No More Pencils, But Plenty of Books: Novels about Summer Vacation

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
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A Few of My Favorite Authors

A Few of My Favorite Authors

Hmm…mid-June, end of the school year, work and housing transitions hither and yon…time for another meme! This one is courtesy of Emily Reads, whose haiku book review blog I continually adore (and whose succinctness I envy). Here goes—

I've been tagged by EmilyReads for the Favorite Authors Meme.

Here are the rules:

Link to the person that tagged you, post the rules somewhere in your blog, answer the questions, and tag four people in your post. Don't forget to let the tagees know they were tagged, so leave a comment on their blog! And remember to let your tagger know that your entry is posted.

1. Who's your favorite all-time author, and why?

Even though I mostly prefer novels to short stories, and kids' books to adult fiction, my all-time favorite author has to be grownup short-story writer Grace Paley, who wrote about women and children and families and politics and New York City in a voice like no one else's. I wrote some more about her on my other blog when she died last summer.

2. Who was your first favorite author, and why?

The first author whose books I remember seeking out on purpose was Louise Fitzhugh. I read her breakthrough book, Harriet the Spy, at least seven or eight times, checking it out of the library over and over, and then became similarly obsessed with the sequel, The Long Secret. (Here's a particularly excellent review of that book) A few years later I found and loved a lesser-known book of hers, Nobody's Family is Going to Change. I think I was drawn to the lack of neat resolutions in her books, and the way there were things in them that I didn't quite understand—there was a sense of mystery about them, and a hint of kids trying to swim in the adult world while not being quite part of it.

3. Who's the most recent addition to your list of favorite authors, and why?

Looking back on the Summer Reading Recommendations I posted a few weeks ago, it seems like a bunch of my favorite books this year were by new authors—or, at least, new to me. Linda Urban is probably the newest; her first (and, so far, only) novel, A Crooked Kind of Perfect, is fresh and poignant and funny and sad. I loved that the narrator's parents were flawed in a recognizable way, while also being manifestly loving and good people.

4. If someone asked you who your favorite authors were right now, what would pop out of your mouth?

Well, first, I'd freeze up. I know because someone asked me this very question at a job interview recently, and I did just that.

Then, if I had a few minutes to think about it, I might say:

Kids/Teens: Hilary McKay, Diana Wynne Jones, Brock Cole (Especially Celine), Grace Lin, Sara Pennypacker, Laura Amy Schlitz, Jane Gardam (especially the wonderful and sadly hard-to-find A Long Way From Verona), Nancy Farmer, Mo Willems, Jacqueline Woodson, Delia Sherman, Frances Hardinge, Kevin Henkes, Meg Cabot, Vera B. Williams, Janet Wong, M. T. Anderson, Iain Lawrence, Elizabeth Enright, John Green…then I'd just go on until forcibly stopped.

Grownups: Jessica Mitford, Marjane Satrapi, Malcolm Gladwell, Alison Bechdel, Calvin Trillin, Sarah Schulman, Joshilyn Jackson, Ayelet Waldman, Ellen Kushner, the scriptwriters for "Six Feet Under" and "The Wire", and much-missed former blogger getupgrrl, wherever she may be.

5. I tag:

I'm not going to put anybody on the spot this time. But if you haven't done this one yet, and want to, I tag you. Enjoy!


June 18, 2008
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Thanks, Dad!

Thanks, Dad!

I have a long and not-so-honorable tradition of forgetting my father's birthday. May 21 often falls during an eventful time for students and teachers—at, or near, the end of the academic year—and for many years I was one or the other, and was unusually frantic at that time.

This time around, I'm neither, so you'd think I would have remembered my dad's birthday with appropriate fanfare. But, no, once again I experienced that dreaded forehead-smacking sensation upon looking at the calendar sometime in late May, and was reduced to the pathetic fallback of calling to sing my now-trademark "Happy five-days-after your birthday to you!" message on my dad's answering machine.

So, Dad: in lieu of a timely birthday greeting, this Father's Day post is for you.

