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- July 11th, 2013

As much as I love schools encouraging their students to read over the summer, I’m afraid it’s true that nothing can suck the joy out of a great book faster than being required to read it. I don’t think there’s a child alive who loves reading more than I did, but I did not want to read books in order to do homework on them in the summer. I’m the only kid in my eighth-grade class who loved The Grapes of Wrath, and I still dreaded assigned reading, especially if I had to “journal” about it. (N.B.: I still haven’t gotten used to ‘journal’ as a verb.)

Kids who devour books by the bushel come into the store in June or July, and I can tell which book they’re requesting is assigned reading by the way the light goes out of their eyes. It’s tragic! I try to help them re-frame — or reclaim — the reading experience. “This is a REALLY good book,” I’ll say (if it is). “Just try to pretend while you’re reading it that it hasn’t been assigned, that you chose it. And then see what you think. Form your own opinion.” I don’t think this helps much, if at all, but if I can help even one young teen not dismiss To Kill a Mockingbird before cracking the cover, it will be worth it.

Anyone have good tactics for helping raise a book to “want to” as opposed to “have to” status?

I also want to know what summer reading assignment scarred you as a kid. Were you felled by The Old Man and the Sea? Sister Carrie? Heart of Darkness? Is there a book you might have loved, if only it hadn’t been assigned? Is there a book you were prepared to hate, but fell in love with by surprise?

25 thoughts on “Your Worst Required Summer Reading?

  1. Jenn

    When it came to books with younger protagonists, ghoulish or gross things, genre fiction, or something with a lot of action, I didn’t mind doing the assigned reading as a kid. I was assigned the entirety of the unabridged version of “The Count of Monte Cristo” when I was 14, and I loved it — the action, the murder, the intrigue. I also really enjoyed Graham Green’s “Brighton Rock” too. All of Shakespeare was engaging, even if I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the four times I was assigned “Romeo and Juliet.” Even very old stories written in verse rather than prose, “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” especially, were consumed. To this date, I’ve read at least five different translations of the “The Iliad,” and loved it every time. And “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of the best books ever written, period. I also liked “Frankenstein,” “Brave New World,” “Lord of the Flies,” “Death of a Salesman,” “Things Fall Apart,” and everything remotely Greek. I fondly remember doing play based on “Oedipus Rex” with lots of stage makeup and fake blood.

    But then there were the books on romantic or outdated topics that I simply didn’t have the maturity to understand. Although I read far, far above my grade level as a child, I didn’t get classics like “The Great Gatsby.” I despised the melodrama of “The Scarlet Letter,” and didn’t finish “Madame Bovary.” I was one of those kids who wanted to be best friends with my English teacher, I was so enamored of books. But I lied to their faces about reading “Moby Dick” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” And “Wuthering Heights.” Oh god, that book. I can’t decide which I despised more, that or “Scarlet Letter.”

  2. Michelle

    I didn’t have assigned summer reading, but I was required to read “Notes on a Native Son” by James Baldwin in eighth grade and…..I hated it. I was and remain the most omnivorous fiction and memoir reader I know but that book was too hard for me. I finally reread it (literally) a month ago and finally understood why it is considered a classic.

    I do think the issue is one of assigning books that are on the student’s level rather than simply it being assigned. My partner was assigned James Joyces’ Ulysses in elementary school. He was in a school for gifted kids but, really, no one is that gifted. Or cursed!

  3. Stacy

    I never had to do any required reading until the summer between sophomore and junior year of high school. That summer I had to read The Source by James Michener. Over 1000 pages. There’s NO WAY the teachers thought that 16 year-olds were going to actually read that, right?
    I am now a middle school librarian, and my students have one required book and then a choice book from a short list. I’ve found that if the books are age appropriate, summer reading works out well. It’s when teachers assign books that are way over the students’ heads that the kids end up hating the books.

  4. Joanne Mattern

    This wasn’t summer reading, but in 10th grade we had to read The Great Gatsby and I hated it. Another student and I went to the teacher and said we would do ANYTHING instead of reading that book, so he told us to read The Grapes of Wrath and do a class presentation instead. I think he thought we’d give up because it was so long and more work, but that was one of the best books I ever read, and I’m grateful to that teacher for giving me the choice.

  5. Craig

    Stendahl’s masterpiece, “The Red and the Black” was basically incomprehensible to me in high school. Re-reading it thirty years later was one of the best dares that I ever took. This is a reminder to all that one’s life experiences often serve as a catalyst to appreciating works that all agree are masterpiece chronicles of human life and its inexorable tragedies.

  6. sharon c

    ugh, Lord of the flies and Heart of Darkness…for my sister, it was Death be not proud (which some of the private schools still assign).

    for my son, it was Cold Mountain, going into 9th grade, that is NOT a scintillating summer read!

  7. Willy

    I was told to read Melville’s “Typee” and Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Ubervilles” over the summer before starting high school. After a few pages of each, I never did any assigned summer reading again, didn’t want to look at Melville for 20 years, and have somehow avoided Hardy up to the present day. And like most of the traumatized commenters here, I consider myself a book addict.

  8. Catherine Balkin

    I’m dating myself, but when I was a kid, we didn’t have REQUIRED Summer Reading, only SUGGESTED Summer Reading. I didn’t have to analyze the books, do reports on them, or even tell any teachers if I liked them or not (although of my own volition, I did tell the teachers which ones I liked best). I loved those reading lists and enjoyed most of the books on them. When I finished the reading lists, I’d go to the bookstore and choose paperbacks that sounded good or I’d reread old favorites. I do have to admit that I liked most of the books I was required to read during the school year, too. I was — still am — such a book junkie.

