Ten Books to Revive Teachers This Summer

Teaching is important, but exhausting work. In addition to being a time for revising lesson plans, rethinking units, and engaging in professional development, summer is also a sabbath, a time to rest and breathe and get ready to do it all over again when September comes. So summer reading should not only be about teaching and common core standards and differentiation, but also about rediscovering how much fun it is to learn about the world we live in. Recognizing that one person’s “you-must-read-this” list is another person’s “never-ever-read-this” list, I have tried to include a wide range of interesting books. Also, because my own area of study is in how students read graphic novels (book-length works of fiction or nonfiction told using the conventions of a comic book), there are a few of them in here.

Feel free to pick and choose the books that look interesting to you. Then relax and read.

  1. Eventide by Kent Haruf. This novel is a sequel to Plainsong. In Plainsong, the McPheron brothers, two crotchety old bachelors who run a cattle ranch, take in Victoria, a pregnant runaway teenager. It is an excellent book that deals with life in a way that is honest (and sometimes painful and ugly), yet also shows the truth about community, caring, and belonging. Eventide takes up the story on the day Victoria and her daughter Katie are moving out so Victoria can attend college in the next town. Haruf expands the circle of characters in the first novel to include a bigger picture of the McPheron’s larger community and Victoria’s new community. Here, again, are stories of people caring for other people, stories of grace and mercy, stories of how tough life can really be. Although all the loose ends are not tied up, it is a very satisfying ending. Just read it. You’ll like it.
  2. Town Boy by Lat. Lat (that is his full name) has created, with this graphic novel, a wonderful story of growing up and finding friendship. The main character, Mat, is excited when his economically poor Malaysian family is picked to be awarded a small house in the city. Mat starts to attend school and meets Frankie, a Chinese boy who invites him over to listen to records. Frankie has a collection of American rock-and-roll albums—Elvis, the Platters, Bobby Darin, Pat Boone, and so on. They become friends and survive many things together—the annual physical education run from one side of the town to the other, learning to be cool, math tests, art class, marching band, and even Mat getting his first date with Normah, the most beautiful girl in school. When Frankie finds out that he can attend his dream school in London, but he has to leave on a train in three hours, there is a scene that sums up what a good friendship between guys is all about. This is also a good way to experience how growing up in a third-world country is and to learn that it isn’t that different from growing up in North America. It also might be a good addition to a middle school or high school classroom. You can read this book in about forty-give minutes, feel a deep sense of achievement and fulfillment, and still have your whole summer day before you.
  3. Hunting for Hope by Scott Russell Sanders.  During an argument about politics, the environment, and the attitudes of people in society, Sanders’s college-aged son accuses him of having no hope in anything. Sanders has never thought of himself this way and begins a journey, in part involving a backpacking trip with his son, to try to rediscover what is good in creation. Sanders is a remarkable essayist, and the book ends up being filled not only with hope, but with insights about small towns, hiking trails, nature, marriage, fatherhood, work, simplicity, and much, much more. Sanders is a believer (though his exact theology is unclear), so much of what he has to say resonated with me as a Christian living in a world that sometimes doesn’t seem to care much about other people, nature, or much of anything at all. This is a hopeful and thoughtful book.
  4. Zeus, King of the Gods; Athena, Grey-eyed Goddess; and Hera, the Goddess and Her Glory by George O’Connor. Okay, technically this isn’t one book recommendation; it’s three. The Greek gods and goddesses are so much a part of the literature, music, art, and culture we live in that it is a great thing to be able to read them in a fresh format and style. George O’Connor combines interesting and exciting art with carefully researched myths told from an intriguing perspective in these graphic novels. Here we see brash and headstrong, but ultimately likable Zeus fighting against the Titans to establish a kingdom for his family. Here we learn of Athena’s goodness and loyalty in the face of her sometimes embarrassing and immoral father, and her anger at Arachne for pointing that out. Here we see the most sympathetic portrayal of Hera as a loving, but wronged wife and as a goddess who wants to see Hercules triumph over the impossible tasks set before him. And here we also meet Cyclops, Atlas, Heres, Ceres, the Fates, Metis, Ares, Kronos, and many more. The stories are told with sensitivity, so even Zeus’s indiscretions are referred to only generally in both the text and the images. Good for fifth-grade classrooms and up.