My father would make a great children's book character. Come to think of it, at least one children's book character has been partially based on him: when my cousin Ellen wrote a book that featured a riddling jester, many of that character's jokes were ones she'd heard from my dad way back when. It was moving, if a little unnerving, to see them take on another life beyond my eye-rolling childhood memories.

My dad has always loved music. The lullabyes I heard from him weren't traditional ones, but popular tunes and folk songs: Joni Mitchell's "Michael from Mountains," James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James," and songs made popular by folk groups like the Kingston Trio and the Weavers. When I was a kid, he took up the mandolin, and then later the piano—in fact, a few years ago, when he retired from his career as a therapist and administrator, he took up a new career as a jazz pianist. It's been inspiring to see first-hand that learning never stops, and that you can commit yourself to something you love at any point in your life.

I don't remember my dad reading to me much as a kid, but boy, could he ever tell stories. Some of my favorites were the continuing adventures of the King brothers: Nosmo and Nopar (Get it? Nosmo-King and Nopar-King?). Another running series involved the two first guys in the world: Adam and his brother Up, or, as they were more commonly known, Up and Adam. Up and Adam's discoveries of chairs, shoes, and other basic items were among the first pourquoi tales I heard.

As I got older, my dad came up with a series of origin stories telling how the states got their names. I certainly never learned in school that Wisconsin was founded by a group of fanatically clean Puritans whose motto was "Whisk on sin!" or that Colorado was named after a wife trying in vain to get her husband to appreciate the beauties of the Grand Canyon ("Look at all that color, Otto!"). When, as an adult, I came upon Laurie Keller's gag-filled yet informative picture book The Scrambled States of America, I couldn't help but be reminded my dad's similarly playful approach to geography.

Family and history are important to my dad, and he's found lots of ways to communicate that importance: telling stories about his childhood in the Bronx, and recording interviews with my grandparents about their immigrant experiences. He's big on family traditions, and will invent them at the drop of a hat. Every year, come spring, he'd take a photograph of my brother and me standing in front of the magnolia tree in our yard. Every fall, for almost 15 years, he and my brother and I—sometimes accompanied by other friends or family members—would walk across the George Washington Bridge.

So, what does all this have to do with my usual topic of kids' books and reading? Lots, as it turns out. A few months ago, my father happened to be visiting us during my daughter's school's celebrations of Family Literacy Day, and she'd brought home a "family literacy bingo card," which she was to fill out over the course of the week by completing as many of the listed activities as possible. I was amazed at how many of them mirrored things my dad had spontaneously done with my brother and me when we were kids:

  • "Look at a family photo album"? My father is an inveterate snapshot-taker; our family occasions have invariably included someone (usually me) hiding and whining "Dad, stop taking pictures!" But it's true that the resulting photographs are very dear to me.
  • "Attend a show or performance together"? Some of the first performances I remember seeing were community-theater productions of the Broadway shows my dad adores.
  • "Sing a song together and then change the words"? Song parodies are one of my dad's many specialties.
  • "Share a family story"? Check.
  • "Play a word game"? All the time! (Especially if you count puns as word games.)

All these activities promote a love of language and of communicating through words, and create a rich verbal environment that ties language to the experience of bonding with family and of being part of family life. Growing up with my dad was like a full-time family literacy curriculum in itself. As he himself might say: who knew?

If your own family literacy traditions include sharing books together, Scholastic has an excellent list of read-aloud books celebrating fathers, and I put together a list of some of my favorite fictional dads on my other book blog last year.

Nonfictional dads, though, can be pretty great too. Thanks for everything, Dad. Happy Father's Day...and happy 25-days-after-your-birthday to you.

June 12, 2008


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Summer Reading: Part 2 of 2

Summer Reading: Part 2 of 2

The recent lively discussion over at Saints and Spinners about Summer Reading Program prizes and their desireability—or lack thereof—reminded me yet again of my past life as a school librarian. The big reward for the students at my old school who kept up a reading list over the summer? They got to have…[drumroll here…] LUNCH IN THE LIBRARY. Every year I would wonder if that was really an exciting enough reward, and every year the kids, especially the little ones, would be goggle-eyed at this incredible treat. Well, it helped that I provided ice cream for dessert.

