Top Ten Books (Not about Teaching) to Renew You This Summer (According to One Book Lover, Anyway)

I am always amazed when I hear about teachers who belong to book clubs during the school year. My amazing wife, who teaches middle school math and Bible at Calvin Christian in South Holland, Illinois, regularly gets together with friends from two other Christian schools, and they read fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature on a variety of subjects and meet every other month or so and discuss what they read.

I know other teachers, though, also excellent in the classroom, who get so buried in lesson plans, grading, extra responsibilities in and out of school, and the stuff of life that they cannot even think of reading until summer comes. If they sit on the couch and, even for a moment, crack open a book, they feel so guilty about all the grading and housework that they are not doing that they put down the book and dive back into their busy lives. When I speak at in-services at schools, I am always aware of this, and though there are many wonderful books about teaching, to ask a teacher to read one before an in-service day is both unreasonable and guilt-inducing.

But when the summer stretches before us, this wonderful time of renewal offers teachers one of the best fringe benefits of teaching—the chance to read, not only without guilt, but with a sense of virtue. And, in fact, since teachers really need to know as much as they can about everything, when we read anything at all, we can feel a sense of virtue.

The books that follow are fun. They have themes and content and you may well learn something about a wide variety of topics when you read them, but the bottom line is that these books will remind you of the most important reason that we try to get kids to love to read—because reading, and the learning that goes with it, is just plain fun. So, with that, here are some books you should read this summer:

    1. Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse (Scholastic, 1997), fiction. Billie Jo is a girl growing up in a tarpaper shack with her father and mother, and soon, a baby sibling. Though they are poor and have few prospects, they seem happy. Then comes the drought, a terrible accident, despair, and, ultimately, an uplifting and redemptive ending. Each chapter is told as a poem, but don’t let that scare you away; it is very readable. When I read this book, I was surprised to find how deeply I cared for Billie Jo. There is grace in this book. After a year of teaching, you may need a little grace.
  1. Hope Meadows, by Wes Smith (Berkley, 2001), nonfiction. Sociologist Brenda Eheart was frustrated by the way that the foster-care system, though it provided a safe home for children, did little to help their struggling parents learn how to take care of them. At the same time, she was frustrated by the way our society often ignores or undervalues retired people. Her solution was to establish a community in an abandoned air force base that brought children of addicts, repeat offenders, prostitutes, low-income, and single moms together with seniors to create families where mothers, children, and adoptive grandparents learn together how to create a family and a community. There is a lot of teaching and loving happening in Hope Meadows, and reading about it will help remind you how you create community in your teaching.
  2. Animal Crackers, by Gene Luen Yang (SLG, 2010), fiction—graphic novel. How is this for an opening line: “A couple of nights ago, I had a dream that my nose was pregnant.” So begins the story of Gordon Yamamoto. Gordon and his best friend Devon are bullies. Each year of high school they pick a nerdy fellow student, declare him King of the Geeks, and proceed to harass him. But Gordon starts having these strange dreams that lead him to start to sympathize with the current Geek King. This graphic novel is actually a series of three stories, linked by the same characters. Though some parts of the story are dreamlike, and though reading a graphic novel may stretch your brain a little, at its base Yang is telling a nerd story and a folk tale, with a romantic subplot. It is well worth the reading.
  3. Foundling, by D. M. Cornish (Putnam, 2006), fiction. In this fantasy novel, Cornish creates one of the most believable worlds since Middle-earth. The main character, Rossamund, is an orphan with the wrong sort of name for a boy. He is about to begin his first job. He lives in a walled city for protection against the monstrous creatures that live in the wastelands. As Rossamund makes his way in the world, he starts to question whether the monsters are really as bad as they seem. This is the sort of spellbinding fantasy book that you can fall deeply into. And the good news is, there are two sequels.
  4. Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow, by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso (Hyperion, 2007), fiction—graphic novel. Though this book is fiction, it contains a remarkable amount of historical information about Satchel Paige’s days with the Negro League. The story is told by Emmet, a farmer-turned-baseball-player who actually gets a hit off Paige before an injury sidelines him permanently. Because he is the narrator, he is able to point out Paige’s strategies and thinking in a way that heightens the story. This is a baseball story, but also a story of the earliest days of civil rights. Middle school students enjoy reading it, which means you ought to read it first.
  5. Nightwork: A History of Hacks and Pranks at MIT, by T. F. Peterson (MIT Press, 2003), nonfiction. One year, students at MIT built a wall right over the entrance to their new president’s office door. Cows, phone booths, and police cars have found their way to the top of the great dome. One group of students replaced all the “School Crossing” signs in Cambridge with “Nerd Crossing” signs. Reading this book will remind you that students are capable of amazingly imaginative acts—and that pranks are sometimes not only not harmful, but can have positive effects too.
  6. Savvy, by Ingrid Law (Puffin, 2008), fiction. Mibs is looking forward to her thirteenth birthday, which is when all the people in her family first show evidence of their magical talents. Then her father gets in a terrible accident, and her mother leaves Mibs and her brother with a neighbor as she goes to the hospital. When Mibs hides in a peddler’s bus to try to get to the hospital in the city, her brother and two friends hide with her. Unfortunately, when the bus leaves, it is headed away from the city. I know, it sounds kind of weird and kind of hokey, but this is actually a book about community and friendship and forgiveness and understanding. You’ll like the ending.
  7. Rapunzel’s Revenge and Calamity Jack (Bloomsbury, 2008 and 2010, respectively), fiction—graphic novel. Forget about that Disney movie, because this book was first anyway. Imagine the story of Rapunzel set in an Old West town. Now imagine that Rapunzel, instead of being a whiny damsel shut up in a tower, is instead a cowgirl who uses her hair (in braids) as a lasso and sometimes a whip. What you have is Rapunzel’s Revenge, the story of Rapunzel’s fight alongside her companion Jack to save the world from the evil Gothel. If you must, pretend you are buying this book for a middle-school-aged niece, but then hurry home and read it yourself. As long as you are buying it anyway, you might as well pick up Calamity Jack too, a sequel that is better than the original.
  8. Trouble, by Gary Schmidt (Clarion, 2008), fiction. Henry’s brother is in a coma following a car accident. His parents are lost in their own grieving. His sister seems even more withdrawn than usual. Henry himself is thinking of a risky mountain-climbing trip to honor a promise to his brother. In the pages that follow, we see Henry’s battle to keep a mangy mutt he finds swimming in the ocean, his meeting with the teenaged Cambodian immigrant accused of the hit-and -run against his brother, the discovery of the shipwreck of a slave ship on the beach in front of their house, and his realization that his sister may be hurting worse than anyone. This is a good book. You should read it.
  9. When You Reach Me, by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb Books, 2009), fiction. Someone is somehow getting into sixth-grader Miranda’s house and leaving notes for her to find. The notes reveal a knowledge about trivial things that no one else would know, and also a knowledge of the near future that proves to be accurate. As the story develops, it becomes clearer to Miranda, and to the reader, just exactly who the note writer might be. This is a suspenseful, intricately plotted book with a very satisfying ending.

So read some books. Enjoy the stories and learning something new. Somewhere in the midst of your summer reading, you will remember why you went into teaching in the first place.