Six-year-old Neriah had just finished a bowl of vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice cream at the Codman Square branch library in Dorchester Tuesday.
She and her two siblings came to play Monopoly and eat ice cream at a summer reading kickoff program. When their bowls were empty, except for a thin layer of ice cream soup, they abandoned Monopoly and Neriah dashed out of the community room and down a ramp to the children’s books.
“They have the books that I like, and we get to have so much fun reading the books and checking them out,” she said.
Boston has a robust summer reading program, including events like this one that bring families to the library. The Codman Square branch was handing out pamphlets about the summer reading programs and information about free meals at the library over the summer.
The city hopes families might connect with books and meet librarians who can offer some guidance. Boston has also put together a summer reading challenge and a well-regarded list of recommended books for a narrow range of grade levels — for example, three to five. Staff at the Boston Public Library and Boston Public Schools, including teachers and school librarians, compiled those lists. The WGBH Foundation and Scholastic Press are the other sponsors of the program.
“Children and teens who don’t read over the summer can lose reading skills and ability,” said Farouka Abuzeit, manager of youth services at the Boston Public Library. “It’s a certain kind of treading water and maintaining [skills] if the child or teen reads over the summer.”
Research shows students should read books appropriate for their reading level and relevant to their interests over the summer, but it’s also important for them to receive feedback and support. Otherwise, children lose reading skills, and the loss is especially pronounced in lower-income families who have unreliable access to books.
Abuzeit said the librarians and teachers start compiling a list of recommended titles a full year in advance. They need time to solicit input from families and stock enough copies of the books in the city’s libraries. The librarians want to make sure no barriers to access exist for children trying to read in the summer months.
“We want books that are culturally sensitive. Kids in the Boston Public Schools can see themselves reflected in the text and also in the creators of the books,” she said. “We want to make sure that there are books that are accessible to kids that might be reading below grade level, as well as books that would be a challenge for kids.”
In addition to the list of recommendations, BPS also assigns each grade level a book to read over the vacation.
Boston’s rising fifth graders, for example, are being asked to read "Merci Suarez Changes Gears" by Meg Medina. The rising high school juniors will read another novel, "American Born Chinese" by Gene Luen Yang.
Boston Public Schools asks students from each grade to read the book and “highlight, underline, or write in the margins of the text.” The district also tells students to “bring your book to school” when they return in the fall.
“I don’t really know why BPS has that ‘underline’ part, because most of the kids are not getting a book that they can keep," said Abuzeit. “Not everybody can afford to buy a book.”
A grade-wide book assignment for summer reading is not unusual, but the strategy is being called into question across the country.
Donalyn Miller, a Texas teacher and author of "The Book Whisperer," said that while Boston’s required reading is generally age-appropriate, thoughtful and representative, the same cannot be said for summer reading assignments across the country.
“When kids get to self-select their own books to read, they have higher motivation and interest for reading [and] they will ... stick with the book longer, even if it presents some academic challenges, because they’re highly motivated to read the book,” said Miller.
Miller said giving students choice not only motivates them to read, but it also exposes them to a perspective outside of the Judeo-Christian worldview that dominates classic literature assigned over the summer.
“You look at my granddaughter, who’s going to be a sixth grader here in Texas next year, and her assigned summer reading is 'Where the Red Fern Grows,' which I read in 1977,” she said. “Ninth graders come and go, but 'Romeo and Juliette' is evergreen.”
Miller also said giving kids choice allows them to get recommendations from other children. They can also pick book series to read, which can generate momentum for kids who struggle to connect with reading.
“We complain that kids don’t read, and then we bemoan their choices when they do,” she said. “Too many people graduate from high school and breathe a sigh of relief that they don’t have to read a book ever again.”
Children’s book author and parent Anne Ursu saw firsthand how passionate people are about giving students decision-making power.
When her son’s teacher made disparaging remarks about reading fantasy books and graphic novels over the summer, Ursu wrote a tweet that went viral.
Email from son's summer reading teacher says that he doesn't let students choose what they read because "they'd just read graphic novels and fantasy" and he wants students to only be reading books about "the world of people and the things they do," so how is your day going?— Anne Ursu (@anneursu) June 8, 2019
“While there certainly is a cultural literacy point in being educated in the classics, it’s not necessarily better that kids K-12 read them,” Ursu said. “Our Western canon, for whatever reason, prizes realism ... [but] books with magic in them can often be kind of a literature of protest.”
Ursu said parents and teachers should be helping students find the one “gateway book” that will get students hooked.
“We can see the effect of what happens when parents or teachers or adults denigrate the books that kids love,” she said. “The best thing that can happen for school and reading — the goal — is that we turn kids into lifelong readers.”
Back at Codman Square, 7-year-old Susan plays board games with her dad in the community room. She says she’s looking forward to finishing "Peter Pan" on her own so she can get to the rest of her summer reading.
“I’m excited to read all the books in my house,” she said, including "the new ones I get from the library a lot.”