School's out but along with that final report card, most kids brought home an assignment: Summer reading. Some, like Libby Green, a rising fourth-grader at St. Philip's School in Coral Gables, don't need a reminder.
"During the school year, I read The Mysterious Benedict Society (by Trent Lee Stewart) and the sequel just came out, so I'm going to read that first,'' said Libby, who had already surveyed her school's suggestions and picked Polly Horvath's Everything On a Waffle, just for the title. "My brother eats chocolate chip waffles, so I'm wondering what it would be like to eat a waffle that had everything on it.''
Not every summer reader is as eager as Libby. The charms of school-assigned summer reading often seem to decline in inverse relation to age: the older a student, the less appealing the selections.
"Most of the books I haven't ever heard of,'' Bethany Ingham said of her reading list. The rising freshman at the Carrolton School of the Sacred Heart had heard of one -- Dead Man Walking by Helen Prejean. "I know there was a film made of it, but I like to read the book before I see the film, so I'll read that one first,'' she said. After that? "I've literally got a stack on my bedside table that I'm going to try to get through this summer.''
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While many students face reading lists, we also believe in having fun with books. Here are some selections my kids and I have enjoyed this year.
Best Series for Boys Who Think Books are Boring
The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan (Hyperion, $17.99, ages 10-up). Percy Jackson's fourth summer at Camp Half-Blood is a lot like his first three -- high-octane clashes with dark forces, laced with hip humor and high drama. (And the zippy review of Greek mythology makes these books summer reading a teacher can love.) This time, the Olympians find themselves lost inside Daedalus' maze.
Genius Squad by Catherine Jinks (Harcourt, $17, ages 12-up). This follow-up to last year's Evil Genius‚ starring computer prodigy Cadel Piggot, is as tough to put down as the original.
Whirlwind by David Klass (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $17.95, ages 10-up). This nonstop action-adventure story picks up where last year's cliffhanger Firestorm left off. After saving the world's oceans, 17-year-old Jack Danielson must now save his girlfriend -- and the world's rain forests. Truly intelligent storytelling for teens.
Fairy Tales Retold
Ever by Gail Carson Levine (HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 10-up). The only daughter of a wealthy, devout family in an ancient (vaguely) Middle Eastern city is willing to become a sacrifice to her family's god, Admat, until she falls in love with Olus, another god, and one she doesn't believe in. Levine's original mythological tale works as a romance and a discussion starter on religion and faith.
Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen (Viking, $18.99, ages 12-up). The heroine of Dessen's eighth young-adult novel is a modern Cinderella stand-in who gets the prince, the castle and a sparkling new wardrobe -- and isn't remotely interested.
Princess Ben by Catherine Gilbert Murdock (Houghton Mifflin, $16, ages 12-up). Ben, (short for Benevolence) is orphaned when the king (her uncle) and her parents are slain by unknown assassins. Suddenly heir to the throne of Montagne, she's now directly under the thumb of Queen Sophia, who expects Ben to comport herself as a future monarch with dance lessons, embroidery and dieting to produce the proper silhouette. Lots of friction, followed by a fairy-tale ending.
The Conor Roll (Favorite reads of my 13-year-old)
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart (Hyperion, $16.99, ages 12-up). The story of a "criminal mastermind,'' and how she got that way. Conor says this is a "girl'' book, but it is also terrific.
Gone by Michael Grant (HarperTeen, $17.99, ages 12-up). The apocalypse begins with a "poof.'' Everybody over 14 suddenly disappears, leaving the town of Perdido Beach in the hands of young teens. Can they create a new world order, or will anarchy prevail?
Little Brother by Cory Doctorow (Tor Teen, $17.95, ages 13-up). In the aftermath of a terrorist attack on San Francisco, Marcus and his buddies find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, and as a result, in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security. When Marcus manages to talk his way out, he finds the city has become a police state. Can he lead the charge to reclaim the freedoms they've lost?
Need a Good Scare?
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson (Henry Holt, $16.95, ages 13-up). After a devastating car wreck, Jenna Fox awakens from a coma and nothing -- truly nothing -- is the same. Her parents have moved her from Boston to California, they don't enroll her in school, and she can't remember having any friends. As her memory recovers, Jenna pulls at the story her parents have spun until it unravels -- and the not-so-distant possibilities of biomedical engineering come into shocking focus.
