The Death of School Summer Reading

As I walked out to my car this morning, I was struck with memories of the quiet joys of summer, and a small part recalled the dumb anxiety at having to get through another dozen pages of Sarah Plain and Tall before I could go back to reading King Arthur and his Knights. Most of us have no small amount of nostalgia for the summers spent in our youths. Those of us who went to state-run child-kennels known as American public schools recall having to carve out a portion of the time we would have spent playing ranger, swimming, riding bikes, and counting stars for reading. Normally this would not wear on me, for I love to read. The problems stemmed from the limited choices of books on the list. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this.

Now, you older folk and those blessed with the fortune of a private education might scratch your head. There’s plenty of good books out there. I could scratch up a reading list for every grade level with a dozen or so books that would educate, entertain and delight the boys who read from it. However, my reading list bore little resemblance to anything I, or any sane male, would concoct for a boy.

One of the small saving graces of the reading list was that mine came in 3 parts: self-selected, required, and recommended. Required were non-negotiable and were typically covered in the school year. Self-selected were a delight. Recommended was the turd in the punch bowl. Generally, the goal was 30 books a year. 10 required, 10 self-selected, and 10 recommended. I tell you the God’s honest truth: finding 10 books on the recommended list that I could stomach was a struggle every year.

Of course there are the logistical problems of assembling a list of books for a grade. All of the recommended books have to be pre-approved. You can’t just allow a kid to read what he wants, otherwise they will list their 15 books of the summer as “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” “Curious George,” and the like. The problem comes with the list. Not only were most of the books dull, unimaginative, and grating, most of them were for girls. I’m not kidding. I sat down and counted one year, and over 70% of the books on the list were female protagonists dealing with female problems like social acceptance. Where were the motorcycles? The jets? The rifles? The mysteries? The haunted houses? Not for you, young man. Instead, you’re going to read as Sally and Wendy deal with their mutual disdain for one another for 200 pages and end it all suddenly upon the discovery that they both have the same favorite flavor of ice cream.

My mother, a teacher, concurred with my young sentiments and petitioned that I be allowed to read my Tom Clancy, Tolkein, and Timothy Zahn novels over middle school summers. I succeeded in receiving a marginal exception in that, because the books I read placed well beyond my reading level, I only needed to find 5 tolerable books off the recommended reading list rather than 10. No such luck for other boys, many of whom were cursed to read Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, Walk Two Moons, Tuck Everlasting, or the especially odious Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Believe me, finding 5 I could stomach presented an ample-enough challenge.

How did we get such a lopsided list? The people picking the books were almost all women. Now, it’s no small secret that, in educators, there exists a pervasive gender gap, especially at the lower grades. I can assure you it gets worse when you consider librarians and literary curriculum coordinators.

Why, in a world of already-wonderful books for boys like Treasure Island, White Fang, The Red Badge of Courage, and Robinson Crusoe, do we subject boys to Maniac Magee? Partially because the education system functions like any other communist organization: in a state of continual revolution. The books and teaching methods of old (or last decade) that worked need fixing because the fat, dull women who doubled-down on their useless educations need jobs and it’s impossible to educate Tyqueesius and Paco using the old methods. The latter merely serves as a pretext to continue fussing with the current education system, as racial gaps in achievement persist under every available metric. Colored kids did better when you made them shut up and read too, actually.

Now, I imagine things have gotten a good deal worse. None of my complaints about the reading stemmed from the politics of the books, merely the subject matter and dullness therein. I can only imagine the horror of today’s lists. I’ve got a quiver full of gripes about the Weimerican education racket from the relative dumbing-down of curriculum (Twain is a high school read today….75 years ago he was grade-school reading), to the systematic, “if it works, break it, ‘fix it,’ and remind everybody of your usefulness,” mentality that we have from pushing too many mediocre educators and administrators through university and purging men from the profession. But today we mourn the lesser tragedy that many bored, disaffected boys will endure this summer, and will possibly discourage from reading and academia in general. If you see a kid preparing to punt a library copy of The Joy Luck Club down the street, take time to remind him that for every contemptible compendium of toilet paper, there’s a Storm of Steel or a Starship Troopers.