Summer Reading List

Julia is going overseas for most of the summer, and she is putting together her reading list. I'm sure she'll put together a fine list. But we live in a culture in which we are compelled to suggest to high school students what they might want to read, especially in preparation for college. I've looked at a couple of those lists, and they are dismal. Some seem to be lists of works that are especially long, challenging of language, in many cases unpublishable in the modern market, out of date, and boring. I mean, really, Moby Dick? Watch the movie, dude, the book is a bear.

However, the American Library Association has a set of lists, topically defined, and in my view excellent. I thank Julia's English teacher, Ms Folliard, and her assistant Ms Hart, for suggesting this source.

I've gone through the lists and developed my own sublist, going with the assumption that you'd want to start the summer with about a dozen titles. Here it is:

Ahmad, Dohra, ed. Rotten English: A Literary Anthology. 2007. W.W. Norton. Language is power and for the dizzying array of writers collected here, displaying an authentic voice is a means to reclaim what has been stolen, oppressed, or colonized.Rotten Englishcollects the poetry, essays, short stories, and novels of the best in global vernacular writing from Mark Twain to Junot Diaz.

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Arnold Spirit, aka Junior, was born an outsider with water on his brain, lopsided eyes, and an IQ oppressed by extreme poverty and a mediocre reservation education. After switching to an all-white high school he realizes that though he'll never easily fit in, self-determination and a solid personal identity will give him the chance to both succeed and transcend.

Blumenthal, Karen. Let Me Play: The Story of Title IX: The Law That Changed the Future of Girls in America. 2005. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum. This nonfiction work looks at Title IX, the 1972 legislation mandating that schools receiving federal funds could not discriminate on the basis of gender, ensuring equal treatment and opportunity for girls in sports and education. Included are period photos, a time line, "then and now" commentary, extensive source notes, and suggested resources for further reading.

Brown, Rita Mae. Rubyfruit Jungle. The story of Molly Bolt, southern girl who moves to New York.

Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything. 2004. Broadway Books. A renowned travel writer brings complex scientific concepts to life by describing how the universe and life as we know it came to be.

Candlewick. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves. 2008. Candlewick. Set during the American Revolution, Octavian is raised as a pampered African prince by a society of Enlightenment philosophers who view him as an experiment. Realizing that his freedom is an illusion, Octavian sets off on a journey to find freedom and a place in the world. These books will challenge everything you have ever learned about the Revolutionary War.

Casey, Susan. The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks. 2006. Henry Holt/Owl Books. While studying migratory birds on the remote Farallones Islands, 30 miles off the coast of San Francisco, biologists noticed red blotches in the surrounding waters. These sightings evolve into a full blown scientific study of great white sharks revealing unknown secrets of this prehistoric beast.

Cisneros, Sandra. Caramelo. 2003. Knopf/Vintage. LaLa learns the stories of her Awful Grandmother and weaves them into a colorful family history. The "caramelo," a striped shawl begun by her Great-Grandmother, symbolizes their traditions.

D'Orso, Michael. Eagle Blue: A Team, a Tribe, and a High School Basketball Season in Arctic Alaska. 2006. Bloomsbury. This true story explores the tiny village of Fort Yukon, Alaska, its vanishing cultural heritage, and its relationship with mainstream American culture through its high school basketball team.

Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. 2005. Houghton Mifflin. Award winningNew York Timesreporter Egan tackles the great dust bowl phenomenon of the 1930's and 40's in this multi-tiered account. He shares incredible eye-witness accounts as well as the overwhelming convergences of failed agricultural practices, ill-fated government policies, and the costs of "get rich quick" schemes.

Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. 1998. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A Hmong refugee family in California clashes with the American medical system when they attribute their daughter's grand mal seizures to a spiritual rather than physical problem.

Jacobs, A.J. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. 2007. Simon & Schuster. A non-judgmental and humorous look at the twelve months Jacobs lived as closely as he could to literal compliance with biblical rules.

Jones, Lloyd. Mister Pip. 2008. Dell Publishing/Dial Press. Matilda's Pacific Island village has been torn apart by civil war. Against this harsh backdrop, Mr. Watts, a lonely British expatriate, maintains calm by reading Dicken's Great Expectations aloud to the village children, transforming their lives.