So often it doesn't take much to motivate kids to read: just some attention is sometimes the best reward. That said, I'm really liking the way Scholastic's summer reading club, Summer Reading Buzz, is set up so that Scholastic will donate a book to a needy kid for every four books that members read and log on the site; it's a great way to promote reading and altruism at the same time.

Here's Part 2 of my "Best of the Spiral-Bound Notebook" Summer Reading Recommendation List, 2007-08:

Miss Spitfire, by Sarah Miller

In an age of multiple communication venues—Cell phones! Faxes! Texting! Blogs!--Helen Keller's struggle to connect to the world through words, and her teacher, Annie Sullivan's struggle to connect with Helen, still resonate with kids. This novel brings these two stubborn and brilliant women to life for a new generation.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, By Laura Amy Schlitz

This book is like one of those optical-illusion pictures that could be a vase or two profiles: Looked at from one angle, it's a collection of verbal snapshots of kids: funny, mean, rich, poor, thoughtful, kind-hearted, worried, determined kids as distinct as those in any classroom. Squint another way, and it's a composite portrait—with graceful explanatory notes--of a faraway time and place. Blink, and you've got a volume of poems about the hardest and deepest truths. Blink once more, and it's a masterful play in monologues that made me wish I had a 5th grade class again just so I could hear these words spoken by kids as they ought to be.

When I first wrote about this title after it won the Newbery Award back in January, I hadn't actually read it yet. Now I have, and if anything I'm even more excited about it. Next stop: a dramatic reading as soon as I can gather enough friends to do it.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

I'm a total sucker for coming-of-age stories, and for wry, understated first-person narrators. Sherman Alexie's YA debut provides both, in spades, with the added bonus of being a funny and honest look at present-day (or close to present-day) Native American life with an insider's perspective that's completely opposite to the whole Noble Savage shtick that so often characterizes books on this topic. Added bonus: illustrations by cartoonist Ellen Forney, drawn in the persona of our narrator (a cartoonist himself) with just the right amount of naïve panache.

The Arrival, by Shaun Tan

When I show this one to language arts and humanities teachers, they gasp. It might be my very favorite book of the 07-08 crop, which is pretty incredible considering I'm a word girl and it has ABSOLUTELY NO WORDS. But it is a novel, no doubt about it: an immigration story not so different from every immigration story ever told, but rendered fresh by its setting in an utterly alien, otherworldly city.

Touching Snow, by M. Sindy Felin

Another immigration story, but totally different. Pitched older than the titles I usually mention in this space—with its themes of chronic family brutality and betrayal, not to mention the heroine's emerging sexuality, 12 or 13 is the absolute youngest age I'd recommend it for. And yet despite the grim subject matter, I can't think of it as a depressing book: Karina, the middle sister in a family of Haitian immigrants, has this great sardonic voice, and the bond between her and her sisters and her own inner certainty and resilience keep you rooting and hoping for her. And the writing is just glorious; I'm keeping my eye out for more from this author.

A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban

Did I already say The Arrival was my favorite from this list? Okay, well, then, A Crooked Kind of Perfect  will have to be my favorite book with words. It won the Cybils Middle-Grade Fiction award this year, and with reason. One of those bittersweet little unassuming stories about a regular kid that sneaks up on you and steals your heart. I still find myself thinking of it at odd moments, and fondly humming "Forever in Blue Jeans."

Clementine's Letter, by Sara Pennypacker

All Hail Clementine, the Ramona of the new millennium! Though, frankly, I like Clementine a bit better than Ramona—she always means so well, and truly just wants everyone to be happy, even when that person is, say, a substitute teacher who just doesn't understand her. I eat these books up like popcorn, and only wish Sara Pennypacker could write them faster.

Year of the Rat, by Grace Lin

Cheating a bit here by putting this one last, when I read it before the new Clementine, but it seems fitting to end a year's reading list with a book about a new year. It's a sequel to Lin's Year of the Dog, and picks up a couple of years later, with Pacy facing her best friend Melody's move across the country. This series is a semi-autobiographical account of Grace Lin's own childhood, and young readers may or may not appreciate this biographical tidbit, but I just love knowing that the model for Melody, Pacy/Grace's real-life best friend, Alvina Ling, grew up to be her editor, and edited these very books. It's like a children's-book-publishing fairy tale.

