Middle School Summer Reading

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The title of the article jumped right off the page: “Some Books Are More Equal Than Others” by Claire Needell Hollander, a middle school teacher in Manhattan. The article, which appeared in Sunday’s (June 24) New York Times, is about selecting summer reading for middle and high school students – one of my favorite topics. My first reading of Hollander’s article was rushed, as if someone was challenging me to a speed reading contest, when actually I was just excited about the subject. This morning I read it more carefully, highlighter in hand.

Hollander has written a passionate and well-reasoned piece arguing for “focusing on accessible non-fiction guaranteed to increase world and verbal knowledge.” She also talks about the joy “leaving the Post-it notes at home.” As the mother of a high school student, this sentence struck me as one of Hollander’s best points. If I had a nickel for every time my son has said, “I wish I could just read this book without taking notes on every page,” I would be close to paying for a full year of college.

One of the best parts of talking with my middle school students about their summer reading, is telling them just to read!  No notes required. We do have several prompts on a web site that they are required to visit once over the summer, but the prompts are questions that will encourage them to think about the book and make connections – no questions about what happens in chapter 3.

Hollander’s point about nonfiction is a good one. There are many nonfiction books on our summer reading list, but her argument is so persuasive that I plan to add more titles to next summer’s list.

My argument for the summer reading list (as opposed to not providing a list) has always been that it encourages many students to read books that they may not know about.  I have no doubt that my students will find The Hunger Games in their local grocery store, but what about Sy Montgomery’s thought provoking biography, Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World

I wouldn’t want to have a list devoid of fiction, though – and I don’t think that’s what Hollander is suggesting. One of the joys of returning to school in September is talking with students about the books they discovered over the summer. It’s especially wonderful when they tell me that reading one book led to another by the same author or an interest in learning more about a topic. As cliche as it is to say, reading inspires wonder and opens minds. Reading about a young immigrant’s experience (Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos) or thinking about what it would be like to age backward (Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin) is one of the joys of reading without taking notes.

Below is a link to Hollander’s excellent article. Following that is my list of nonfiction books for middle school students that were included on Inly’s summer reading list:


Thunder Birds: Nature’s Flying Predators by Jim Arnosky

“From the powerful osprey on the jacket with its outstretched wing and glittering eyes, through eagles and owls, herons and vultures, and loons and pelicans, Arnosky’s painterly eye and literary hand portray more than 20 “flying predators… Elegant in format and artwork, this book will not accompany young birders into the field, but will be a rich resource for remembering special sightings, and inspire them to keep their eyes on the sky.” (School Library Journal)

The Case of the Vanishing Golden Frogs: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle

“The golden frog, a Panamanian national symbol, began vanishing from its high mountain forests in the late 1990s, prompting a scientific investigation and rescue process that continues today. Veteran science educator Markle describes a mission that has involved scientists from around the world…”(Kirkus Reviews)

Around the World by Matt Phelan

“Phelan presents three true stories of around-the-world adventures inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days that, even though they were undertaken in the late 1800s, would be hardly less arduous today. Thomas Stevens, Joshua Slocum, and Nellie Bly saw the world from the seat of a bicycle, aboard a 36-foot sloop, and via trains and ships, respectively…Design elements such as borders and frames lend a jaunty festivity to a graphic novel that will appeal to aficionados of the form and any reader in search of engrossing true journeys.” (School Library Journal)

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James Swanson

“This volume is an adaptation of Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer (HarperCollins, 2006). Divided into 14 chapters and an epilogue, the sentences are shorter and chapters are condensed from the original but the rich details and suspense are ever present…Readers will be engrossed by the almost hour-by-hour search and by the many people who encountered the killer as he tried to escape. It is a tale of intrigue and an engrossing mystery.” (starred review, School Library Journal)

Super Stars: The Biggest, Hottest, Brightest, Most Explosive Stars in the Milky Way by David Aguilar

“Pairing dramatic space art with souped-up prose, Aguilar introduces more than a dozen types of stars and stellar phenomena, from Algol, the “winking demon star,” and supernovae (“Boom! There goes the neighborhood”) to black holes, brown dwarfs, and planetary nebulae, the “butterflies of the universe.” Aside from the occasional alien or interstellar spacecraft set against glowing star fields, the information in both pictures and text sticks to the facts, accurately reflecting current knowledge without ever coming close to turning into a dry recitation of data. Four sky charts and a spread of assorted informative back matter give this unusually exuberant ticket to ride for young sky watchers and armchair space travelers a strong finish.” (School Library Journal)

Sky Sailors: True Stories of the Balloon Era by David Bristow

“In the beginning of human flight, those daring young men—and women—of song and story were not to be found in flying machines but, instead, in baskets hanging beneath hot-air and helium-filled balloons. The results were sometimes heroic, sometimes comic, but always fraught with danger. Bristow gives readers the spirited stories of nine of these pioneers of flight…”(Booklist)

Mission Control, This is Apollo: The Story of the First Voyages to the Moon by Andrew Chaikin