Kidd, Sue Monk. The Secret Life of Bees. 2008. Penguin. Searching for the truth about her mother's life and death, a grieving Lily finds the answers, love, and acceptance where she least expects it.

McKibben, Bill, ed. American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (Library of America). 2008. The Library of America. Experience the growth of the environmental movement in poetry, essay, song, and prose from its infancy to present day through the eyes of its champions.

Piercy, Marge. Gone to Soldiers. Several different lives during World War II.

Saenz, Benjamin Alire. Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood. 2004. Cinco Puntos Press. This Hollywood is a barrio in 1968 New Mexico, where the students at Las Cruces High School struggle through heartbreak, loss, and an entrenched racial divide to find their place in the world.

Stern, Jessica. Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. 2004. HarperCollins. Seeking to understand how religious ardor leads to violence, Stern recounts her dramatic encounters with Christians and Muslims who use terrorism in the name of God.

Ung, Loung. First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers (P.S.). 2006. HarperCollins. The perils of life under the brutal Pol Pot regime change a young woman's life forever, as she and her family find themselves fugitives of war, without even their names to remind them of what they lost.

Zusak, Marcus. The Book Thief. 2006. Random House/Knopf. Living in Nazi Germany, young Liesel and her family choose to lie and steal to protect a Jewish refugee hiding in their basement. Narrated by Death, this is not your typical World War II story.

OK, so that's a little longer than a dozen. Sadly, only a small number are available for the Kindle, so if Julia is going to read a list like this one (and she' probably pick some different titles, though I'm sure there are several here she'd enjoy) she's going to have to get another piece of luggage.

So, of these books which ones should NOT be here because they suck? What am I missing, either from the ALA lists or as your own independent recommendation? Two of the books on this list are actually not on the ALA lists.

Meme on!


nb: Most of the descriptive text for these books is from the ALA site. Do go check the site out for additional ideas.


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This is a great list! You've got a lot of my favorites on here, and some of my to reads. All sound wonderful. I recently read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and it's #2 book in the trilogy, Catching Fire--they're fast reads and hard to put down. Also, what about some more visual books? Alison Bechdel's Fun Home Tragicomic,comes to mind, Persopolis #1 and #2 are great reads, Neil Gaiman--anything by him, as well as Terry Prachett are terrific. I would also recommend Lynda Berry's Marlys, and if Julia likes modern art, ART NOW, Vols. 1, 2, or 3. Have fun!!!

Excellent suggestions.

Funny you should ask about visual books. I intentionally avoided visual-heavy items when making the list, so that I could maximize the value of the list when trying to find kindle-available items. As it is, only a handful are available for the Kindle.

I don't know if Julia is taking her Kindle on her trip or not, but that is an ideal way to go. She can literally carry hundreds of books that way.

Agreed, art books are heavy, and too bad they're not on kindle. Comics are light though. Sandman is a great read.

I definitely enjoyed Jacob's "The Year of Living Biblically". One that I would recommend is by a protege of his (the "slave" referenced in the book), Kevin Roose: "The Unlikely Disciple". It details some of the issues with the culture wars, based on the perspective of a Brown student that spent a semester "abroad" at Liberty University. Compelling, funny, and enlightening.

"Stranger in a Strange Land" helped the 14 year old version of moi to realize that all religions are BS.

"Catch-22" is a must read for all young adults.

By LightningRose (not verified) on 28 Apr 2010 #permalink

Love Sherman Alexie, though I haven't read that one. Selected Shorts devoted an entire hour to William Hurt (?) reading one of his stories - powerful.

Bryson is great, but the Short History isn't his best IMHO. Just too much ground to cover.

Gone to Soldiers - an excellent book, too little known.

Suggestions: God is not Great, Christopher Hitchens.

Two books that weave history and travelogue: Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz follows Captain Cook's voyages. Delightful reading.

Songbirds, Truffles, Wolves by Gary Nabhan explores Italy from a viewpoint... well, it's hard to describe. Traditional agriculture, wilderness destruction, St. Francis of Assisi, lost and found faith all find a home here. An antidote to Hitchens, or maybe Hitch is an antidote to him.

