The Key to Successful Summer Reading--Choice

By Ellie Wilkie

How many times this summer have you seen a child walk into the library, clutching a crumpled copy of his summer reading list, robotically requesting books on the list--chancing longing glances at Diary of a Wimpy Kid

Every year schools produce lists of books kids must finish during the summer break and every year more than 30% of kids do not finish all the required books. 

In 2016, 15% of kids between the ages of six and seventeen read zero books over the summer, despite access to a  wide array of summer reading programs and libraries available. In 2019, that number jumped up to 20%. 

Adam Rowe, a writer whose work focuses on the future of books in the modern world, attributes this shift to the rise of easy access television. With a sea of brightly colored, cleverly named Netflix shows ready to go at any moment, reading feels like work. Children have access to on-demand programming via mobile devices, screens in cars, etc. etc. 

When there is any choice between reading a book prescribed by the school, or the new episode of Lego Ninjago, the shw will win nearly every time.   A survey run by Scholastic found that kids who weren’t given time to read books of their choice at school were 58% less likely to read for fun outside of school. 

Why do kids seem so especially disinterested in books that they are required to read? There are two prevailing theories. The first is the nature of the books prescribed. Kids don’t like classics. They find them too slow, too serious, and too old. The other is more psychological. Kids simply don’t want to do what they’re told. After spending all year sitting in a classroom, subject to a neverending list of academic chores, kids don’t like having their summer reading dictated to them. 

That being said, classics are important. Many parents want their kids to read the stories they grew up on and books like Tom Sawyer or Little House on The Prairie are cultural touchpoints that kids should be at least marginally acquainted with. Sandra Stotsky—the architect of Massachusetts renowned educational standards and reading curriculum, notes that kids need to read challenging works, otherwise, they’ll never improve. No one can read Diary of a Wimpy Kid forever. But how to keep kids interested in reading, but still pushing them to improve? 

The University of Rochester ran an experiment that may help pinpoint a solution. In the first round of this experiment, half the kids were given a list of books to read over the summer and the other half were given free range. The kids with free range improved their reading comprehension skills by as  much as 20% and many moved up a reading level, while most of the kids with a strict list flatlined. In the second round, half the kids were given free range, and half the kids were given a list, half with specific books and half with fill-in-the-blank slots. 

Kids who were allowed to choose some of their own books improved just as much as kids with total free range. Kids who were given even a small degree of choice, were a lot more susceptible to the idea of reading a denser, more challenging classic, and got a lot more out of it, than kids who were force fed six classics in a single summer. 

I once had an English teacher describe it like this: Moby Dick isn’t fun, but it’s important, and sometimes you have to make the kids eat their broccoli. That being said, throwing some cheese in with the broccoli might make the whole process a lot easier. 

An easy tactic that can work to engage reluctant readers is the following:

  1. Take the child to a library or bookstore.  Instruct him or her to find two books to read.  Do not give any more instruction than that.  More importantly, do no pass judgement on what the child returns with.  
  2. Follow up.  Ask the child about the books he or she is reading a few days later.  Children love to share information they’ve learned and will enjoy the audience.
  3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 on two to three week intervals.

The most important tactic of all is modeling reading behavior for children.  What are you reading?  Do your children see you read and know you have a habit of reading?  It’s difficult to pass along a habit of reading if the parent does not possess or model regular reading.

Books To Look Out For This Summer  

The Lion of Mars 

Jennfier L Holm 

This Newbery award winning author takes kids on an outer space adventure in her newest book. The Lion of Mars tracks the life of eleven year old Bell—a boy who’s been raised on Mars. When all the adults in his settlement get sick, Bell and the other children must explore the unknown parts of Mars in order to find help. 

The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. 

David Levithan 

This middle grade mystery tracks the disappearance and unexplained reappearance of Aidan S, narrated through the eyes of his younger brother Lucas. It’s mysterious plot and dynamic characters are sure to draw kids in, and the sincerity of the relationship between the brothers is liable to keep them there.  

JD and the Great Barber Battle 

by J. Dillard 

What starts as JD’s attempt to give himself a decent haircut, turns into a full-fledged business. Turns out JD is pretty good at cutting hair, and soon every kid in school wants JD to be their barber, except for Henry Jr, who owns his own barber business and is losing customers to JD. It soon becomes a Barber Battle, both boys vying for the seat of top dog in the already cut throat world of small business competition. 

The Elephant in the Room 

by Holly Goldberg Sloan 

The Elephant in the Room uses the absurd prospect of a young girl adopting a circus elephant as a means by which to take on tough issues, namely immigration and family separation, and make them palatable for young readers. Sila, whose mother is back in Turkey seeking American citizenship, stays hopeful with the support of her dad, a widowed carpenter named Gio, a classmate from Mexico, and her adopted Elephant. Stressing the importance of compassion and friendship, Sloan’s newest work is sure to entertain as much as it does teach. 

Noah Wild and Floating Zoo 

by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith, the author of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, has come out with a new children’s book. Noah Wild and the Floating Zoo follows Noah on his quest around the world to return the animals from his family’s zoo to their original habitats. Shenanigans ensue and what should have been a quick errand turns into a rambunctious adventure. 


Ehrenfreund, Max. “The Debate: Should Children Choose Their Own Books?”, Chicago Tribune, 28 Mar. 2019, 

Murphy, Justin. “Study: Let Kids Pick Their Own Books.” Democrat and Chronicle, Rochester, 20 May 2015, 

Rowe, Adam. “20% Of Kids Read Zero Books During The Summer In 2018, Up From 15% In 2016.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 1 July 2019, 

Schipani, Denise. “Why Yesterday's Classics Aren't Appealing to Today's Kids.” Brightly, Brightly, 18 May 2015,