On our last day of school this year I opened class with an overview of the day’s agenda. I teach 14, 15 and 16 year olds, and like I said, it was the last day of school, so having any agenda at all was very foolish. But I had a few announcements I needed to make, and I felt confident I could persuade the kids to sit still and listen to me for three minutes.
One item on the agenda is Summer Reading, and at the very words my students groan, and throw tomatoes, and flip me off. (Teenagers can flip you off using only their eyes, but the tomatoes are an exaggeration.) So I pause, and look at them, (because I can say “Oh, hell no” using only my eyes) and then repeat the school’s summer reading assignment, which is measly and reasonable, and has no mandated reading list but instead allows them to choose whatever books they want to read.
“I’m not reading during the summer,” they proclaim.
This is a very curious thing for them to say, because these kids may have entered my classroom in September as non-readers, but by this point in June every last one of them has loved a book. These kids who scoff at my mere mention of summer reading have caught me before class to report proudly that they have already read thirteen books this year, or to tell me that they already finished the book I loaned them four days ago, and they need a new one. Each and every student, at one point or another in the year, has neglected to hear me announce the conclusion of independent reading for the day, so engrossed in a world of zombies, or first love, or football, that our existence in the classroom has become secondary.
“How can you say that you’re not reading during the summer?” I ask, my voice incredulous, and the kids sit back–a little delighted that they have provoked me into one last righteous defense of reading. “Don’t play like you don’t read. Don’t try to tell me that you hate reading. I know better!” I widen my eyes at a handful of students leading the moans and groans, one by one reminding them, wordlessly, that I witnessed the Bang! to Homeboyz to A Clockwork Orange evolution, Juan, and I was there for you reading Lexapros and Cons in two days, Eddie, and I heard you convince your friend to pick up Gym Candy, Matt, telling him to trust you, it was the “best book ever.”
For a variety of reasons, it’s just not cool yet to be a young teenager and an avid reader. I say yet, because my fellow English teachers and I are working on it. My students read a lot this year, and many of them really will be reading this summer. The thing is, they just might not be ready to gush about it yet. That’s OK. Allow me to relay three of the books that they loved this year, and would surely recommend, if they weren’t so busy pretending they don’t like to read.
The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth: When twelve-year old Cameron Post learns both that she likes kissing girls and that her parents have died in the same weekend, she assumes a correlation that tangles both her grief and her sexual identity with guilt. To further complicate matters, her legal guardian is her aunt Ruth, who fairly recently has been “born again.” In writing so honest it reads like a memoir, Danforth draws the reader into Cameron’s experience growing up gay in Miles City (“Miles Shitty”), Montana. She deftly avoids the pitfalls of painting the Gates of Praise church crowd as nothing but ignorant homophobes, and explores the self-doubt and fear that lurk in every belief system and sense of personal identity, along with the acts of unkindness, betrayal and desperation that these doubts invoke. It is in these complexities that Danforth’s first novel thrives: at once funny, heartbreaking and poignant.
Lockdown: Escape from Furnace 1 by Alexander Gordon Smith: Alex Sawyer doesn’t think of himself as a bad kid, but he’s been making some choices that have escalated from schoolyard bullying to home invasion and robbery. This is especially risky behavior in the dystopian future that Gordon Smith imagines, where a “Summer of Slaughter” ruled by youth gangs has provoked a state crackdown on juvenile offenders and the opening of Furnace, a penitentiary for teens serving life sentences, built a mile beneath the earth’s surface. When Alex is framed for murder, he is sentenced to Furnace, where he soon learns the horrors of hell are closer than he could have known. If he is to avoid a fate far worse than death, he must somehow escape. Gordon Smith imagines a world in which the adults turn their backs on a generation of hopeless teens, allowing the government to punish without regulation or limitation. Despite a few cheap scares in the vein of R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series, Lockdown truly horrifies, enthralling the reader in rapid action, and leaving him ecstatic that there are sequels to follow.
Lexapros and Cons by Aaron Caro: Try not to read a book whose first line is: “In the past year, I masturbated exactly 468 times.” OK, try not to read that book as a 15 year old boy. Try not to laugh and “Yo, dude” and pass it around to all of your friends. The fun doesn’t end there; happily, Aaron Caro’s debut novel manages to deliver on the delight and candid irreverence promised by the opening line. Meet Chuck Taylor, whose OCD isn’t making high school any easier. Beyond his counting and record keeping, endless hand-washing, and meticulously selected footwear, he still has to worry about trying to get the girl. Root for Chuck as he forges bravely through the last few months of his senior year in high school, and enjoy the pros of Caro, a very funny stand-up comedian, adding his voice to the world of YA fiction.