I Hate Summer Reading

I Hate Summer Reading

By Anne Sawan

Cooling spray

I am a reader. Walking into any bookstore or the local library physically changes me. I am instantly intoxicated, overcome by the smell…the feel… the sight of all those gorgeous books just waiting to be swallowed up. My idea of a perfect vacation day is curling up on the sofa or sitting on the beach with a good book and reading, uninterrupted, for several hours, transported to far away lands and into the challenges of other people’s lives. I am also a writer and a psychologist, so I suppose it seems as I should be a champion of summer reading for children; but I’m not. I’m not because the biggest, the most important part of me, the part I am trying desperately to hold on to, the fun loving mother part, hates it.

I quit. I don’t want to do it anymore. For ten long months I have been the homework police, demanding my children sit at the table and finish their schoolwork when they would rather be outside with their friends. I worked hard to get them through the mountainous amounts of school projects and studying and I am tired of it. I need a break; they need a break. I don’t want to be the whip cracker anymore. I want to throw my hands up in the air and dash out the door yelling, “Last one in the pool is a rotten egg!”

This year my children finished school on June 25th and they will return to school on August 27th. That gives us only eight short weeks to shake it all off and have some fun.

Eight short weeks to let loose and swing from trees into the deep waters of the lake, run through cold sprinklers and hunt for skittery crabs at the beach.

Eight weeks to learn how to use a jackknife, put a worm on a hook, and build a fort out of broken branches.

Eight weeks to take meandering bike rides, have lemonade stands and chase the ice cream man.

Eight weeks to have a neighborhood game of flashlight tag, go night swimming among the fireflies, toast marshmallows and finally fall down on the bed, or the couch, or the floor nestled next to siblings, cousins and friends, happy and exhausted.

Eight short weeks to allow minds to open up and let imaginations soar as beaches are combed and woods are explored.

And eight short weeks to finish summer reading. Blah.

This short summer our school district has dictated that my middle school children are to read three books. Three books in eight weeks! I know adults—successful, happy, seemingly normal adults—who don’t read that many books in a year. I just spent the weekend with a tween girl who lives near us, in a town with a very well-respected school system and she is required to read one book this summer. One book. When my children told her they were reading three books she frowned. “Too much pressure,” she said. Smart girl.

Now, I know there are many children who, like me, love to read and these children will complete this three-book assignment quickly. To them, time spent with a book is relaxing and even fun. These children will choose to use their downtime sitting on the porch swing, book in hand, reading away. But, there are also many children who do not embrace reading, or who struggle with it, and for them, summer reading is a chore, or worse, a punishment.

I have five children, some are readers and some are not. I didn’t raise them any differently, reading more to one than the other, it’s just how they are wired; one of my children will choose to read as often as he can, while another would rather not read anything beyond the back of a cereal box or a sports magazine. Asking this child to sit and read a novel on a sunny summer when he could be out playing Wiffle ball with his buddies is akin to torture.

I am not even certain of the point behind summer reading. Are these mandated books incorporated into the school curriculum come September? Rarely. Does the school believe that my preteen children will forget how to read in only eight weeks? Seems unlikely. Does the school think that mandatory reading will make readers out of nonreaders? Highly unlikely. I would love if all my children were avid readers, if on a summer day they sat quietly in the shade of our leafy maple tree and read. But this is not who they are. Forced summer reading does not make readers out of non-readers; all it does is build resentment and create creative avoidance techniques.

I resent having to cut into my children’s well-earned, unstructured, shortened-already vacation just so someone, somewhere, can check off a box that states the school has met its summer reading requirement. Downtime for families is scarce these days; childhood is short and our precious time spent hanging out together; laughing, playing and enjoying one another is unfortunately becoming lost as jobs and schools place increasingly high and often extraneous demands on us. I say it’s time we rethink summer and give our families a real break. Let those who want to read, read away, and those who don’t, well let them spend their time, their eight short weeks, as they please chasing clouds and having fun.

Anne Sawan is a mother to five wonderful and aggravating children. She also is a psychologist and an author, having articles published in Adoptive Families Magazine, Adoption Today and several children’s books published by MeeGenuis. 

