by Tracey S. Hodges
Summer reading is a staple in high school requiring students to read a text over the summer and be ready to discuss it when school resumes. Often, these books represent the Western literary canon, filled with outdated references and antiquated language that may not appeal to modern audiences. Instead, teachers can assign books with similar themes that represent inclusive, diverse perspectives. This column shares choices that teachers may want to consider as updated, enjoyable options for summer reading.
A Complicated Love Story Set in Space. Shaun David Hutchinson. (2021). Simon & Schuster.
Wily readers will see that the title serves as a nice summary for this mixed-genre novel with nods to fantasy, romance, and space opera, which begins with “I WOKE UP ON A SPACESHIP.” Noa has no recollection of how he arrived in outer space or why he finds himself in a spacesuit outside a ship called Qriosity, talking to a boy named DJ whom he has never met. Shaun David Hutchinson masterfully draws readers into the setting, the lives of the characters, and the primary conflict (two boys stuck in space without knowing how or why). Over the course of the book, readers are propelled by questions. What has happened to Earth? How did Noa and DJ get on Qriosity? And most importantly, how will this story end? Just when readers think they have things figured out, Hutchinson delivers a plot twist that will have them talking all summer long. This book explores themes often found in summer reading such as coming of age, resiliency in the face of danger, and creation of a new civilization. For teachers considering books such as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), A Complicated Love Story Set in Space makes a nice pairing or substitution.
Concrete Rose (The Hate U Give). Angie Thomas. (2021). Balzer + Bray.
Angie Thomas’ dedication of this book reads “For all the roses growing in concrete. Keep blossoming.” This much anticipated prequel to The Hate U Give (2017) follows the story of Maverick Carter (Starr’s father) as he navigates being seventeen in Garden Heights. His life is filled with challenges as he learns about becoming a father, tries to repair his relationship with the woman who will later become his wife, navigates his exit from a gang, and evaluates ways to earn money to support his mother while his father is incarcerated. Life is hard for Maverick, but he is supported by family, father figures, and friends who teach him that “Tough situations don’t last. Tough people do.” At the same time, this book explores how young men feel emotions, particularly hurt, sadness, and pain. In 2021, as teachers are recognizing the importance of social-emotional learning and providing outlets for students to explore complex emotions, Concrete Rose provides fodder for discussion. This coming-of-age story would be a great substitute for typical summer reading such as Catcher in the Rye (1915) by J. D. Salinger or A Separate Peace (1959) by John Knowles.
Destination Anywhere. Sara Barnard. Illus. by Christiane Fürtges. (2021). Simon & Schuster.
What if you felt like you didn’t belong? What if you tried your whole life to make friends and fit in, only to be disappointed? Where would you go to find yourself? Peyton King feels like this. She has never fit in, has spent years being bullied, and cannot seem to put together a life in which she is happy and thriving. On a whim, she buys a plane ticket from England to Canada and leaves her parents an email letting them know she is setting off. Peyton searches for what she has never had: friends, relationships, and fuel for her artistic passions. Yet she learns that even when you get the things you have wanted most, they won’t necessarily lead to happiness. Told in exquisite prose, this book explores the pain of growing up and the beauty in finding yourself. “Pain is not a hierarchy. It is like a reservoir. It all comes from the same place. Sometimes the volume changes, but people can drown in three inches of water.” This book would make a great companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) for themes of lost dreams and the complexities of friendship and society.
The Firekeeper’s Daughter. Angeline Boulley. (2021). Henry Holt.
“Inaction is a powerful choice.” This complicated story about a young Ojibwe woman details her everyday struggles such as loving and supporting an aging grandmother and the intricacies of dating, as well as more challenging struggles such as hierarchies within tribal councils. Daunis is a biracial, unenrolled tribal member, belonging to two nations and no nations simultaneously. Her birth caused a scandal as her mother was only sixteen, and her families belong to opposing tribes in Canada and the United States. Daunis must navigate multi-identities daily, while also graduating high school, enrolling in college, and navigating her best friend’s murder. This book combines coming of age, mystery, and contemporary realistic fiction to detail a fast-paced, engrossing story. When Daunis realizes there is corruption in her tribe, she must enlist the help of an undercover cop to help her root out the issues. Angeline Boulley tells this story with honesty, accuracy, and detail, drawing from her own experiences as an enrolled tribal member and making this #OwnVoices novel a great read along with the writings of Louise Erdrich or Tommy Orange.