You've left out the comfort food, the books that are there for reading when you're too tired to want to wrap your brain around those "expanding" books, the ones that are friends when everybody else you know (and want to talk to) is in the wrong time zone. Those are the books that make reading a lifelong reflex. They may not be something you want to pick out for Julia, but don't let her go without some.

Yes to comfort food books. Almost anything by Nick Hornby - A Long Way Down is good. Kafka on the Shore - Murakami revels in the bizarre and surreal but takes the reader along with him. My teenage son read both of these (although I think he liked Hornby's Slam better.)

I'd skip Piercy and Brown, who frankly I think aren't very interesting as writers, and add in Heinlein's _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_ (which is a fascinating and compelling piece of political fiction, if sometimes an appalling one, and a great side-text to Octavian Nothing_). I'd add John Barth's very funny _The Sot Weed Factor_ to balance out all the "stories of my horrible life" which we tend to overdo for younger readers IMHO, giving them the false impression that all good books are terrible memoirs ;-). I'd add in Saul Alinsky's _Rules for Radicals_ which is just the sort of thing to begin channelling inchoate political impulses at that age and, either _A Distant Mirror_ by Barbara Tuchman or if she prefers fiction _The Name of the Rose_, both of which I think usefully help someone get into the habit of thinking in alien worldviews - we tend to think that alien worldviews emerge only from physical distance, but IMHO, it is important to learn that they pass through time.


Oh, forgot to add that I'd replace Piercy with Irving in _The Cider House Rules_ - same era, many of the same subjects, but far better prose and less predictable situations.


Your sending your kid overseas for the summer so she can read books?

She can read books at home anytime.

Lighten up.

By Bill James (not verified) on 28 Apr 2010 #permalink

Personally, Bill, I like to have reading material with me wherever I go. Even when visiting exciting new places there is generally down time and I generally like to read in my down time. I can't speak for Julia, but in her place having reading material would be very important to me.

I would highly recommend Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools. I have yet to actually listen (yes, my eyes hurt after a day of studying so I do audiobooks a lot) Three Cups of Tea, first of the two, but considering Stones into Schools, I am all about recommending both. Stones was definitely one for drawing out tears, but also for creating a certain amount of hope for the future of the Islamic world.

Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence is a book that I totally wish I had read when I was about eleven or twelve.

For sheer fun, I recommend Larry Niven's The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring. Or the Ringworld series - though I think the former is a lot more interesting. For more interesting braincandy, I recommend The Book of Confluence by Paul J. Mcauley. But then I am totally a sucker for manufactured or just plain bizarre worlds...

As for the list you compiled, the books I am familiar with are worthy reads. And A Year of Living Biblically is on my list.

Don't forget "Flyaway: How A Wild Bird Rehabber Sought Adventure and Found Her Wings" just out in paperback from Harpercollins. Oh .. all right ... it's by Suzie Gilbert, who is me, and I realize it's rude to flog one's own book on blogs but I do have environmental bona fides, and only so much time before I have to get back to the mealworms. The book is very lively and shows what happens when the desire to help a few injured wild birds turns into an obsession to help all of them. Hint: it's hell on the rugs.

Monica: The visuals isn't about bulk: The Kindle does not show stuff that is not text very well at all. I suppose that is what the iPad will be for!

Susie, The Unlikely Disciple looks interesting.

Ligtening, I think Stranger in a Strange Land is on her reading list this semester. Catch 22 is a good idea. I'll have to see if she's read that yet.

Dacks, excellent suggestions. And Blue Lat. is available for the Kindle.

Stehpanie, yes on the comfort books, but I'm not good a picking them out for Julia because she's often read stuff before I find out about it. Certainly she can add those. One thing I was looking for, though, in narrowing this list down is finding a few items that span the genres and are actually "comfort books" yet also "deserving" to be on a librarian's list. That, actually, is why I added Rubyfruit Jungle. It is actually on a lot of librarian's list, it's been banned and all that, and it is a basic summer novel in many ways.