Happy reading to all!

June 8, 2008


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Summer Reading: Part 1 of 2

Summer Reading: Part 1 of 2

This time last year, I was frantically making lists of recommended books for summer reading for my classes. I did that every year I was a school librarian. For every grade. It was great fun, but also lots of work; I pored over "best-of" lists from library journals and websites, and crammed in all the reading I could before the deadline so I could recommend titles from personal experience. Then I'd try to make sure all the lists were balanced: enough books from different genres, books that might be likely to appeal to boys and girls, books of different reading levels…like I said, it was a ton of work.

But every year, I started that work in the same place: my own tattered, battered reading log, which I've kept in the same spiral notebook since 1999. I'd go through the books I'd read in the past year, and star or highlight my favorites so I could be sure to include them.

This year, for the first time in almost a decade, I'm not putting together summer reading lists for a school library, or any library, for that matter. But it's the time of year to pull out my notebook; I just can't help it. So, without regard to genre or gender balance, I'm going to use this space to list some kids' (and a few teens') chapter books that I've read and loved in the past year, in chronological order by when I read them, with some personal notes. Enjoy!

Els's Picks, Part I: June 2007-January 2008 

Moxy Maxwell Does Not Love Stuart Little, by Peggy Gifford.

This little gem about procrastination might be the quintessential summer reading book itself. Added bonus: photographs—ostensibly taken by the protagonist's brother--documenting Moxie's late-August day spent *not* avoiding her required summer-reading title, Stuart Little. Boy, did I feel for her. And for her beleaguered mom.

Heat, by Mike Lupica.

I listened to this one on CD in the heat of the summer, while packing up my daughter's room for our big move. Even though I'm not a sports fan, I got totally caught up in this story of a kid who's trying to make it on his own with his older brother after their father's death, with baseball as the center of his life.

The Wednesday Wars, by Gary Schmidt

A gorgeous coming-of-age story, set against the backdrop of the growing unrest over the Vietnam War. But what I remember best about it is the lusciousness with which the author describes the tray of perfect cream puffs that, for various reasons, become an important plot point.

Forever Rose, by Hilary McKay

Well, really you should read the four other books in McKay's series about the artistic, eccentric, troubled but loving Casson family before reading this one. Like many other fans, I have a special soft spot for Rose, the youngest Casson sibling, and this last book in the series is all about her.

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

Central premise, in 25 words or less: boring, conventional guy discovers that his dead dad was the trickster god Anansi. Then his long-lost magical brother moves into his house and moves in on his fiancée. Mayhem ensues. [okay, well, that was 30 words. But a description of a book about a trickster god is no place to get picky about rules.] Technically, this isn't a children's or even a teen book, but it's one of those crossover adult books that teens will totally love.

Elijah of Buxton, by Christopher Paul Curtis

I wrote a long post about this book on my mostly-dormant other blog back in January, so I'll just say here: Up until about the last 40 pages, I thought it was a good story but a little episodic and rambling. Then it hit me with a one-two punch that I'm still not entirely over.

The Green Glass Sea, by Ellen Klages

In a just world, it would've won a Newbery Honor this year. Like honor winner The Wednesday Wars, it's a totally gorgeous and beautifully written historical novel that feels contemporary. And like Elijah of Buxton, it takes you right up to the edge of something terrifying (in this case, the dropping of the first Atomic bomb) through the eyes of a kid (in this case, the lonely and nerdy child of a scientist at the secret labs in Los Alamos) who has only the most fragmentary understanding of what's going on. But this book is entirely its own.

Red Sea, by Dianne Tullson

Bratty teenage girl, dragged along on a year-long sailing trip with her mom and hated stepdad, has to save herself and her mom when their boat is attacked by modern-day pirates. I picked this one up because I had to read it for work, but I finished it in one gulp because I had to find out what happened. Great survival story for teens.

That brings me halfway through the year. To be continued in a few days…

June 3, 2008

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