The Forest of Stolen Girls. June Hur. (2021). Feiwel and Friends.
June Hur creates a story based on letters written during the 13th-century Goryeo dynasty that examines Korea’s history of human tributes. In The Forest of Stolen Girls, set in 1426 Joseon, Hwani disguises herself as a young man and sets out to find her missing father, Detective Min, who was investigating the disappearance of thirteen young girls and is now missing himself. Along the way, Hwani learns that her own past may not be as she thought, reconnects with her younger sister, and realizes her own empowerment as a young woman. This historical novel includes a mystery and uncovers a dark past detailing how women were treated and used to gain political power for their families. With themes of female empowerment, political corruption, and finding the truth, The Forest of Stolen Girls is a great pairing with The Joy Luck Club (1989) by Amy Tan.
Four Hundred Souls: A Community History of African America, 1619-2019. Ibram X. Kendi & Keisha N. Blain (Eds.). (2021). One World.
While written as nonfiction for adults, this book has appeal as a crossover companion to any high school American history course. With ninety contributing authors covering four hundred years of Black history in America, it is comprehensive and combines genres in innovative ways. Beginning in 1619 with the introduction of enslaved people to America, each chapter chronologically documents five years of Black history in a succinct exploration and acknowledgement of a part of history that has been overlooked or omitted. Many chapters cover a significant event, person, act of legislation, or document that has influenced history, while others provide a synthesis of five years. Teens are sure to learn many new pieces of American history that can inform their thinking about past and current events. Finally, the book is interspersed with poems that recap every forty years. I recommend teachers assign the years to be covered in the curriculum as an introduction to the topics.
Home Is Not a Country. Safia Elhillo. (2021). Make Me a World.
Novels in verse are a great way to inspire teen readers and help them unpack difficult themes. Safia Elhillo uses poetry to explore what it means to be Muslim in post-9/11 America in this novel filled with tension and conflict. Elhillo beautifully illustrates the complexities of understanding one’s identity and showing pride in where you’ve come from and where you are going. “i know something happened on the news again / because my mother has stopped wearing her scarf to work.” In this verse, the protagonist, Nima discusses the feeling of shame induced by media coverage of another major event involving Muslim Americans and her internal struggle to be proud of her heritage. While exploring common themes of acceptance, loneliness, and the struggles of adolescence, Elhillo uses an innovative perspective-taking device to explore alternative storylines and provides richness and depth to Nima’s story. This book is a good choice for teens who loved Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X (2018) or Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming (2014).
Kate in Waiting. Becky Albertalli. (2021). Balzer + Bray.
What do you do when you and your best friend crush on the same guy? This conflict opens the story of Kate and Anderson, best friends since childhood, who both fall for Matt Olsson while at theater camp. The good news is that their crushes will end with summer as Kate and Anderson return to school. However, their friendship faces new obstacles when Matt shows up as a transfer student on the first day of their junior year. Things get more complicated when Kate is cast as a lead in the school play, along with Matt, and gets to share an on-stage kiss. Now what will they do? Will Matt choose Kate, Anderson, or neither? Will their friendship survive? In this fun, dramatic, and emotion-filled contemporary novel set against a backdrop of parental divorce, high school cliques, and gaining confidence in yourself, Becky Albertalli tackles questions of friendship and romance with high school drama (quite literally). This exploration of society and relationships would be a great substitute or companion to the writings of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens in which they explore similar themes.
Love Is a Revolution. Renée Watson. (2021). Bloomsbury YA.