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher (Razorbill, $8.99, ages 14-up). Before she kills herself, Hannah Baker tape-records 13 messages for people she's leaving behind, each of which details the betrayals, lies and misunderstandings that lead to her suicide. Heavy but compelling (probably scariest for parents), Asher's novel asks us to look at how even petty cruelty can cascade into crushing blows.
Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Harcourt, $6.95, ages 12-up). A frighteningly realistic account of life after an asteroid knocks our moon out of orbit, causing catastrophic environmental events on Earth. Miranda records events in her journal, a day-by-day account of reliable systems breaking down, until the only thing people have left is each other.
Most Highly Anticipated Book Release
Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer (Little, Brown, $22.99, ages 12-up). The fourth book about Bella, her vampire boyfriend Edward, and the werewolf, Jacob, goes on sale Aug. 2. Look for details later this summer about release parties -- Books & Books is planning a "Breaking Dawn at Midnight Ball,'' so fans can get their books the moment they're available.
Books for Tweens
Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls: Moving Day by Meg Cabot (Scholastic, $15.99, ages 7-10). The Queen of Young Adult fiction writes a perfectly playful story for her fans' younger sisters. Allie is moving and unhappy about it -- she's also full of spunk. First in a series.
The Gollywhopper Games by Jody Feldman (Greenwillow, $16-99, ages 8-12). If Willy Wonka had owned an American toy company instead of an English candy factory, this might have been his story. To win the Gollywhopper Games, contestants must solve puzzles and riddles by unscrambling clues in rhyming verses that will lead them through obstacle courses, mazes and on scavenger hunts that get increasingly difficult until only the champion remains. My 11-year-old has already read this several times.
The Penderwicks on Gardam Street by Jeanne Birdsall (Random House, $15.99, ages 8-up). The ups and downs of life as one of the four Penderwick sisters comprise the most consistently charming book I've read in ages. This sequel to last year's National Book Award winner is perfect for a mother-daughter book club; though it's hard to say who will like it more -- the mothers or the daughters.
A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever by Marla Frazee (Harcourt, $16, ages 3 to 7). The two lollipop-headed boys of the title, James and Eamon, spend a fabulous week bonding and having fun despite the best intentions of Eamon's grandpa, who would like them to learn something. Frazee's text tells the story adults would get in postcards sent home; her expertly drawn illustrations comically reveal the truth.
Dirty Joe the Pirate by Bill Harley, pictures by Jack E. Davis (HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 3 to 6). This comic, over-the-top rhyming story involves both pirates and underwear. I just don't think I need to say anything more. What kid wouldn't like it?
Garmann's Summer by Stian Hole (Eerdmans, $17.50, ages 4 to 7). This Norwegian import is easily the quirkiest picture book I've seen this year. Garmann is anxious about starting school and talks it over with his parents and three elderly aunts, who share their own fears, which include dying. Fear, Garmann learns, is part of growing up. The illustrations mix photographs with prints and patterned backgrounds to ethereal effect.
Go, Go America by Dan Yaccarino (Scholastic, $17.99, ages 6-10). Backseat reading for summer car trips, this colorful volume lists silly facts about each state, as well as stuff that might show up on a social studies quiz -- state mottos, state flowers, state birds.
The Ultimate Guide to Grandmas and Grandpas by Sally Lloyd-Jones, illustrated by Michael Emberley (HarperCollins, $14.99, ages 3 to 7). This is the book parents send with the kids when they drop them off to go on vacation by themselves. Operating instructions include making "sure grandma and grandpa have their naps when they're tired,'' even if it means "you have to take a nap with them so they're not the only ones.''
Book Most Likely to Lead You to Do Good
MySpace/Our Planet: Change is Good by the MySpace Community (HarperTeen, $12.99, ages 8-up). A wealth of great ideas for how kids, teens and their families can reduce their carbon footprints. Good summer project ideas. (I have been reading this aloud at the dinner table.)
Book Most Likely to Lead You to Commit Mischief
The Pocket Guide to Mischief by Bart King (Gibbs Smith, $9.95). A wealth of nearly-naughty ideas for playing pranks on your friends. Good summer project ideas if you are trying to reduce your number of friends. (Both of my sons read this book cover to cover without any prompting from me.)
Check your local library for summer reading events and more great lists. Many plan parties and puppet shows and give weekly prizes.
If your child needs help with reading, the University of Miami offers classes for kids as young as 4 at locations all over South Florida. Visit the Institute of Reading Development here or call 1-800- 964-8888.