This girl needs a summer reading list — and fast!

I love getting e-mails from my 11-year-old cousin. They’re never written in plain old black ink, or standard font. They’re usually only a few sentences long, sometimes just a couple of words, but they give me a little glimpse into her world.

But that world, this week, on summer vacation, is not as fun and carefree as it might seem, she tells me:

Guess what? I have to go to my stupid dumb softball game with my stupid dumb softball coach yelling the whole game. You are actually lucky, even though you have to work. You don’t have to play softball. And to top that off, I don’t have any good books to read AT ALL. Wish me luck in life.


My first thought: She’s signing off as `someone’ now. This is serious.

Second thought: What did I read when I was her age, other than the Nancy Drew Files?

Then I realized that you might be able to rescue my cousin — and possibly, other kids — from the summer doldrums by suggesting some good reads. If you have time, tell us what’s to like about the book, and for what age groups it’s most appropriate. If not, the title and the author will do.

I have a feeling you will make Someone very happy.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • John

    I can empathize with her concerns about “having to play” Little League baseball. My parents apparently felt if I play didn’t like (play) baseball I would have a gender orientation “problem.” They made me play BUT I couldn’t make myself hit or catch a ball. I was assigned WAY out field where I was more into watching for butterflies than high flies. I had a crush on a girl named Nancy who sat in the bleachers watching me humiliate myself. But her last name wasn’t Drew. Even if it was Drew, performance on the field barred me from getting to know her SO I can’t be of any help. Regarding books from my childhood: Give her the ‘Golden Book of Insects.’ It’s got pictures and a brief description of all the locals. Trade in her baseball bat for an insect net!

  • Nextset

    Have her read Rite Of Passage by Alexi Panshin, and any of the juvenile series (12-20 books in paperback) books of Robert Heinlein (“Tunnel In The Sky” for example). These books have adolescents as lead characters (age 12-18) who make their own luck – people who go after their own futures despite odds against them, ie: stuck in the ghetto, parental disaproval, no money, war conditions, wrong sex, race, class, neighborhood, etc. Sometimes they also stay alive against the odds. The books all include dating/mating issues and usually feature an unattainable girl one of the male heroes has to knock himself out to attain. There is a lot of travel (with and without the parental units). There is often business dealings where teens invent/wheel & deal against adult rivals. Often at the end of the story the adolescent heroes have a reconcillation with the parental types who realize they now have to accept the “children” as adults with earned status in their own right.

    The interplay between the male and female characters is unusual – power and command shifts between male and female depending on the story and often it’s not clear exactly which sex really has the upper hand. Education and skills are stressed. But sometimes the characters are just kids…Heinlein’s “Podkayne of Mars” features a 14 or 15 year old girl caught up in political intrigue who’s lethal younger brother (age 12) dispatches the bad guys when he thinks it’s prudent regardless of his sister’s wishes (commenting that his sister is “too sentimental for her own good”).

    These are action/adventure science fiction books, easy to read and pretty engrossing for teens. The books are cheap on Amazon used books.

    Nobody sits around “dreaming”. They want something, they do their research, take classes/training, leave home & go out and get what they want in life. The narrators all make their own luck, not quite cheating but close, and go around or through every obstacle that holds back most of their peer group. No one waits for things to be given to them and no one expects charity. No one talks about being “blessed” and similar nonsense.

  • Sue

    Thinking about what my younger son has been reading lately – he just turned 11 this week.

    If your cousin has already read the Harry Potter series and enjoyed them, how about Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and, yes, absolutely any of Heinlein’s juveniles – particularly Podkayne for a girl.

    I haven’t read the Golden Compass and neither has younger son yet, so I can’t recommend it. If you find she likes sci fi, *everything* Asimov wrote is safe for kids. Zelazny’s Amber series might be a little old for an 11-y-o, but younger son seems to have enjoyed them and not suffered any harm.

    Just so I’m not only suggesting fantasy and sci fi (not everyone enjoys them), at her age I was reading everything I could find related to horses – the Black Stallion series of books by Farley, and novels by Glenn Balch (Native American protagonists) were favorites.

  • Sue

    How could I have forgotten my absolute favorite author?

    Ursula Le Guin – Earthsea series is specifically for kids. The Word for World is Forest – wonderful ecological theme. The Dispossessed – set in a completely non-consumerist society. Left Hand of Darkness – might be a little too mature for an 11-y-o, but it’s a great examination of gender roles using an alien species that is normally genderless.

    And one more word about Heinlein – I don’t know your cousin’s parents, so use your judgment about any of his adult novels. Stranger in a Strange Land (to pick one example) has more sexual content than most parents would be comfortable with before the late teens.

  • Katy Murphy

    I actually discovered Le Guin as an adult. I never thought I was the science fiction/fantasy genre type, but someone gave me the Left Hand of Darkness for my birthday one year, and I was completely engrossed (to my surprise).

    I agree that it might be a little deep for a sixth-grader, but I’ll definitely pass along the Earthsea series suggestion.

    These suggestions are great, by the way. Keep ’em coming…

  • Sue

    Definitely not for the kids, but Katy if you liked Le Guin try Octavia Butler.

