No More Pencils, But Plenty of Books: Novels about Summer Vacation
Yesterday was my daughter's last day of school. There was much excitement, for sure, and the exhilaration of freedom, and the thrill that comes with the start of a big ride: after all the planning and anticipation of the camps and travel and visits with relatives that will be packed into the next two months, we're about to get started!
But I don't think I was totally imagining the tinge of anxiety in my kid's demeanor as the afternoon wore on. For almost ten months, she knew more or less what every weekday would be like, and even more importantly, she knew she was going to see her friends. Sure, it'll be great to not have to wake up early every morning, and to have adventures, but she LIKES school; without school, who is she?
For grownups, summer might be (as one of my relatives once put it) "just a chance to work with the air-conditioning on", but for kids it's something completely different. It's a period when time seems to be literally suspended, but at the same time endless. Summer is its own, self-contained universe, but it's also an in-between time, a parentheses marking a break from the "real" world of school: you're between grades, between teachers, sometimes between schools. Your primary identity is on hold, and anything can happen.
No wonder so many of the most magical, timeless, enchanting novels for children are set during summer vacation. Here are ten of them:
Because of Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo
A classic "girl wanders around town, meets dog, makes friends, makes peace with her mom's disappearance" story set in Florida. Perfectly captures the hot, lazy, random quality of a small-town summer.
Half Magic, by Edward Eager
Jane, Mark, Katharine, and Martha are stuck at home for the summer, but "even without the country or a lake, the summer was a fine thing, particularly when you were at the beginning of it, looking ahead into it. There would be months of beautifully long, empty days, and each other to play with, and the books from the library." And, as it turns out, a magic coin which grants exactly HALF of every wish the children make, and which makes their summer quite eventful after all.
Holes, by Louis Sachar
Stanley Yelnats's summer spent literally imprisoned at the terrible Camp Greenlake is far from idyllic, but it's transformative nonetheless. A book that will make the heat of your summer, wherever you are, seem not so bad by comparison.
Last Summer With Maizon, by Jacqueline Woodson
Margaret ponders endings and beginnings as her best friend Maizon prepares to leave their Brooklyn neighborhood for boarding school.
Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by Lisa Yee
Summer volleyball classes provide Millicent with the perfect opportunity to make friends with a new girl who doesn't know she's a genius.
The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan
Sometimes you have more in common with the friends you make at sleepaway camp than with the kids at school. Percy Jackson, for instance, is half Greek god; good thing there's a camp for that.
The Long Secret, by Louise Fitzhugh
…and then there's the classmate you barely talk to during the year, who might become your best friend over a long summer spent biking to the beach, spying on the grownups at the Evil Hotel, debating the mystery of the notes someone's leaving all over town, and wondering if your awful mother is going to take you away with her. This book, about Harriet the Spy's mousy friend Beth Ellen, has a cult following all its own.
The Penderwicks, by Jeannie Birdsall
Four sisters and their father rent a falling-down cottage for the summer. Though the landlady is grumpy and disapproving, her son more than makes up for it. This perfect vacation story is even subtitled "A Summer Tale."
The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Weird Watsons take an extended road trip to visit relatives down South. But it's the age of segregation, and racist exclusion and worse soon intrudes on their comedic antics.
Then There Were Five, by Elizabeth Enright
This third book in Enright's series about the delightful Melendy family is the most plot-heavy, but it's the summer setting that sticks in my mind after all these years: The Melendys watch caterpillars, paddle in the swimming hole, look for shooting stars, and learn the joys of lazy fishing and frantic canning from the all-wise Mr. Titus.
Most of these would be great to listen to on CD over a long family car trip. Or to read aloud while sitting around a blazing campfire. Or to read by yourself while lying in a hammock, drinking lemonade. Or anywhere, for that matter.
June 27, 2008