School Summer Reading Lists: A Brief and Nerdy History

Ah, summer. Time for beach vacations, pool parties, sleeping in, and summer reading. As an adult, that often means we pick up our so-called “guilty pleasure” books or our “beach reads“. Contrarily, for kids across the U.S., this means those assigned school summer reading lists.

As an avid reader since practically birth, I always loved the summer reading lists. I cheerfully earned my prizes (who else remembers getting free Pizza Hut?) and kept right on reading. Later, as an educator, I realized there was a lot more to this old practice. Read on to learn about the what, when, why, and history of school summer reading lists.

Why Do Schools Assign Summer Reading?

While there are likely multiple reasons for teachers and schools to assign summer reading, the biggest reason is the most obvious. Simply put, schools want children to keep learning throughout the months they’re away from formal education settings. Thus, assigning summer reading is one of many strategies schools employ to combat the “summer slump” or the “summer slide“.

The summer slide is the phenomenon by which students start a new school year performing at a level below where they ended the previous year. According to a comprehensive 1996 study, over the summer months student achievement scores decrease roughly the equivalent of one month of school learning. Although the declines in math are greater than those found in reading, there is learning loss in both areas.

Recent studies indicate that children lose an average of 20% of their school-year gains in reading. Particularly, summer increases income-based reading gaps. Whereas middle and upper class students actually tend to make gains in the summer, lower-income more often children experience loss. One study even suggests that the difference in 9th grade reading scores between students from lower income and middle class families could be completely mitigated if summer learning loss was eliminated.

Before you implement a strict reading regimen for the children in your life, remember that it’s summer. Hence, you shouldn’t be trying to duplicate school. For children to get the most out of summer reading, it should be fun! Experts suggest giving kids lots of choice in books and encouraging “smart play” — time with learning games and puzzles. Further, pairing reading with relevant outdoor and community activities can make it even more fun for the entire family.

A Timeline of School Summer Reading Lists

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to separate the intertwined histories of library summer reading programs and school summer reading. Naturally, these efforts overlap as they share common goals and try to reach similar populations. Further, since these efforts are often locally designed and implemented by individual schools, districts, and libraries, there is a lot of variation.

Nonetheless, most sources agree that summer reading programs began as early as the 1890s. These programs targeted school children who weren’t needed for farm work. Their goal was to encourage students to use their libraries and make reading a habit. Considering that time spent reading is a strong predictor of academic achievement, libraries play a huge role in supporting the educational attainment of students who have less access to books and resources.

Let’s look at a quick timeline of summer reading programs. Special thank you to Stephanie Bertin for her Master’s thesis on this topic.

1890–1919

Three major summer programs emerged in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Hartford. In Cleveland, public librarian Linda Eastman created a list of “best books in the library suitable for children” and shared the list with local schools. As children began patronizing her library in greater numbers, Eastman shared her findings with members of the newly formed Cleveland Children’s Library League. As a result, the league grew to tens of thousands of members, they began to distribute book list bookmarks to local children. Moreover, they had the children make lists of their favorites to share with other children — a practice credited with being a precursor to modern day reading logs.

As Eastman’s league spread through Ohio, other programs began around the country. In Pittsburgh, librarians visited playgrounds around the city throughout the summer. They conducted read-alouds and distributed books. Afterward, many of the children requested library cards and became frequent library users.

Subsequently, other libraries formed reading clubs. In these clubs, children read from book lists and received a certificate when they completed the list. Since then, most summer reading programs have included some sort of prize or incentive.

From the 1910s on, summer reading lists were even more popular, with library-created book lists reported in Wisconsin, Texas, New Jersey, Washington, Massachusetts, and New York. Often, libraries distributed their lists and program information through schools. Additionally, many library programs took storytelling and books to neighborhood playgrounds, expanding their reach into the communities they served.

Obviously, the early 19th century saw the creation of many of the staples of summer reading programs today — lists, folder, reading logs, and rewards. During this time period, summer reading lists targeted older, independent readers age 10–18. However, since research shows that summer learning loss is much more impactful in the early grades, this would eventually change.

1920–1949

Libraries began to capitalize on the appeal of rewards. In Providence, young patrons were enticed into the library by a “summer quiz”. The quiz answers were in library books, and children who answered all the questions correctly had their names posted to an “honor roll.” In Pasadena, children read ten books from a list and gave oral reports to librarians. In the fall, the schools hosted award assemblies at local schools to present successful children with certificates. Similar programs occurred in Chicago and Minneapolis.

In the 1920s, a debate began about these programs. Some detractors accused the libraries of taking the joy out of reading and of bribing children to patronize the library. Still, summer reading programs spread. Children in Maine read ten books and took quizzes over them (which gives this reader Accelerated Reader vibes and makes me shudder). In Georgia, librarians mailed books to children. Children wrote brief reports and sent them back with the books to earn a certificate. If they read all 25 books on the statewide list, children earned a special gold certificate.

In Wichita, libraries partnered with newspapers to publish the best book reviews by their summer readers. Some programs, like one in Albany, didn’t include a prescribed list, but rewarded children for “good reading.” This era also gave rise to some of today’s common practices, like having themed programs (e.g. “travel” themed with books from different countries, etc.) and discussion groups.