Sharon, your suggestion in full would ruin my carefully maintained gender balance and take two of my favorite books off the list! But adding a Heinlein Barth may be a good idea.

I think she's read Name of the Rose.

Bill: Well, Julia would prefer to have several books with her while traveling on air planes vast distances, and living on an excavation site, etc.

DuWayne, great suggestions.

Suzie, I don't think it is at all rude to flog one's on book on a blog! Flogging books is one of the main purposes of blogs.

Don't be dissin' Moby Dick. It is true that the book is too long, and that Melville could have used a better and more insistent editor. But that book contains some truly epic prose.

By Virgil Samms (not verified) on 28 Apr 2010 #permalink

It's the 20th Anniversary of Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried'!

Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Hey, I'm reading that right now! It's pretty good.

By Virgil Samms (not verified) on 28 Apr 2010 #permalink

Rubyfruit Jungle is a lesbian classic, though I preferred Oranges are not the Only Fruit.

already read moby dick anyway

The Hitchhiker's Trilogy, Last Chance to See, or anything by Douglas Adams.

"Mayflower" by Nathaniel Philbrick is one of the most compelling history books I've read in a long time. I can't believe I've lived in New England for so long without knowing much about the very first years of the Plymouth colony and King Phillip's war. This book is a very quick and informative read. If you haven't read it read it - and readers of every age will appreciate it. Once you read it tell me what you though of it...

Abdel: Good choices. I don't know why they are not on the ALA list. I didn't put them on this list, though, because I knew Julia had read them. (By the way, there may well be other items on this list that she's read, but when I knew, I left it off)

Might I suggest, if one is fictionally minded, anything by Ursula K. LeGuin. But if you had to choose I'd go with The Dispossessed. I find her political fiction a welcome antidote to Heinlein, who IMO was into so much macho posturing (even in his female characters, with Friday as the worst example) that it's hard to get past it.

The Whole Shebang by Timothy Ferris is pretty good, but I am biased as he was a grad school professor of mine.

Also, I think Carl Sagan is one of those scientists who really conveys well the wonder of science, and what makes it fun, and what makes it interesting. I have a whole stack of his books and have to say The Demon-Haunted World and Pale Blue Dot are among his more personal; Cosmos of course is his best known, Comet was less good.

And for history, two books that I think should be read side by side. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations and Guns, Germs and Steel. The latter will show some of the former's weaknesses, but I don't write Landes off completely as most of his book is really good.

An interesting list. A correction:

The author of The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves is M.T. Anderson, not "Candlewick", as you've listed.

(Candlewick is the publisher, as you've correctly indicated.)

Flatland by Edwin Abbot: It's short, sweet, but something that gets people (age 13 and up as far as I can tell) excited about physics and extra dimensions more than anything else I've seen. I would recommend it to anyone, even if they have zero interest just because it is a great perspective shift.

Thirteen Moons by Charles Frazier: It's just good. It takes a lot for me to get pulled in to a book, and this one is one of those.

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov: Or really anything by Nabokov. But this one pulls you in on the first paragraph.

Tom Levenson's books (Einstein in Berlin, Newton and the Counterfeiter). Nonfiction that's awesome. You can find Tom's blog and discover other short writings and observations too.

I also second (third, fourth, whatever) the suggestions for Douglas Adams books and Carl Sagan books. And Catch 22. And... well there are a lot of great suggestions here. I'll be picking some of these up soon.

Other things I would recommend only to kids actually interested in science:
In Search of Schrödinger's Cat by John Gribbin
The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav

Now that my brain has a had a day to stew; "1984", "Brave New World", (although those are sometimes studied in high school) and Kesey's "Sometimes a Great Notion" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".

And since she's on her own sojourn, Jack Kerouac's "On the Road".

By LIghtningRose (not verified) on 29 Apr 2010 #permalink

Thanks for posting such a great list! I do want to get my hands on the Book Thief this summer. You might also enjoy a book I just finished by Mike Hogan called, "The Ovary Wars," which is an intriguing medical mystery thriller. The story is fast paced with a lot of twists and turns. Makes you think about the fragility of our humanity.