I created the project “Summer Reading Encounters” during the summer of 2016. I had been teaching English at a progressive independent high school for three years, and I’d noticed that students and faculty alike seemed to navigate a world where only two kinds of books exist: pleasure and required.
Pleasure books aim to, well, please. The font lounges on the page, offering romantic adventures or scandals. Pleasure books laugh easily, and they want love more than anything.
But required books? Their covers are dull gray and dusty; they may have spikes on their spines. The words inside of a required book are tiny, and each letter has pincers. They want to inflict pain.
My Summer-Reading Conundrum
Prior to my decision to resuscitate our summer reading program, several students explained to me that they liked reading well enough, but they hated being forced to read. That is, they hated tussling with required books while pleasure books languished on the shelves. The tradition of summer reading, I realized, presents a real challenge. It doesn’t matter if the assigned books are dishy memoirs or stories of adventures on the high seas; the fact that they are assigned transforms them.
“Do you know what I mean, Samantha?” my students said.
I shook my head. “Weird,” I said.
I wasn’t too concerned until I discovered that Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower had become one of The Required, and thereafter, I noticed that no one read it. A colleague said she couldn’t bear to read a book full of so much brutality. A couple of my advisees said they couldn’t find the time to read it and eyed my dog-eared copy with suspicion.
Butler’s story of a young black woman who saves the world with her resilience and poetry did not come up in class or in faculty meetings. We adults complained about how the kids didn’t read, but we didn’t talk about Butler’s spare language or the disturbing images of an empire in decline. We discussed themes from the text during an assembly block in October, and then we never spoke of the novel again.
“Summer Reading Encounters”
I designed “Summer Reading Encounters” in defense of Butler’s work as well as all those other books that were dismissed or went unread during the summer months, and I envisioned a program that wouldn’t allow the school community to neglect the texts once the leaves began changing colors and dropping away. I wanted each member of the community to have choices about what kind of reading experience they would have, and in the description of the project, I invited my colleagues to “celebrate the books we can read while sunning ourselves,” the books that can travel. I wrote that our summer reading books “keep us tethered to the community when we are away.” I knew my words weren’t true even as I typed them, but I also figured that I had to at least design a great summer reading program before I watched it fail.
I put together a Community Reading Project Committee, which was made up of me, the school librarian, and a handful of young bibliophiles, and we selected four or five books from a list of suggestions from the school community. Most of the books we considered demanded to be taken seriously. They told stories of oppression and inequity, and I found myself in meetings saying things like, But does this book have any magic in it? Or No, we can’t read that. We can’t have a proper Januween if everyone is upset about racism and sexism or whatever.
From there, the school’s media club presented the summer reading selections with short avant-garde films. In one of these short films, “Ozzy Osbourne” discouraged frazzled students from finishing The Leavers until Superbook, the Community Reading Project mascot, swooped in to save the day. In another, students and faculty talked about their summer reading as if they were dates they couldn’t wait to get to know. A follow-up email encouraged each student to choose one (or more) of the books and to send in a “summer selfie” to show where they took that reading and potentially win a prize.
In my emails, I tried on a playful voice. There may have been memes. I couldn’t stress enough that these books, which ranged from true crime to YA to prize-winning literature, were not required. They had no pincers; they meant no harm. These books were all about pleasure; they wanted to party.
A Whimper, Not a Bang
Party they did not. In the fall, the winner of the summer selfie prize would claim their book-themed prize to limp applause on the assembly stage. I had envisioned the school coming together to create papier-mache busts or portraits or online profiles of 20th century sleuths and time-traveling pirates and undocumented single mothers. Ahead of Januween, the winter celebration of the books’ settings, I imagined my students and colleagues dressing up as Zaphod Beeblebrox or the Summer Prince or the 1990s. I fantasized about all these activities leading up to a book festival in those ripe and final days of the school year.
But, nope. We had made time and space for the Community Reading Project program, but the belief that any assigned book is a moustache-twirling villain would not die. I overheard students and faculty alike boast about not encountering the text. Some confessed to me what they had not done and awaited — I don’t know —absolution? Punishment? I gave neither.
The celebration of books that I sought did not readily materialize, and I count that as a failure — although there were some small wins. There were moments when students I didn’t teach talked to me about how they would navigate time travel if they were the main character in The Girl from Everywhere, or why it was wrong to dissect and fry octopuses during a character workshop on The Soul of an Octopus. Those moments felt less like failure and more like genuine encounters with text in the wild.
And in my final year at that school, I somehow convinced a theater full of teenagers to stomp, clap, and cheer for the summer reading books. A handful of them shook Party City pom-poms in their role as literary cheerleaders while a marching band rendition of Aretha Franklin’s classics played over the sound system. The moment lasted no more than five minutes, but it was what those books, what most books, deserve.