The Books of Summers Past

The Books of Summers Past

Bookstore kids2 thumbnailRecently I told my older two kids that I would take them to the bookstore to make their first few summer reading choices.

Rebecca, 7, asked if they’d get prizes.

“Yes,” I said. “If by prizes, you mean books.”

She shook her head. “But what if we finish a lot of books? What do we get?”

“You get many trips to the library!” Poor thing was hoping I’d say toy store.

Sam, 9, was also confused. “Is it a competition?” he asked. “Will we earn money or something?” He thought that idea was unfair because the Harry Potter books he’d planned to keep reading (he’s on the third one) are so much longer than whatever Rebecca would inevitably pick.

I assured Sam that I had no such reading challenge in mind.

“Read whatever you want,” I said. “Tell me all about it. Pick out another one.”

They appeared unimpressed with the simple plan albeit pleasantly surprised by the lack of structure and direction.

It’s important to me that my kids read, that they’re always in the middle of a book or starting a new one. But I want them to exert some independence in their choices. They can often decide what to read during the school year as well, but summer’s relaxed homework-free schedule lends itself more to discovering the various possibilities on the shelves.

I try to keep my own summer reading unstructured as well. Most of the year, I’m beholden (or I feel that I am) to my to-be-read lists—both the stack of books next to my bed and the digital lists that live in my Kindle and in my library queue. I feel pressure to stay faithful to those titles, especially if I’ve spent money, waited for my turn at the library, or promised a book review to an author or editor. In the summer months, however, I allow myself the freedom to pick books by gut feel, to meander through a bookstore, or immediately start reading the novel that a friend presses into my hand and insists I will love. My book club takes a break in the summers, too. It’s three months of anarchy as far as reading goes.

I can remember some of my choices from past summers, even novels I read two decades ago. Much like certain songs can bring back memories of an entire year, person, or a special time, a book title can unlock images for me of where I was when I read it and how I was feeling at the time.

After my junior year in high school, for example, I spent a summer in Cadiz, Spain, where I read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. When I hear that title in any context now, I picture the apartment on Calle Ancha where I lived with a Spanish family for six weeks. Intertwined with Countess Olenska and Newland Archer is a memory of my host family’s matriarch, Connie, who made exotic meals like tuna on pizza and periodically handed me the letters that arrived from my boyfriend, Matt. Connie would watch me cry while I read each letter twice looking for any sign that he missed me. “I’m worried things won’t be the same when I get back,” I told her. Too young to stay in love from so far away, she said in a soothing voice even though those words were far from comforting. Connie’s prediction was absolutely correct, as was my concern. Matt broke up with me early in our senior year. And like Newland Archer, I spent most of that year pining for someone I couldn’t have.

The Flowers in the Attic series, which I’ve heard about often this year because of Lifetime’s movie remake, brings me instantly to the summer I was 14, when I took a trip to Toronto with my grandparents. I happened to be reading one of the books in the series in the same weekend when my grandmother, frustrated over something I’m sure had nothing to do with me, screamed at me to get my suitcase myself then threw a pencil at me from across the room. Grandma Susie’s outburst bore no resemblance whatsoever to the outrageously abusive grandmother in VC Andrew’s story, but I picture that pencil bouncing off the wall behind me whenever anybody mentions that book.

The novels I read in college while traveling through Chile made the strongest impression. I arrived for a semester abroad in Santiago in January, which is summer break in that part of the world. Classes at the university would not begin until March so a group of us made plans to head south. Instead of packing books in Spanish written by Chilean authors, which probably would have helped me immerse in the language and culture, I found books in a used English bookstore. In those months before my courses began, I read East of Eden, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Chosen, and The Fountainhead. I loved them all, especially East of Eden, which is essentially a scandalous family soap opera. In fact, I seem to remember those books and their characters more vividly than the port towns where I stopped along the way.

So, how will I decide what to read this summer?  I’ll begin with my to-be-read piles and lists, but like all summers I’ll allow for the possibility of chance and curiosity. I hope my kids will do the same this year and in the process treasure their extra time to read before the hectic pace of the school year begins again.

Illustration by Christine Juneau

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