It’s that time of year when high school students everywhere receive their lists of assigned summer reading from next year’s English teachers. These lists are often filled with well-respected classics, but I can’t help but wonder: Where’s the YA?
As I understand it, there are a few possible goals for assigned summer reading. Title selections can be designed to tie into the curriculum and prepare students for concepts that will be covered during the upcoming school year. The assigned books can also introduce students to the Western Canon of literature that college-bound teens are expected to read.
Perhaps the most common purpose of assigned summer reading is to avoid the dreaded “summer reading slump,” a phenomenon in which students backslide academically as their reading habits atrophy over the summer. In other words, teachers just want students to pick up a book and stay sharp!
These are all worthy goals, and I can’t knock the classics. But I have to admit I’d love to see the schools mix up those summer reading lists a little. Some teachers do this already, but I want to see more schools assign YA books alongside the classics.
After all, a contemporary novel written for today’s teens can help fight the summer reading slump just as well as a 100-year-old classic. YA literature may not be in the Western Canon (yet!), but there are so many novels for teens that are rich, complex, and very worthy of literary analysis. Here are a few of the YA titles that top my assigned summer reading wish list.
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau Banks by E. Lockhart (2009 Printz Honor book)
When Frankie finds out that her boyfriend belongs to an all-male secret society famous for pulling pranks at their traditional East Coast boarding school, she feels excluded and indignant. But more than that, she’s determined to show them up with some truly epic pranks of her own.
This book is my go-to recommendation when a student needs a title for “free choice” reading at school. Teens will be entertained by the clever plot (pranks!) and relate to its smart yet flawed protagonist. And it’s more than a fun read: the thoughtful exploration of gender roles and societal expectations make this title substantial enough for use in an academic setting.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2008 Best Books for Young Adults Top Ten selection; 2009 Outstanding Books for the College Bound History and Culture selection; 2010 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults selection)
Growing up on an Indian reservation amidst poverty and bullying, Junior fights an uphill battle every day. Spurred by frustration with the lack of opportunities and resources, he decides to leave the reservation in pursuit of a better education — which leads him to question where he fits in.
This inspiring coming-of-age story appeals to teens who like reading about people their own age thriving in tough circumstances. Alexie’s vivid writing and Ellen Forney’s expressive cartoon-style illustrations elicit both laughter and tears, while themes of race, culture, and identity provide fodder for thought-provoking classroom discussion.
Sleeping Freshmen Never Lie by David Lubar (YALSA’s Ultimate Teen Bookshelf selection)
Could there be a more perfect book to assign incoming freshmen? Scott just wants to survive his freshman year. He didn’t expect his mom to announce a surprise pregnancy, he didn’t expect to get involved in tons of extracurricular activities in pursuit of his dream girl, and he didn’t expect old friendships to change and new friendships to blossom. Even so, his freshman year might just turn out better than he could have possibly expected.
Students will love it for the laugh-out-loud humor and real-life situations they can relate to, like crushes and the complex evolution of friendship. Teachers will love it for the word-play used throughout the narrative as Scott learns about different literary devices in his English class.
Going Bovine by Libba Bray (2010 Printz Award winner)
This quirky, contemporary retelling of Don Quixote, featuring a young man with mad cow disease, an epic road trip, and a talking garden gnome, may be more accessible to today’s teens than Cervantes’s classic text, but the two books may make for an excellent summer reading pairing for a teacher who wants to introduce students to the original classic.
Going Bovine can easily be enjoyed by a reader unfamiliar with Don Quixote, but familiarity with its literary inspiration will make the reading experience more deep and layered. Conversely, having read Going Bovine may help the students relate to Don Quixote more easily.
What YA titles would you like to see on an assigned summer reading list?
â€“ Allison Tran, currently reading Moonglass by Jessi Kirby
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