  • Katy Murphy

    And, of course, there is the library, where I spent many a muggy Chicago afternoon as a kid (partly, because of the air conditioning). As one teacher wrote in:

    “All of the Oakland Public Library branches have reading lists for children and special summer programs. They also have a reading incentive program. Hopefully you can encourage parents to take their children to the library. We have some great Children’s Librarians in Oakland!”

  • Nextset

    Sue: Heinlien’s adult novels are a harder read as well as having sexuality. The juvenile series of books were commissioned by the publisher for juvenile buyers in the 1940s on. It’s amazing how well they have held up over time. I believe when he wrote “Starship Troopers” he and that earlier publisher permanently parted company as they were horrified such a book would be offered for impressionable teenagers – back in the 1950s?

    Even his adult novels continued his unusually competent & capable portrayal of women (and minorities).

  • Sue

    I love Heinlein, too. I think he probably deserves the title “greatest sci fi author of all time.” He was so far ahead of his time with regard to gender roles and relations, and he correctly predicting so many of the changes American society and culture have been going through since: The Roads Must Roll predicting the interstate highway system, for example.

    Both my kids have read a *lot* of his works, including some of his adult novels. And the older one almost never picks up a book unless he’s explicitely told, “Here, read this book, you’ll like it”.

    I’d just feel terrible for everyone concerned if an 11-y-o girl picked up To Sail Beyond the Sunset or Friday, and afterwards the kid’s parents found out what was in those books. Odds are they’d be really mad, and they might even think someone was trying to turn their little girl into an amoral sl*t!

    Hmmm. I’m not that conservative myself, and would let my boys read any of those books – with a LOT of discussion.

    I think I may be running into one of my knee-jerk reactions from growing up in a conservative Catholic household. If the responsible adults read it first and decide it’s okay for their kid, I’m comfortable. I just want to give a heads-up that some of Heinlein’s works are likely to be considered inappropriate by some parents.

    So, here’s a short list of Heinlein’s adult works that should pass muster with almost any parent:
    The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
    The Man Who Sold the Moon
    Magic and Waldo Inc.
    Farnham’s Freehold
    Revolt in 2100
    Job: A Comedy of Justice (likely to offend devout Christians, though)
    The Puppet Masters
    The Green Hills of Earth
    Tramp Royale (non-fiction account of his trip around the world)

    A very incomplete list…

  • Emily

    For age 13 and up:
    The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night–by Mark Haddon–about an autistic 15-year-old boy in London.

    About a Boy–by Nick Hornsby

    Slam–by Nick Hornsby–16-year-old protagonist–classic young adult fiction

    Me Talk Pretty One Day–David Sedaris–funny!!

    For maybe 11 and up:

    The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books
    Esperanza Rising
    The Skin I’m In

    Happy reading!!!

  • Nextset

    A long time ago I lent Modesty Blaise (action/adventure/spy) paperbacks to a student. I don’t think the family appreciated it. I’m glad I got the recovered each paperback because they are unusually expensive used – if you can find them. I considered them somewhat adult but no more than James Bond novels, with a more action, travel and a lot more moralizing in them. More ethnically diverse, evil and shades of gray in the characters. I thought them valuable for the moralizing actually..

    I’d prefer teen reading to have a high dose of moral fiber. Heinlein & the Blaise books fit the bill. They are fun to read but the protagonists take life as they find it and make their own destiny.

  • John

    Stick to the basics! An insect book and collecting net is her best option for the lazy days of summer.

    Regarding the killing jar: Acquire a large fruit jar. Install a layer of turpentine soaked cotton on the bottom.. Cover cotton with a layer of cardboard. Insert insect and screw lid on tight. DO NOT poke holes in lid.

    DO NOT use killing jars for butterflies. They’ll flit around and lose significant amounts of wing color. Better to pincer squeeze the abdomen. It only takes a second! Mounting is another subject. Anyway, it’s all in the book!

  • Marijke Conklin

    This is a great idea Kate. I recently reread “The Wizard of Earthsea.” I think a 5th grader could enjoy it. Another shorter Le Guin is “Jane on Her Own.” I like books by Tolkien and Beverly Cleary. Other titles that come to mind are “Watership Down,” “Mrs. Frisby and The Rats of NIMH,” and “Sophie’s World.”

    For the pre-k through first grade crowd, find and read everything by Dr. Seuss and Todd Parr. Other favs: “The Giving Tree;” “Dr. Doolittle;” “Abiyoyo;” “Down by the Bay;” “Growing Vegetable Soup;” “Happy to be Nappy;” “Llama, Llama, Red Pajama;” “Seeds, Seeds, Seeds;” “The Great Kapok Tree.”

    Subscribing to a magazine is also a good way to reinforce literacy this summer. Its like getting a present in the mail every month. How awesome is that? I’ve discovered they are pretty inexpensive.

  • Katy Murphy

    Thanks to everyone who submitted suggestions for the summer reading list. I’ve passed them along to my cousin, whose thank-you reply included multiple exclamation points.

    If you think of other titles, I’ll ship them her way as well.