Recommended and required summer reading lists created by schools and school districts are pretty hit and miss. In a town I used to live in, the teachers and administrators would routinely select books that were out of print each and every year, making it impossible for the public library to meet demand for those titles. This continued to happen despite communication from the public librarians that obtaining enough copies in good enough shape to add to the collection was not going to be possible. I suppose those teachers just really, really liked The Pushcart War (incidentally, back in print since 2014).
By contrast, I’ve been really pleased with the Austin Independent School District’s lists. This is the second year they’re doing a program they call the 5 Book Dive, which encourages kids to read at least five books of their choice and provides lists of recommended titles organized by language and grade level. But as the main page states, these lists are ideas – the selection of the books is ultimately up to the student. It’s targeted at preventing the summer slide, rather than preparing students for a particular curriculum, and the lists are some of the best I’ve seen.
I wanted to write a little bit about what makes the lists so good, and I’ll focus on the ones for grades 6-8 (middle school) and 9-12 (high school). One shortcoming of the lists is that there’s no Spanish lists for these upper grades; those end at grade 5. Hopefully, the Spanish lists will expand in future years as the program gains more steam. And as Austin continues to grow more and more diverse, I wonder if we may eventually see other languages included as well.
Something I always look for in a good summer reading list for kids is currency. If it’s a book you studied when you were in school, it’s probably too old to belong on the list. In fact, I’d say books from the past five years are ideal. Most of the books on these two lists fit this criterion. The ones that don’t are perennial favorites that are timeless, still in print, and widely available (Feed by M. T. Anderson, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin, among a few others).
There’s a good mix of award winners (Ghost by Jason Reynolds, March Book Three by John Lewis, among others) and super popular bestsellers that will be on kids’ and teens’ minds already due to their tv or film adaptations (Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon, Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, among others). The books range from highly literary to more of what teachers and other gatekeepers might call “brain candy.”
While most of the books fall underneath the contemporary realistic umbrella, the lists also include a good amount of genre fiction, including historical fiction (Shame the Stars by Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, among others), fantasy (Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor, Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, among others), mystery (The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson), and science fiction (Feed). And within that contemporary realistic umbrella, there are some books that are sad, some that are funny, some that are exciting, and some that are a mixture of all three. Importantly, there are a few nonfiction titles as well: two out of the 20 on the grades 6-8 list and three out of the 20 on the 9-12 list.
The lists are also diverse in format. There’s at least one verse novel (Booked by Kwame Alexander) and two graphic novels on each list.
Perhaps most importantly, the lists are diverse in terms of representation. At least half of the titles on each list are about or feature prominently kids and teens who are not straight, cis, white, or able-bodied. Some are about immigrants or kids of immigrants. Some are about kids and teens living in poor or violent neighborhoods. The books are also pretty evenly divided among gender lines, both in terms of writers and protagonists.
I really like these lists. I like how diverse they are in all areas, I like that they emphasize choice, and I like that they can be easily found at libraries and used bookstores. It’s such a refreshing change from some other lists I’ve encountered; kudos to the school librarians and language arts teachers for their great selections.