  9. Gayle Carline

    My son had to read A Separate Peace one summer as he was going into high school. He was not loving it, but I suggested he take it on vacation with us and just get it over and done. We were on the plane and the woman next to him saw the book and said, “Oh, A Separate Peace! My granddaughter had to read that!” (pause) “She hated it!”

    Had I known, I’d have paid her to extol its virtues instead.

  10. Marsha Scharnberg

    Two worst books ever written (and, Beth Redford, William Thackeray wrote one of them!): Henry Esmond by Thackeray, and The Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens. Every time you read a page, two more grew it its place.

  11. Beth

    I love the idea of a book review or short essay as an assignment when you return to school. I soooo wish they would do that. These sometimes outdated lists the kids bring in is just downright depressing. There are so many new authors and new books to explore. Let them pick the title and have discussions as part of the classroom at the beginning of school year. Goodness, let them read book reviews! There could be a hidden gem out there that would create great talk among students. Oh my, get me started.
    Or not.

  12. Sara

    I like the schools that provide a list of authors and let kids chose any book written by someone on the list.

    I did have to read Jurassic Park for my AP biology class. I don’t know that I ever would have read it on my own and ended up really enjoying it. The assignment came up 0 times in class that year, though, so I guess it ended up being more for fun anyway. I still regret recommending The Phantom Tollbooth to my 5th grade teacher. She had us do vocabulary exercises from the book, which *almost* ruined the book for me.

  13. Pamela Tallmadge

    I didn’t have assigned summer reading and spent the school year looking forward to the time I would have to read in the summer. My summer reading included stacks of comic books that my friends and I would surround with our chairs, each taking comics from the stack. I also made many trips to the library returning home with stacks of books. I still associate summer as the time enjoy the long days of reading.

    1. Pam Matthews

      I’m right there with you, and I thank heavens I didn’t have assigned reading in summer. Even now I resist reading anything anyone says I “have” to — whether I should or not!!

  14. Jacqueline Houtman

    Crime and Punishment. Also Germinal and Anna Karenina. These books turned me off to fiction for thirty years. And to grown-up fiction forever, I think. A good middle grade will do more for me than any of the “classics.”

  15. Christine

    For 10th grade, I was the only one excited that we were reading Jane Eyre. I had already read it in 7th grade and was happy to read it again. One year we had to read The Old Man and the Sea. I was not happy. I trudged through that book and then had to do the same with Walden.

    The trend seems to be that more teachers are giving students a choice between two or three, and I think that’s a really good idea. Perhaps one mandatory book to get class discussions going, but let students choose another so they have a say and can at least try to find enjoyment in reading. I always felt that fellow classmates who “hated to read” would always hate to read thanks to some of the mandatory assignments throughout the years.

  16. Beth Redford

    Vanity Fair. The book, not the magazine. I think it was my AP English teacher’s idea of a joke…and we all missed the punch line.

    1. Marsha Scharnberg

      Read it again in 30 years, you’ll be amazed at how it improves with age! Also, watch the old PBS presentation.

  17. Christie

    Wow–I never had assigned reading over the summer when I was in school either; guess I’m old! How ‘encouraging’ can it be if the kids have to do it? (Although what happens if they don’t?). Unless a teacher is saying you can read books of your choice and tell the class about them or write a review for your first assignment when school’s back, it just sounds like you’re making reading a chore!

  18. Leanne

    I “had” to read Of Human Bondage for sophomore year of high school… and wound up really really liking it. I can pretty much guarantee it would never have been on my reading list otherwise. (And if someone put this one on a “forbidden summer reading” list as Carol mentioned, it might accidentally rope in some of those 50 shades folks too. )

  19. Becky

    I never had summer reading assignments when I was in school. I read Great Gatsby on my own one summer and enjoyed it, only to have it assigned reading when I got back to school in the fall. I absolutely hated it after I had go through and explain all the “symbolism” in it in class.

    Other books that I had to read during the school year and ended up not liking at all: A Separate Peace, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye.

    The only book I can recall actually enjoying was Invisible Man, and I was able to choose that over Hemingway.

  20. carol brendler

    I think giving students a choice between two books helps. My senior year we were allowed to choose between Light in August or In Cold Blood. I remember how disappointed my teach was when I chose Capote over Faulkner.

    1. Erin O'Riordan

      Who wouldn’t choose Capote over Faulkner?

      My summer reading nightmare was ‘Last of the Mohicans’ in between sophomore and junior years of high school. I also had to read ‘The Old Man and the Sea,’ but that one’s only 127 pages, and I like Hemingway. James Fenimore Cooper is a bit more of an acquired taste – although, after we discussed the book in class, I did warm up to it a bit. I’ve read at least two more of the Leatherstocking Tales since then, just for fun.

  21. Jennifer Glover

    I teach 8th grade Eng/Lit in an all boys school. The boys have to read five books over the summer, one of which is assigned (The Illustrated Man-Bradbury). At the end of the school year I read one of the stories to the boys so they have an idea of what they’re getting into. That usually gets them pumped. Plus, if I’m excited, then my enthusiasm hopefully rubs off on the boys.

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