This article first appeared in Acculturated in June 2015 and the New York Post June 20, 2015.
By Stephanie Cohen
Writing in 1908, the historian Henry Adams described winter as all about “compulsory learning” and school. Summer, on the other hand, was “tropical license” to do all the things children crave.
Summer, according to Adams, was a time for children to roll in the grass, wade in the brook, swim in the ocean, sail in the bay, fish in a creek, net minnows in the salt-marshes, or explore the pine-woods and the granite quarries, chase muskrats, and hunt snapping-turtles in the swamps.
Today, every June, newspapers, magazines and websites, along with librarians and teachers, post their must-read summer book lists for students—100 must reads, books for introverts, Bill Gates’ summer reading list, a light summer reading list, a counter-cultural book list, or a banned books list—the variations are endless.
From Milwaukee to Miami, reading clubs and contests featuring prizes are kicking off with names like Librarypalooza. Parents head to the library and the bookstore to find a few of the listed items for their sons and daughters, but often their kids don’t care for the books that were picked.
If we take Adam’s notion of “tropical license” as an approach to reading, however, we can create a perfect mingling of that summer rush of freedom and book time.
Tropical license means throwing the bookshelves wide open and letting children dive into piles and piles of books, some of which they may love, hate, not finish, or never forget; others will make them burst into spontaneous laughter or tears, or encourage them to become deep sea divers or zoologists. The summer season takes care of the “tropical” part. But parents need to give their kids the “license” to explore.
This means not picking three new books off a list that some literary critic or publisher or school thinks is a great summer read, and instead figuring out what your kid thinks is a great summer read. Our public library lets each kid in a household check out up to 50 books at a time. Stack 50 books up and you have a tower of reading possibilities and interests. Better yet, make a giant box of books for them that promises some surprises but also some predictable choices (another 39 Clues book!).
It means, quite simply, getting to know your child’s reading taste, which in turn will help you get to know your child better. I can tell you my kids’ favorite ice cream flavor, favorite pizza topping, favorite color and favorite sports. Finding out what they love to read requires a similar process of sampling and tasting.
Every summer, I pull cardboard boxes out of our garage—one for each of my children—that I fill up with used and new books. The project is more art than science. Some are books in the kids’ favorite series, while others are books on topics I know they will like. Some are shots in the dark (a book about flags, a book about climbing Mt. Everest, a book about the Great Wall of China, a spoof on The Hobbit). These books come without tests or expectations, without vocabulary lists or comprehension questions. There is no book in the box that they have to read. Their only obligation is to keep trying and sampling new books. Book boxes are less about any one individual book and more about building a home that embraces a culture of reading.
American-born author Mary Elizabeth Victoria Borton de Treviño gave an acceptance speech in New York City in 1966 when her children’s book I, Juan was awarded the Newbery Medal.
The book, which tells the story of a slave of the famous Spanish painter Diego Valazquez, grew out of a story her son told her about the artist. In her speech she beautifully captured what a family reading environment looks like, by offering a view into her own family growing up:
“When Kristin Lavransdatter by Sgrid Undset came out in English, I got hold of the book first. I sat in a corner with that novel and could not do anything but wash and dress mechanically, eat what was put into my hand, sleep reluctantly, and read, for two weeks. Next, my sister seized the book and she was tended, as I had been, and relieved of every household task and duty until, sighing, she turned the last page. Then my mother said, ‘All right girls, take over, it’s my turn.’”
During Henry Adams’s time books were rare and often difficult to find. When you finally had them, they were eagerly “devoured,” much like a meal.
“[A]s far as happiness went, the happiest hours of the boy’s education were passed in summer lying on a musty heap of Congressional Documents in the old farmhouse at Quincy, reading ‘Quentin Durward,’ ‘Ivanhoe,’ and ‘The Talisman,’ and raiding the garden at intervals for peaches and pears. On the whole he learned most then,” Henry Adams wrote, describing his early life in in The Education of Henry Adams.
Here’s a summer reading regime worth trying, one that Adams and Treviño would both approve: Ditch the summer reading list, grab a box, fill it with a pile of books, eliminate all chores and distractions that might interfere, and watch your child devour them like a delicious pile of peaches.