Q: Our kids, ages 7 and 10, brought home nice letters from teachers asking parents to read with their children this summer. Attached was a list of "40 books all kids should read before they're 12." Who makes these lists? How do we know if the books are worthwhile? What if we choose our own books?
A: Choosing your own books is just fine. It's reading that counts! The late California literacy leader Doris Dillon created grade-level-specific booklists for teachers to send home the last day of school. But she always added a note: "These are just suggestions. Nothing is required reading! Have fun creating and reading your very own list of summer favorites!"
Four decades of data show that summer reading keeps kids' skills sharp, especially when they freely choose the books they read. Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at USC's Rossier School of Education, found that allowing kids to select titles not only improves their comprehension, it can also improve their spelling, writing and grammatical development.
Use compiled lists for ideas, says Carl Harvey, library media specialist at North Elementary School in Noblesville, Indiana.
"Review where the lists came from and who influenced them," he explains. "Some lists might leave off excellent books with controversial themes. Other lists may lean too heavy on the classics and ignore new titles. Many great children's books are available. Any 'should read' list is very subjective!"
With thousands of new children's and young adult titles published each year -- and thousands more on publisher backlists -- how do you identify books so compelling that kids won't want to turn off the lights (or power down the tablet) at bedtime?
Start with their interests, says Harvey.
"Parents often have an idealized notion of what kids should spend the summer reading," he says. "Does your son play 'Minecraft'? Look for a strategy book about it. Does your daughter love one author? Find other books by that writer. A captivating series is perfect for summer." (Most series' authors have websites that draw readers in.)
Let kids choose. Don't worry if it looks like "junk" to you, says Harvey.
"If your son love superheroes, encourage comics and graphic novels," he urges.
Expect trial and error in the selection process. At the library, let your kids choose an armful of books. Read those that click with them and return those that don't. You won't have any regrets. If you're downloading books, the same rules apply.
Don't rule out books because they're not the right age level, says Valerie Lewis, children's literature expert and co-founder of Hicklebee's Bookstore in San Jose, California.
"There's really no such thing as a '10-year-old and up' book," she says. "If your daughter chooses something she's emotionally not ready for, explain that it's a book for when she is older. But don't rule out scary books. We all survived 'Hansel and Gretel.'"
However, Harvey advises that if parents are concerned about a book's appropriateness, "The best way to decide is to read it themselves."
Meanwhile, continue to read aloud to your children, Harvey recommends. Summer is a good time to select a compelling book that's a stretch for them to read on their own. Stop at a "cliffhanger" point each evening. Reading aloud has tremendous benefits, not the least of which is quality time with Mom or Dad.
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)