This teen love story set against the backdrop of community activism and advocacy is perfect for today’s teen readers. Nala is content to spend her summer visiting her grandmother at an assisted living facility and moseying through time. When her cousin-sister-friend Imani, invites Nala to come to an activism event for her birthday, Nala cannot refuse. There, she meets Tye, instantly crushing on him though they have little in common. Tye is dedicated to environmentalism and speaks out against injustice. Nala is happy to not make waves. When it is clear that Tye is interested in Nala too, she begins telling small white lies about herself, such as saying she “volunteers at” rather than visits the assisted living facility. As she and Tye fall in love, Nala must confront the idea that he doesn’t really know her and must decide what to do: Tell Tye the truth and risk losing his trust or continue a façade? This is great realistic novel about being true to yourself, being honest, and having the courage to show people both your best and worst sides. Nala reminded me of forward-thinking Jane in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847).
That Way Madness Lies: 15 of Shakespeare’s Most Notable Works Reimagined. Dahlia Adler (Ed.). (2021). Flatiron.
While not usually summer reading, most high school curricula include works by William Shakespeare yearly. Shakespeare’s plays remain popular due to their themes and examinations of human behavior, but teens are likely to get lost in the old-fashioned voice and setting. That Way Madness Lies provides reimaginings of several plays that are more understandable to modern audiences. Teachers can assign several short stories from this collection over summer to prime students for their Shakespeare study later in the school year. For example, contributing author Mark Oshiro reimagines Twelfth Night as the story of a transgender teen presenting their true form while contributors Emily Wibberley and Austin Siegemund-Broke reimagine The Tempest during a tornado warning. Through these modern settings, characters, and language, teens can understand the complexities of human interactions and the themes of the original plays with more clarity.
Tracey S. Hodges is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama and current member of the Notable Books for a Global Society selection committee.
Chelsey Bahlmann Bollinger and Sue Corbin
After a difficult school year of virtual or a combination of in person and virtual learning, most children and teachers (and parents, too) are ready for summer! Summer is an important time for students to keep reading and improving their language skills. Even if most of your summer is spent in your own backyard, a good book can make any day feel like a relaxing escape. From engaging stories about fishing to exploring to traveling, from the realistic to the supernatural, these books will be welcomed by those including reading in their vacation activities.
The Best Place in the World. Petr Horáček. (2021). Candlewick.
In this picture book wrapped in bright sunny endpages, Petr Horáček shares the story of Hare, who is looking for confirmation that his meadow is indeed the best place in the world. He asks all of the animals who live in the meadow, and they agree with him. However, he still is not certain that there aren’t other places better than the meadow. Hare decides to explore the world outside of his meadow and discovers many beautiful places. Eventually, Hare realizes that, while there are many wonderful places in the world, the best place is really where your friends live. Horáček’s lively, textured illustrations are created using mixed media in bright, vivid colors. (PreK-Gr 2)
Goldilocks and the Three Little Pigs (The Wrong Fairy Tale). Tracey Turner. Illus. by Summer Macon. (2021). Kane Miller.
To the Three Little Pigs’ surprise, it isn’t the Big Bad Wolf who enters their brick house, it is Goldilocks, who happens to be walking through the woods and spots a home that needs to be investigated. She befriends the pigs, and as she is enjoying their porridge, the Big Bad Wolf announces his presence outside. The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks work together to try to keep the Big Bad Wolf outside. Tracey Turner mixes up another pair of traditional fairy tales in Jack and the Three Bears, which was published simultaneously. The illustrations in both of the books are wonderfully anarchic, hilarious, and endearing. (PreK-Gr 2)
The Hedgehog of Oz. Cory Leonardo. (2021). Aladdin.
