Some Thoughts on Summer Reading Lists for High School Students

This post was triggered by an essay in the Wall Street Journal by author Ann Patchett in which she notes that as children, many of us were forced to consume books over school break; as adults, we can enjoy those assigned classics without the academic burden.

Here is the paragraph that resonated with me the most:

Thanks to the summer-reading assignments of my youth, I’ve never gotten past the idea that this is the season for classics, and so I have continued to trawl the reading tables long past an appropriate age. Going to the summer-reading table without a child (I don’t have any) is a little like going to the dog park without a dog, but so be it. I see the books that are assigned to other people as a chance to fill in the holes of my education.

I feel the same way. When I go to Barnes & Noble, the first place I usually go is the table that contains all the classic school reading list books.

A few years ago Time magazine put together a list of the top 10 classic books that have monopolized school reading lists for decades. In other words, books that we were forced to read. Here are those 10 books:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Of Mice and Men
  • A Separate Peace
  • The Catcher in the Rye
  • Animal Farm
  • Lord of the Flies
  • The Great Gatsby
  • A Farewell to Arms
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • Macbeth

I think I’ve read most of the books on that list, but I can’t remember the plot of most of them. I’m fairly certain I have not read Macbeth; in fact, I don’t recall having ever read any Shakespeare books/plays. I’m sure I did during high school, but I have no recollection. Hamlet? Macbeth? I have no idea which one is which, or even what either story is about.

But that’s a small sample of what I would consider must-read books.

As I vaguely recall from my last trip to B&N, here are some of the books that were on my favorite table which I do not recall reading:

  • Fahrenheit 451
  • A Glass Menagerie
  • Invisible Man
  • The Stranger
  • East of Eden
  • The Crucible
  • Death of a Salesman
  • Moby Dick

To that list, I would add books I have read:

  • The Count of Monte Cristo (perhaps my all-time favorite book)
  • The Three Musketeers
  • Don Quixote
  • The Caine Mutiny
  • Crime and Punishment

I realize there are more books than time available. Plus, if you just assign the classics, there’s never a chance to add a relatively more modern book that may one day be considered a classic.

But if I ran a high school, I would be sure to assign at least three books over the summer for the kids to read, but perhaps back off a  little bit with the type of assignment you create to go along with the reading.

Patchett points out that many times these assignments suck the joy right out of the reading, with questions and guidelines like the following:

Please choose TWO questions and write a response for each. Response should be 5-8 sentences, include evidence from the text and demonstrate your best grammar, spelling, punctuation and writing craft. This assignment will be the first grade of the first nine weeks and serve as the writing sample for the school year.

Here’s another example I found online:

For EACH book students are to create a Reader’s Notebook. The Reader’s Notebook will be collected on the first day of school and will be assigned the same grade weight as a MIDTERM or FINAL EXAM.

Directions: Read. Write every 2 or 3 chapters using the following steps:

Create a Reader’s Notebook which includes the following:

  • Vocabulary – In the notebook, write unknown words and use context clues to determine the definitions of the words; use a dictionary to check your answers.
  • Comprehension – In the notebook, summarize each chapter(s);
  • Critical Thinking – In the notebook, write 2 – 3 observations about character, setting, rising action, climax, conflict, irony, symbolism, tone, foil, imagery, point of view, or parallelism.
  • Elements of Literature – At end of the novel, write a summary of the plot, characters, conflict, resolution, and theme.

But wait, we’re not done yet.

Outline Structure for Literary Analysis Essay

  • I. Catchy Title
  • II. Paragraph 1: Introduction (Use HATMAT) A. Hook B. Author
    • C. Title
    • D. Main characters
    • E. A short summary
    • F. Thesis III.
  • III. Paragraph 2: First Body Paragraph A. Topic sentence (what this paragraph will discuss, how it will prove your thesis) B. Context for the quote 1. Who says it? 2. What’s happening in the text when they say it?
    • C. Quote from the text (cited appropriately)
    • D. Analysis of the quote: How does it prove your thesis?
    • E. Closing sentence (wrap up the paragraph to effectively transition to the next paragraph) 

You repeat step three for several paragraphs until you get to the Conclusion:

  • Conclusion (You do not necessarily have to follow this order, but include the following): A. Summarize your argument. B. Extend the argument.
    • C. Show why the text is important

Wow. And you wonder why kids may not look forward to their summer reading.

Here’s an alternative:

Require each student to prepare a five-minute video of themselves in which they share the basic plotline of the books they read and what they liked most about the book. This would likely require less time for the student to prepare and less time for the teacher to grade. And while it does not help students with their writing skills, it certainly would help with their presentation/public speaking skills.

In other words, more reading, less writing.

But even then, you are not going to get through all the great books out there by the time you graduate high school.

But as Patchett points out, if there are books on these lists you don’t get to while you are in school, there’s certainly nothing stopping you from reading them now.

With the bonus that there’s no homework associated with reading them as an adult.

P.S. I’ve written about summer reading lists before; here were my thoughts back in 2015.


22 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Summer Reading Lists for High School Students

  1. I enjoy reading since childhood. I’d read the textbook with joy (except for math. I hated math) but I don’t remember being asked to read any of the mentioned books when I was in high school, but then again, I went to a Philippines school.


      1. I am. My childhood friends told me at our reunion that what they remember of me the most is that there was not a day without a book in my hands haha 😀


    1. I think thre’s a happy medium herre. Certainly there is joy in exploring your own tastes and interests, but at the same time it’s helpful to be guided along the path towards books you might not otherwise be aware of. Some of the best books I have read came from recommendations from others.


  2. Jim – Great post. This one hits home for me as we have kids working through their summer reading lists right now. I’m hoping they will come to love reading as much as I do and agree that schools need to take care not to make it a chore. Also, I was in Barnes & Noble and am very familiar with the table you mention. I almost bought A Separate Peace to read that again but remembered I’m going to re-read my son’s copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God. I do wish they’d add Mark Twain to these lists. Thanks for this post.


    1. Separate Peace is on my list to read again as well; as I recall it was one of my favorites. I have not heard of Their Eyes Were Watching God, I’ll have to check it out. By the way, not sure why my comment on your last post about the telemarketers didn’t seem to get posted, but I sent it again My kind of humor!


    1. Just finished reading it; great book – well-written, a compelling story, and I learned a lot about that time in our history. thanks for the recommendation!


    1. Thanks for your comment, Norah. To me, there’s a happy medium. Certainly, people should be free to choose the books they want to read. Self-exploration is wonderful. At the same time, I think it is helpful to have someone offer guidance along the way and to suggest books that you might like. Many of the books I have read were the result of someone’s recommendation, which Iw ould have likely never chosen or discovered on my own.


      1. You’re right, of course, Jim. It is good to have guidance in our selection, particularly if the guidance targets our interests. Not so much the compulsory reads for everybody, though, I think. Though sometimes we can be surprised by what appeals.


      2. And along the lines of what Ann Patchett, even if we let kids pick what they want to read, we need to be careful not to assign some dull questions to go along with the book.


  3. I hope that people would get to reading books for the simple pleasure they give. Even if it means having to force people’s faces into books to get them reading (hahaha).

    If this would help build a habit of reading, then, by all means, make it an assignment.


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