Summer reading that didn’t suck

Unlike my groaning and eye-rolling classmates, the last few weeks of school were always a very exciting time for me — and not just because months of uninterrupted leisure time awaited me on summer break.

No, friends, in classic book-nerd fashion, I was all about obtaining one thing and one thing only: the summer reading list. Finding out the books I’d be required to read before the start of school in August was like getting an early peek at your Christmas presents. I loved the challenge of being presented with a novel and having to read. Like, not because it’s fun . . . but because it’s a requirement.

It didn’t take me long to tear through my books, of course. Since I was such an overzealous literature geek, I’d typically have everything conquered by the time July rolled around. That was just fine, though; it gave me ample opportunity to then tackle books of my own choosing.

And I’ve always been very choosy about books.

To that end, I never understood why other kids would whine and curse the day they were, you know, ordered to read. Reading is everywhere. While I mean no offense to the math and science minds of the world, it’s not like I’ve spent much time doing algebraic equations or chemistry in the years since graduation. But English? Reading? Well, that’s something with which I am quite familiar.

Though not all summer reading books were huge hits with yours truly, there were quite a few that I adored — and still remember years later. Though I don’t often re-read novels, these are titles I could see myself revisiting in the future. And for illustrative purposes (and the mental exercise), I’ve scoured the Internet for the covers I believe were on my own copies.


Summer Reading That Didn’t Suck


The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
Tan’s famous novel was one of my earliest experiences with Asian culture in literature, and what a world it opened for me! I remember getting so wrapped up in this book when I was 17 that I was actually dreaming about the characters. Some of the scenes — emotional; disturbing — still flutter back to me at random moments.



To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Who doesn’t have a story about reading Lee’s classic — and only — novel? I devoured this one before entering my freshman year and was thrilled when we got to see the film adaptation later that school year. Scout was a hero and Lee’s language and story so poetic . . . it’s not a book you ever forget.



The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe
Space! Astronauts! American history! Though this book was gigantic, I read it entering my senior year of high school and became unduly fascinated by the NASA space program. Even now, almost a decade later, I overhear word of Alan Shepard and think, “Oh — he was in The Right Stuff.” Though I recall being mentally exhausted from the sheer length of the book, it was popular and enjoyed by my classmates and was my first introduction to the style of New Journalism.


Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
O Romeo . . . O Juliet. Shakespeare’s famous pair of star-crossed teen lovers was my first experience with the Bard and quite the epic tale for a 14-year-old. As hormones raged and every little squabble became a Serious Drama in our school hallways, Shakespeare’s portrayal of these crazy kids who just want to be together no matter what was another popular read in ninth grade. Though most of it went over our heads, I had a great and patient English teacher — Mrs. Chalmers — who, after we returned from break, had us read the whole play aloud. (I was Juliet, natch.) Though I read Romeo and Juliet again in college — twice, actually — and still enjoy it, that first time was the best.


Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
When I think back on a trip to the California coast with my family, I think less of the glittering lights of Los Angeles, the plush Beverly Wilshire Hotel and the whales of Monterey than I do of Jane Eyre, a sweeping and haunting narrative that had me lodged in Thornfield Hall. Though Mr. Rochester can’t hold a candle to my beloved Mr. Darcy, he still cut a fine “hero” in Brontë’s classic novel.

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21 thoughts on “Summer reading that didn’t suck

  1. My daughter LOVES summer reading, just like I did. My son, however, has to be strapped down and threatened. Our school starts next Thursday and he still has not read his ONE book.

  2. This is a fun list and brought back a lot of memories. I have not read The Right Stuff. I must put that on my list, though the NASA thing kind of throws me off.

    • Though NASA isn’t something I’d say I have a burning, undying passion for, I definitely gained a new appreciation through reading The Right Stuff! You might be pleasantly surprised, Melissa. 🙂

  3. I don’t think they gave out summer reading lists back in the dark ages when I went to school. I used to read all of the books my sister had to read in school the year before.

    When Vance would get his summer reading list, the two of us would mark which books we wanted to read and then make a trip to the bookstore. It was amazing how often our picks overlapped.

  4. When I was in school, we did not have summer reading. The year after I graduated however, the curriculum changed and students were then given reading assignments over summer…though, I don’t think they were very good choices. Being the book nerd I am I always picked my one of those required books that were laying around and took a peek and not a single one took my interest.

    We had novels to read during the school year-but of the ones we read in high school I never once was tempted to go back to reread (except maybe Lord of the Flies). With the exception of one teacher, Shakespeare made no sense because none of the teachers wanted to take the time to really teach us what was going on.

    Thinking back, I think it’s quite amazing that despite all the poor English curriculum choices I had during high school-I still managed to continue to enjoy reading on my own.