This book is an absolute gem—an emerald, that is. L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City has nothing on the Emerald City Theater, where a lost hedgehog named Marcel and two hens have set up housekeeping in the balcony. Marcel lives for the showing of The Wizard of Oz every Saturday, remembering the times he’d watched the movie with his former owner, Dorothy. Surely, she will show up one day and take him home! When the old theater is shut down by the authorities and Marcel is captured and taken to a wilderness area outside the city, he begins a journey that becomes a quest for home with a ragtag bunch of lost and hurting souls. Cory Leonardo’s text is laced with alliteration and imagery that glows as beautifully as the Luna Moth who serves as Marcel’s good witch Glinda and finally shows Marcel the way home. Leonardo suggests listening to Lauren Daigle’s “Rescue” and “Love Alike This,” which he cites as part of the book’s playlist. (Gr 3-5)
I’m a Hare, So There! Julie Rowan-Zoch. (2021). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Jack, a hare mistaken for a rabbit, jackrabbit, and even a jackal by a ground squirrel (who is also misidentified as a chipmunk by Jack), explains the characteristics that make him unique as they travel through the desert in this engaging picture book that focuses on the concept of similar but different. Back matter includes a section on eight pairs of frequently-confused animals along with facts about what makes each of them special. For example, lizards and salamanders are compared and it is noted that lizards are reptiles with scales and salamanders are amphibians with moist skin. There is also a seek-and-find activity that encourages readers to go back through the book to identify fifteen Sonoran Desert creatures hidden in the digitally-created cartoon illustrations. (PreK-Gr 2)
Just Like That! Gary D. Schmidt. (2021). Clarion.
Just like that, things can change, and they do in this story about two unlikely people whose lives come together quite unexpectedly. Meryl Lee has lost her best friend, Holling, her parents are divorcing, and they have sent her to a boarding school to recover from Holling’s death in a car accident. Matt has also lost his best friend, Georgie, but his life is very different from Meryl Lee’s. He has no parents and is on the run from a gang of thugs who use children to steal for their living. The story is told from the perspective of each protagonist as they negotiate their circumstances through kindness and strength of character. Set in the late 1960s against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam, Just Like That! is an engrossing read, lush with Schmidt’s unique style of repeated words and phrases and incomplete sentences that pack a powerful punch of emotions. (Gr 6-8)
Mr. Complain Takes the Train. Wade Bradford. Illus. by S. Britt. (2021). Clarion.
Readers join Mr. Complain on a journey by train complete with plenty of train onomatopoeia. “Chug-a-chug-a-chug-a-chug-a-chug-chug! Screeeeeeee . . . POOSH!” Readers are asked to physically turn and tilt the pages as the train twists, turns, and flips in an interactive story told in speech bubbles. Even before Mr. Complain gets on the train, he complains that it’s too noisy. Once on the train, he can’t seem to find the right seat, and the train is too bright, too hot, and too wet. A variety of other troubles ensue during his journey to Dullsville. When he arrives at his destination, however, Mr. Complain realizes that he would rather stay on the train. S. Britt’s cartoon illustrations, rendered in ink and colorized using mixed media, extend the humor of Mr. Complain’s train trip. (PreK-Gr 2)
No Buddy Like a Book. Allan Wolf. Illus. by Brianne Farley. (2021). Candlewick.
Friends open up new worlds for you, and there is no friend like a book to take you to faraway lands and to teach you anything you would like to know. In a book, you can learn “why icebergs stay afloat . . . and why Titanics sink.” A book can be your travel guide to space or Mount Everest and all points in between. Allan Wolf uses his whimsical poetic genius as he invites all readers to join him on journeys of the imagination, the “greatest nation in the world.” Readers are invited to “step aboard the Book Express. / It’s waiting at the station. / But can you guess the address / of your final destination?” Brianne Farley’s lively illustrations play with Wolf’s verbal images and reflect Wolf’s joy of reading, even going so far as to provide visual directions on making a pinhole viewer to see an eclipse of the sun. This is the perfect book to introduce young children to the world of reading and to remind older ones of the possibilities open to them in a book’s promising pages. (PreK - 2)
Noah McNichol and the Backstage Ghost. Martha Freeman. (2021). Paula Wiseman.