  5. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson. This is a memoir about growing up in Iowa in the fifties. I was born in Michigan in 1966, so the book didn’t seem like it would hold much for me, but I love Bryson’s writing, so I thought I would give it a whirl. The bottom line is, this book made me laugh out loud. Many times. You need to read this. Bryson describes the fifties as a time when people felt remarkably wealthy and fortunate, even though they had far less than we do now. In one passage, he describes the ritual, in the town where he grew up, of having neighbors over to celebrate the purchase of a major appliance. His description of the half-hour conversations about the features of an Amana Stor-Mor refrigerator had me reading it out loud to anyone within earshot. Bryson discusses the arrival of television, Ernie Banks, dentistry without Novocain, Des Moines, cottage cheese, stealing candy, proposed mail delivery by guided missile, Fig Newtons, Lincoln Logs, comic books, coming of age, the atomic bomb, mimeograph machines, and pretty much anything else you can think of. This book is funny.
  6. To Teach: The Journey, in Comics by William Ayers and Ryan Alexander-Tanner. If you have already read a couple of the above books, and half the summer is done, you might be ready to start thinking about the classroom again. This graphic novel version of Ayers’s classic book makes it easy to read. Much of what Ayers writes is in reaction to the bureaucracy and top-down policy of metropolitan school districts, but I find the ideal schools he describes resemble Christian private schools in their emphasis on the child, the unified philosophy they bring to curriculum, and their recognition that not all worthwhile teaching can be formally assessed. You may find this book to be affirming of your teaching and school (while perhaps reminding you of some basics that are important not to forget).
  7. Okay for Now by Gary Schmidt. Sometimes a plot summary isn’t very helpful. I could tell you about how Doug has a lousy dad and a mean brother and they move away from his friends to a dinky little town and there he finds out that he likes to draw and gets accused of robbery and meets quirky people and finds a home and a purpose. But that won’t really help, because the summary doesn’t get at the real experience of reading the book. You will end up caring for Doug the way you care for that one kid in your classroom who has a hard life but who never stops trying. You will be glad for the good people in his life, and angry at his dad and others who don’t seem to care about anything. It is a redemptive story.
  8. The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone. Are you tired of endless bashing of the news media while simultaneously being tired of the news media itself? In this graphic novel, the host of National Public Radio’s program “On the Media” explains what is good about the media and where it falls short. She gives fascinating accounts about how bogus statistics come to be and how they are self-perpetuating, how news organizations decide what is news and what isn’t, how media bias is so much more than political, and why the news media are absolutely necessary in a democracy. The graphic novel format makes each page interesting (even the ones about statistics). Students in a high school media course might really enjoy this book. You probably will too.
  9. Voices of Redemption by Monica Ruth Brands and Bethany Eizenga. Taking a cue from Studs Terkel’s interviewing style, Brands and Eizenga have written up a series of interesting portraits of men and women whose lives have intersected with Roseland Christian Ministries in Chicago. Here are stories of poverty and escape, addiction and recovery, estrangement and community, and sin and redemption. There are also remarkable stories of incredibly hard work and seemingly bottomless grace. It is a small book (sixty-three pages), but well worth reading. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that both Brands and Eizenga are former students of mine and that I am proud of them.)
  10. Keeping School: Letters to Families from Principals of Two Small Schools by Deborah Meier, Theodore Sizer, and Nancy Sizer. Meier and the Sizer’s are principals of two charter schools in Massachusetts. They face many of the same problems that any small private schools does: getting parents to understand how the school’s goals for learning may be different from the ones the parents grew up with; exercising authority and power in responsible ways; building community (especially among those families new to the school); and responding to pressures to conform to the educational goals, assessments, and philosophies of the state. The book consists of letters written by Meier and the Sizer’s to their school communities. Much of what they say will apply to your school. That which doesn’t will cause you to think. This would be a good one to read toward the end of July or the beginning of August as you begin to think of what you will do differently in the coming year.

Happy reading!