  5. In Ohio, they just knew you were going to get dumber over the summer and didn’t even try to halt the slide.

    I re-read To Kill A Mockingbird recently and got so much more out of it as an adult than I did as a kid. What a beautiful, beautiful book.

  6. I love this. I always felt the same way about summer reading – I loved it. I’d spend summers in Pennsylvania with my grandparents, so my mom would always ship me a box of all the books at once, and yes, it felt like Christmas when it arrived. I dove right in and eagerly anticipated returning to school so we could discuss. I was thinking about this the other night when I saw the summer reading tables at the bookstore.

    I enjoyed so many classics, and still have so many that I have never read that I need to. For example, I never read To Kill a Mockingbird. I know! Shoot me now.

    But I think it’s important to note, at least to me, that while reading great American literature is a big part of proper education – at least in my mind – I think children resist for two reasons: A.) their parents never read to them, and/or B.) they haven’t found books that they’re interested in. I almost prefer that kids read SOMETHING rather than something on a reading list. You know, I think as long as they’re reading, that’s what’s important.

    Plus, I think reading is such a personal thing. Everyone reacts differently. And while I think it’s great to appreciate the classics, a lot of teachers punish students for taking something else away from the reading. Themes affect everyone differently, and things are interpreted differently. So I also think a reason why young people hate reading is because somewhere along the way, a teacher has told them that their feelings about the books are wrong, or that they missed the point somewhere.

    Anyway, sorry for rambling, but this post really struck a chord with me. There’s nothing I’d rather do in the summer than read.

    • Nothing I like more than a good, long comment/ramble, Amanda! (And am very guilty of that myself.)

      Completely agree with you here, among many other places: “. . . reading is such a personal thing. Everyone reacts differently. And while I think it’s great to appreciate the classics, a lot of teachers punish students for taking something else away from the reading. Themes affect everyone differently, and things are interpreted differently.”

      Absolutely true, and both my boyfriend and a friend from work are cases in point. Someone once told my buddy that she was a terrible writer — like, 30 years ago — and she believes it to this day. My boyfriend was once corrected and penalized from taking the “wrong” thing away from a college-level English class, it totally burned him on the concept of reading/writing and critical thinking. Terrible.

      Teachers have very difficult jobs, no doubt about it, but I hope that every educator would strive to nurture creativity and constructive thinking. The point isn’t always to learn what they want you to learn; it’s to digest and process and come to your own conclusions. That’s lifetime learning.

      Thanks for your sharing your thoughts!

  7. I don’t recall getting a school issued summer reading list, but reading is how I spent my summers anyway. I look forward to sharing some great summer reading with my little one.

  8. I also loved summer reading! Getting the list of books to read was, for me, always really exciting. Like you I’d read them by July, and then move on to whatever books I wanted to read. I always loved assigned reading, oddly enough!

  9. …and, as I’ve said before, I’m afraid we learn to love to read when we’re little kids, or not at all. 😦 Sad for those folks who never learn to love reading.

    I find it funny & interesting, always, to hear what books others had to read in school. It’s amazing how little overlap we had! Which I take as a sign that there are THAT MANY great (and study-worthy) books out there. 🙂

    I read The Joy Luck Club on my own, not for school, and found myself disappointed, surprisingly. I’d heard so much good about it. I much preferred China Boy, which I’m pretty sure I did read for school. Many years later, I enjoyed the sequel, Honor and Duty.
    To Kill a Mockingbird is as close to a no-brainer as possible. Yes of course I read it for school and enjoyed it!
    Never read The Right Stuff for school or at all, but sounds like a great choice. Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is one of my all-time favorite books! I can see how they might not pick it out for high school kids, though. Especially during the summer 😉
    Romeo and Juliet we did read for school. I think that’s almost a no-brainer, too.
    I read Jane Eyre on my own, after high school. While I thought it was a good book, I vastly prefer Wuthering Heights (different Bronte, I know).

    • Um, totally didn’t know there is a sequel to The Joy Luck Club. I know what I’ll be grabbing in the near future!

      Wuthering Heights is a title on my “classics I must read before I die” list — and I’m actually ashamed to admit I’ve never picked it up. The Bronte sisters were pretty amazing, huh?

  10. Pingback: Summer Reading: High School Lists « a home between pages

  11. The Right Stuff is one of my all-time favorites! I just wish I’d read it earlier — wish it’d been on my summer reading list back in the day (a thing my school didn’t even offer/require).

  12. ohhh, summer reading lists! that brings me back ;]
    i quite dreaded those actually. maybe it was just our
    selection (i never could get into gabriel garcia marquez!).

    i agree with your picks–the ones that were on my lists too, anyway.
    ‘to kill a mockingbird’ is one of my favorites! 🙂

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