“Based on interviews with 28 astronauts, this history of the Apollo program masterfully describes the missions and personalizes them with astronauts’ own words” (Kirkus)

Amelia Lost: The Life and Disappearance of Amelia Earhart by Candace Fleming

“Black-and-white photographs and elegant typography give this gorgeously produced book an appropriate period feel, while alternating ashes – one set following Earhart from childhood, the other tracking her final flight – provide historical context as well as vivid pacing. But though Fleming allows Earhart her glamorous due, she also strips her of myth, giving readers the accuracy they deseve.” (New York Times Book Review)

Whaling Season: A Year in the Life of an Arctic Whale Scientist by Peter Lourie

“Lourie skillfully describes the delicate three-way relationship that exists among the Iñupiat of Alaska, the bowhead whales, and the scientists who are there to collect data and study the animals…Young readers will come away with a stronger appreciation of the bowhead whales, the people who both hunt and respect them, and the scientists who straddle the traditional and modern worlds to gather important information.” (starred review, School Library Journal)

Years of Dust: The Story of the Dust Bowl by Albert Marrin

“Marrin begins with an overview of the natural history of the Great Plains, describing its unique geography and delicate ecological balance…The author writes with his usual clarity and flair and uses excerpts from primary-source accounts and literature to give voice to the people who explored and settled the plains as well as those who suffered through this environmental disaster. The narrative is supplemented with several maps and large, riveting reproductions of period photos and illustrations.” (starred review, School Library Journal)

Temple Grandin: How the Girl Who Loved Cows Embraced Autism and Changed the World  by Sy Montgomery

“The biography of an exceptional woman who, remarkably, made use of her condition to discover her calling and changed her own and many animals’ lives…Montgomery makes a compelling argument that though one never outgrows autism, it doesn’t condemn those who have it to unproductive lives, and an appendix, “Temple’s Advice for Kids on the Spectrum,” provides first-hand wisdom. Photos and diagrams depict Grandin’s work as well as documenting her early life and career. A well written, admiring and thought-provoking portrait.” (Kirkus Reviews)

Plant Hunters: True Stories of Their Daring Adventures to the Far Corners of the Earth  by Anita Silvey

“Greed! Obsession! A passion for nature and travel! All these and more have driven intrepid explorers to search for exotic plants around the globe for centuries.

Most of these hunters have been altruistic professionals seeking valuable plants to advance the cause of science and medicine or to improve their nations’ economy with potential commercial crops. In their pursuit many experienced serious illness and injury, extremes of harsh weather and terrain in remote locales, not to mention encounters with dangerous animals, insects and fellow humans…The slim, engaging narrative paints vivid portraits of these botanic adventurers. It is smoothly written, smartly paced and filled with exciting tales of risk taking and derring-do…Who could have imagined that something as seemingly ordinary as a plant could incite such ardor and devotion?  (Kirkus Reviews)

First Girl Scout: The Life of Juliette Gordon Low by Ginger Wadsworth

“This well-documented biography introduces readers to the founder of the Girl Scouts…Low’s personality really comes to life through the details in the narrative. Wadsworthshows readers that this remarkable woman was a skilled leader and hostess in spite of having suffered severe hearing loss that made conversation difficult… Exemplary nonfiction.” (School Library Journal)

Journey into the Deep: Discovering New Ocean Creatures by Rebecca Johnson

“This heavily illustrated title contains a wealth of information about the fascinating science of ocean life. Readers will start off browsing the close-up color photographs and text boxes on every double-page spread, including sidebars that explain DNA, water pressure, chemosynthesis, and much more. But the focus of this photo-essay is the Census of Marine Life, a 10-year study, conducted from 2000 to 2010, in which international teams of scientists have explored the ocean from surface to seafloor, from deep-sea mountains to deep dark depths, and from pole to pole…” (Booklist)

The Good, the Bad and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us by Tanya Lee Stone  

“In the prologue, Meg Cabot describes her desire for a Barbie and her mother’s reluctance to purchase one, basically summing up the conflict surrounding the doll since its introduction in 1959. Readers learn about Mattel Toys and the background behind Barbie’s concept and development, how it was a solution for girls who wanted to imagine adult roles rather than just play mother, and details about inventor Ruth Handler. But more than that, Stone reveals the pathos behind so many relationships of girls with Barbie: those who cherished her and those who were negatively influenced. Was she a destructive role model or just a toy? Experts disagree. In this balanced overview, both sides of the quandary are addressed….” (School Library Journal)

Blizzard of Glass: The Halifax Explosion of 1917 by Sally Walker

“This intriguing title tells the story of a little-known event. In late 1917, the French freighter Mont-Blanc was sent to North Americato be refitted and loaded with much-needed war material. With its hull packed with TNT, picric acid, and gun cotton, and its deck stacked with barrels of benzene, it made its way along the coast of Nova Scotia to Halifax Harbour before setting sail for Europe… (School Library Journal)


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