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 Often, these books represent the Western literary canon, filled with outdated references and antiquated language that may not appeal to modern audiences.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.