A Model High School Summer Reading List

Alison Morris - June 30, 2008

I see summer reading lists for many, MANY schools float through our store every summer. We keep notebooks at both of our point of sale counters that contain the summer reading lists for ALL local schools of interest to our customers, public and private, because every year they come in having left their copies at home. If a customer comes in and says "Do you have the summer reading list for _____?" we then open the notebook, flip to that school’s list, and make that customer’s day a lot easier. In the process, we make the sale.

Of all the school lists I’ve seen in recent years, the one that impresses me most is the one that’s produced by the English Department at Weston High School in Weston, Mass. I love this school list — not so much for the actual books it includes (though I do think it’s a rather diverse and interesting mix, especially compared to those of most high schools), but for the WAY it’s compiled and formatted. The list is available on the school’s website, so you can download a copy and see just what I’m talking about. (Click on the "W" beside download.com and it’ll open the list as a Word document.)

The Weston High School list begins with this introductory statement:

We English teachers believe that reading should be a pleasurable pastime as well as a source of intellectual growth. Anticipating the summer, we’ve been talking about the books we look forward to reading and the ones we highly recommend. Below, you’ll find the courses that will be offered in the fall of 2008 and books required.

Last summer, in response to student, parent, and teacher input, the department reduced required summer reading and in a number of cases collaborated with the history department to assign shared titles. This reduction in required reading should not downplay the importance of reading; it should amplify the importance of allowing students to have more control over what they choose to read. Statistics show that active readers practice important thinking skills.

Below the required reading you will find a lengthy list of books we heartily recommend but no longer require for any particular course. We have provided brief descriptions to help you make satisfying choices. We’re confident you’ll be drawn to many of them. 

The list of Required Reading books is an interesting mix, but what really wows me about Weston is the way they choose to present their recommended (not required!) summer reading choices. Each teacher in the department selects a handful of books to recommend then explains what each book is about and WHY they’re recommending it. Their entries are insightful, personal, and interesting. The books they’ve selected are a truly interesting mix.

I love the personable feel of a list like this and the potential avenues for discussion it could open up between students and their teachers, not to mention the potential for increasing students’ respect for the folks who stand at the front of their classrooms every day. Maybe Mr. So-and-So doesn’t give the best lectures but he has fantastic taste in fiction. Maybe Ms. Such-and-Such’s interests are a lot more complex than anyone would have guessed. The best thing about this list, though, is the message it sends to students, on the teachers’ behalf: WE READ BOOKS AND WE ENJOY THEM. I can’t imagine a more effective behavior for English teachers to model than that.

9 thoughts on “A Model High School Summer Reading List

  1. David Saylor

    Is anyone else a little surprised and/or disappointed that there aren’t more YA titles on the summer reading list? While this is an amazing–and eclectic–list of books, it made me wonder if all the great YA literature is still not considered serious, challenging, or engaging reading for the students they were written for. Or if the teachers themselves aren’t reading much from the YA world.

  2. okate

    Great post, Alison, and it’s a terrific list. David’s comment is food for thought. It’s possible that teachers may not be listing YA books because the genre is already on the student’s radar. It would be fascinating to see students counter with a list of their own for teachers to read over the summer.

  3. Kevin A. Lewis

    The whole idea of encouraging readability as well as “growth” is an unusual one; at our store one can read between the lines of the required (of course)selections and get a pretty good fly-on-the-wall impression of school board conversations-for instance, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is always on the list; a badly dated sleeping dart of a book if there ever was one, but Stoker’s Dracula, which holds up much better, isn’t: It’s too Catholic for the born-agains, too Godly for the atheist activists, and of course we don’t want to give the Goth kids any ideas… The idea of reading for fun is still struggling to catch on in these parts.

  4. Sarah

    I agree 100% with the first poster. While the format of this list and sentiments of the educators is lovely, its distinct lack of YA is very common in our area as well. There is this somewhat irrational push towards adult fiction that is starting earlier and earlier when it comes to reading lists, even in middle school. Don’t kids have the rest of their lives to read THE KITE RUNNER? I fear many of them will miss out on a multitude of phenomenal YA fiction in lieu of Oprah’s picks and whatever literary fiction their teachers happened to read last summer. *sigh*

  5. Kevin A. Lewis

    I think okate is right in that YA is pretty much self-propelled and doesn’t need boosting from schools, also I wouldn’t trust most teachers to make a choice there; that’d be like mom picking out your CD collection for you…

  6. AK-Masterson

    It seems that the Weston reading list is a compilation of books that are favorites of the English teachers at Weston High. While Young Adult books (not a genre, by the way)are probably well-known amongst the high school crowd, it still seems that YA literature is considered sub-par to that of “intellectual” or “serious” literature. Students should be encouraged to read about people of their own age with whom they may share a variety of experiences or relate to in other ways. YA books can be and should be an important part of the curriculum too.

  7. ShelfTalker

    I started to write a reply to everyone’s comments here that grew SO long that I’m just going to have to make a separate post out of it! Stay tuned for that. In the meantime, though, know that I wholeheartedly agree that it would be good to see more YA books on this list and on others like it. From what I’ve seen, though, most high schools around here (western suburbs of Boston) have been very slow to include recent or current YA books (novels or non-fiction) on their summer reading lists.


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