Importantly, this is when talk of the summer slide began. In 1942, the first-ever partnership between a library and a Parent and Teacher Association formed to combat “summer reading ability loss.” Teachers announced the program in their classes and sent letters home to parents of “reluctant readers.” In fall, schools hosted award ceremonies. For reading five books, children earned a certificate. For every additional five books read, children received an extra seal for their certificate. With 28% of the school population participating and library circulation increasing 107% over four years of the program, the power of school and library partnerships was evident.

1950–1979

Over the next three decades, there were only slight developments in summer reading programs. One such development was separating children into groups by age, which meant that for the first time teens/young adults received different programming than their younger counterparts. This also meant that there could be variation in rewards. Consequently, some libraries stopped rewarding younger students based on quantity — an effort to encourage slower readers.

Additionally, many summer reading programs were now co-sponsored by schools and libraries. Like the 1942 program, these efforts combined the resources of the PTA, local schools, and libraries to encourage summer reading. Similarly, awards were given each fall at the schools.

One New York library took this partnership farther, actually hiring a reading teacher to oversee their six-week summer program. The teacher guided book selection and met with children weekly in grade level groups to discuss books. Children were rewarded with books (which seems like something that should’ve been happening well before the 1950s, but better late than never). It was a mutually beneficial partnership, with schools seeing marked improvement and libraries experiencing increased circulation.

In the 1960s, far more programs were available throughout states, rather than just certain cities. Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming worked together to develop a standardized summer reading program. Places like Denver extended their summer reading programs beyond what had become the customary 6–8 weeks. Other libraries focused on including parents in the programming, offering reading strategy sessions for caregivers. Some programs even became more like tutoring sessions and day camps.

In 1974, librarian Carolyn Jenks worked to alleviate some of the tediousness of summer reading programs. She moved away from oral reports and redirected that energy to more interactive activities. Jenks divided the children into age groups and designed targeted weekly programs for each group. Her youngest group included children ages 3–6 for story time. The 7–9-year olds had music, crafts, read-alouds, and independent reading. The 10–13-year-olds created puppet plays based on books. Finally, there were offerings for kids of nearly all ages.

1980s and Beyond

As a “geriatric millennial,” this is when my memories kick in. Remember how I mentioned earning free pizza? Well, I wasn’t the only one. The ’80s was when businesses really started supporting summer reading programs with grants and coupons. Leading the pack, Pizza Hut started the Book It program in 1984, rewarding readers with free personal pan pizzas.

While summer reading programs loosened a bit in the ’80s, in the’ 90s and ’00s experts explored the “best” summer reading programs and many tried to be more prescriptive. However, the rise of computer and internet availability has reshaped the way kids and families access materials, interact with schools and libraries, and how they find summer programming. Most importantly, the goal of summer reading has remained consistent: fostering a love of reading and building a reading habit.

How Have School Summer Reading Lists Evolved?

So what is on these infamous lists and how has that changed over time? Unsurprisingly, school summer reading lists have long promoted the so-called classics or the canon. However, as early as 1986, children, parents, and educators were collectively pushing back against this practice.

Historically Popular School Summer Reading List Books

Among the most popular summer reading classics are many familiar titles:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte BrontëThe Adventure of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TwainA Tale of Two Cities by Charles DickensTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LeeAnimal Farm by George OrwellBrave New World by Aldous HuxleyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott FitzgeraldLittle Women by Louisa May AlcottThe Glass Menagerie by Tennessee WilliamsThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. SalingerThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel HawthorneOf Mice and Men by John SteinbeckRomeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

Undoubtedly, you can think of another 50 books that could be swapped for the titles above. Of course, as this parent noted, the problem is that required summer reading lists usually include mostly male, straight, cisgender, white authors.

Sadly, for younger children, aside from including more women authors, the selection hasn’t been much more diverse (though I might argue the books are more engaging):

Black Beauty by Anna SewellRamona the Pest by Beverly ClearyMrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonaldMr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence AtwaterStuart Little by E.B. WhiteAre You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy BlumeBridge to Terabithia by Katherine PatersonTreasure Island by Robert Louis StevensonNumber the Stars by Lois LowryThe Whipping Boy by Sid Fleishman

More Recent Summer Reading List Books

Recently, there’s been an active movement toward disrupting the canon. Consequently, summer reading lists have become more diverse. Though some schools still keep their diverse texts as optional reading instead of required, most make it a point to include women and authors of color. (Often, there’s pushback against these titles.)

The 2021 School Library Journal summer reading list for 2021 gives us a glimpse of how these lists have changed. Notable titles include:

Putuguq and Kublu and the Qalupalik by Roselynn Akulukjuk and Danny ChristopherYasmin in Charge by Saadia FaruqiJuana & Lucas: Big Problemas by Juana MedinaStand Up, Yumi Chung! by Jessica KimThe First Rule of Punk by Celia C. PérezMaya and the Rising Dark by Rena BarronThe Black Flamingo by Dean AttaTigers, Not Daughters by Samantha MabryHarley Quinn: Breaking Glass by Mariko TamakiWhen You Look Like Us by Pamela N. Harris

For more summer reading lists, check our archives for resources like this Book Riot Post or find more lists from the American Library Association.

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