The annual sixth grade play has been scheduled, but the director has a broken leg. Her replacement is a distracted coach with wedding planning as a side business. Noah McNichol and his classmates are worrying that the show won’t go on when a mysterious man named Mike appears (and strangely disappears on occasion). It turns out that Mike is the ghost of a famous Broadway director who has decided to save the Plattsfield-Winklebottom Memorial School’s rendition of Hamlet. But why would he bother with such an insignificant thing as a school play? Perhaps it has something to do with who is in it. Martha Freeman has written an intriguing novel for middle school students who aspire to the theatre or are simply taken with the idea of ghosts. The plot twist at the end of the story is a heartwarming tribute to the strength of family bonds and the pain that is sometimes associated with them. The character of Noah is a well-drawn depiction of an adolescent boy negotiating what is real and what isn’t in his young life. (Gr 6-8)
Sherlock Chick and the Case of the Night Noises (Sherlock Chick #3). Robert Quackenbush. (2021). Aladdin.
This new picture book edition of Robert Quackenbush’s third Sherlock Chick mystery (originally published in 1990) tells the story of how, over the course of three nights, Investigator Sherlock Chick helps the farm animals figure out who is responsible for knocking down a bucket of nails, cans, and various other items from a tall shelf and waking them in the middle of the night. This is the perfect book for readers to practice their inference skills as they solve the mystery along with Sherlock Chick. Quakenbush’s colorful Illustrations featuring his cute little super sleuth, Sherlock Chick, are created using watercolor, pen, and ink. (PreK-Gr 2)
So You Want to Be an Owl. Jane Porter. Illus. by Maddie Frost. (2021). Candlewick.
Jane Porter and Maddie Frost take you to Owl School to learn everything there is to know about being an owl. Unfortunately, as a human being, it will be difficult for you to be an owl. However, Professor Olaf, your teacher, will make you an honorary owl just for trying. This book engages young children as Professor Olaf speaks directly to readers and invites them to check themselves for feathers, look for food and predators, try to turn their heads, listen for sounds, pick things up with their feet, and hoot like different kinds of owls. While the owl menu may turn a few stomachs, the unpleasantness doesn’t last long, and each reader is made an ex officio member of Team Owl at the end of the lessons. The Owl Code, “Be alert, be watchful, and be silent (shh),” if taken to heart by readers, will be appreciated by adults. The artwork, done in bright colors (which owls can’t see), complements the text with diagrams and pictures of Professor Olaf showing just what it means to be an owl. (PreK-Gr 2)
Switched. Bruce Hale. (2021). Scholastic.
Middle schoolers will love this story about a boy and a dog who switch bodies, all by accident, of course. Known to the dog as Gloomy Boy, Parker detests Boof, a lovable but destructive Goldendoodle. Since the death of his beloved grandmother, Parker has slipped into a depression that causes him to obsess over cleanliness and order. With his grandmother gone, his sister leaving for a semester in Ireland, and his best friend moving away, Parker’s life is in chaos when his parents put him in charge of Boof, who is really his sister’s dog. If he can control the world around him, he can cope, but Boof seems bent on creating messes that Parker must clean up. A bump on the head during a tug of war with Boof magically switches Parker with the dog, and things get out of hand quickly. As Boof and Parker search for ways to reverse the transformation, they form a bond and learn something about themselves and each other. Bruce Hale has created two characters who are highly relatable and whose victory over their troubles gives the reader hope that, in spite of problems, it is possible to find ways to deal with them. (Gr 3 Up)
We Love Fishing! Ariel Bernstein. Illus. by Marc Rosenthal. (2021). Paula Wiseman.
Ariel Bernstein and Marc Rosenthal tell the story of a fishing expedition taken by four friends. Throughout the story, it is clear that Bear, Porcupine, and Otter love fishing, while Squirrel’s actions, comments, and feelings show that he doesn’t feel the same way. This cheeky fishing narrative ends in a delightfully unexpected manner with their friendship intact. Young readers will enjoy studying the vintage style illustrations, rendered in Prismacolor pencil, to see how they contrast with the text. (PreK-Gr 2)
Chelsey Bahlmann Bollinger is an assistant professor in the Early, Elementary, and Reading Department at James Madison University. Sue Corbin is an associate professor and chair of the Division of Professional Education at Notre Dame College in Ohio.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).