Summer Reading for Sanity

Last week was “exam week” for my high school kids.  They finished up their outside, co-op classes in mid-May and then wrote up exams for me in ancient history, literature, and religion.  Online Latin and Greek classes finished up last week, too, George finished his last Saxon text, and now… we are officially “off” for the summer.

Of course, we’re never really off even when we’re “off”.  George saw something I had written the other day in which I said that we were “relaxed” homeschoolers.  His brows furrowed.  “But we’re not relaxed!” he exclaimed.  “You should say we’re a screaming sword-wielding mob instead!”

As I sit here writing this — trying to steal a couple of minutes while I wait on the big kids to get ready so they can watch the baby while I shower — the table (still full of syrup-sticky breakfast dishes) has been requisitioned by boys making helmets out of paper plates and aluminum foil.  They are already dressed in army belts and heavily armed with nerf guns.  The three year old is complaining LOUDLY and DRAMATICALLY that he NEEDS THE TAPE (!) because his foil gauntlets WON’T STAY ON and his brothers are explaining that he cannot tape them to his arms and he is refusing to listen because THEY KEEP FALLING OFF OF IT (!!!).

Screaming sword-wielding mob. Right.

Anyway, I think most of us come to the conclusion that a whole summer with a completely different structure than the rest of the year is probably not a great idea.  (If you’re an unschooler, summer isn’t any different than spring, winter, or fall, except in the sense that it’s hotter and you can go swimming instead of skiing.  In that sense, unschoolers might have a bit of an advantage on the rest of us.)  For us that has meant we’ve started up our schooly routines again in July most years, but — to be honest — my kids are so not relaxed that even a week or two without structure leads to a vast increase in sword-wielding mobness.  Not in a good way, I mean.  The problem with maple-syrup-sticky-aluminum-foil-sword-wielding mobs is that they can turn ugly in the blink of an eye, and with too little direction  in the day, they usually do.  This isn’t to say, of course, that I feel the need to direct my childrens’ every waking moment.  Although I have sometimes considered that it might actually be what is necessary to keep the peace around here, I usually remember that it wouldn’t actually be doing my kids any favors (besides being impossible).  Kids need undirected break time just like adults do — time to think and daydream, time to make up elaborate Lego games with complicated rules that not everyone agrees on so you can learn how to compromise, time to put on army helmets and army belts and hang out in the swing set pretending you are defending a base from heavy enemy attack.  And I need a break, too, or else you might find me holed up there, too, defending my hard-won territory against the screaming, sword-wielding mob.

The temptation for summer “vacation” is to go way past my limits by trying to organize the entire house, grow a big garden and preserve enough food to feed an army (my army, of course), cook everything from scratch, plan everybody’s school year to perfection, run everyone around to a zillion summer camps, and start school in July.

Can you see why I am often relieved to start our regular routine again? It’s not just that the kids have less free time to bicker.  If we’re doing school, I know what my priorities are.  I don’t try to do too many other things because I have school blocked out on my schedule. I actually read books for me again instead of scanning through stacks of books for everybody else, which often begins as an enjoyable task in the spring and ends as something I weep over because I can never finish when I’m trying to do so many things at once.  My self-imposed duties expand to fill every waking minute of the day (and some besides) and I end up frazzled and exhausted and in desperate need of an actual vacation.

So there’s a happy medium there somewhere, like pacing yourself in order to not only run the marathon, but to finish it, too.  The house does need to be organized, two high school students do need actual plans to follow in the fall, and since I can never resist planting too much in the spring, the garden will always get away from me.  But if I’m disciplined about it, I can ensure that the end of my day includes a little time to relax.

I know it seems weird to combine “disciplined” and “relax” in the same sentence.  But if I don’t make a rule for myself, what happens is I’ll try to fit in a little more research at night while I’m nursing the baby to sleep, or I’ll get on the iPad and the lighted screen will keep me awake, or I’ll get out the computer to do a few more things, and then I’ll wonder why I always feel wound so tight.  So this summer I’m giving myself an assignment:

Read skinny books for enjoyment before bed.  Mostly novels.

One day, when I’m old and have time, I’m going to try to read a book a day for a year, like the woman in Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, which I mention in my “Getting Out of a Reading Rut” post.  She figured out how many pages she could read in the amount of time she had available every day and picked books that fit those parameters.  I’m approaching my own challenge in much the same fashion.  Also, since I do tend to get into reading ruts (usually non-fiction), focusing on skinny books for a while is a non-intimidating way to climb out.  A skinny book for me is one that looks thinnish, usually 200 pages or less.  I can usually finish a skinny book in a couple of nights of sitting in the rocking chair with the baby.

(That’s the plan, anyway.)

I reserve the right to break my rules by reading bigger books if I want to, but I’m still aiming to make the majority fiction.  Some (or many) of them may turn out to be books I’ll want to read with the kids at some point, but that’s different than reading books just because I want to put it on a booklist.

So far I’ve read:

At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances by Alexander McCall Smith.  A book that’s probably funnier if you’ve been to graduate school at all, but Prof. Von Iglefeld is quite endearing.  I’ll probably look for the other books in the series.
O Pioneers! by Willa Cather, whom I chiefly love because of her skill at description, especially of the Nebraska prairie, though I liked this book less than My Antonia because of the ending.
The Lilies of the Field by William Barrett, probably the quintessential “skinny” book at only 128 pages, which I’m pretty sure just barely makes it a novel.  Several years ago — I think we were still in New York and it was probably snowing (it usually was) — we watched the movie starring Sidney Poitier.  Because my husband likes to watch old movies but I rarely catch them from the beginning or know what they’re called, I didn’t associate the movie with the book until I actually read the description in the Seton catalog.
A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: How I Learned to Live a Better Story by Donald Miller, which isn’t really skinny nor is it fiction, but it was a book I had wanted to read for a while and I found it both enjoyable and inspiring.

To give the kids a little structure, I’ve set up some summer reading shelves.  I did buy some new books (from the AO free reading lists of various years and from Sonlight’s Summer Reader packages),   but I also just grabbed books from around the house. (At this point in our homeschooling career, we have amassed quite a collection.) I also reserve the right to plunder these shelves for myself (especially the high school shelf) as I see fit.

summer reading shelves

 This bookcase is in our kitchen/dining area, which opens onto the front room.  (Technically it’s a “great room”, but it’s not actually very big… it’s just that we only have one living area-room, not two).  The top shelf holds read-alouds — on the far right, books Andy might want to read to the boys at night, and then progressing from there, books I might read aloud to all the younger boys or just to Chipmunk, age 6.  At the far left are books left over from this school year that we didn’t read.

read aloud shelf

Right now in the afternoons I’m reading The Saturdays and The Moffats (not pictured because they’re on a shelf in the front room).  Both are good, but I think I like The Saturdays better.  If a story about how a girl getting her hair cut and her nails painted can hold the attention of a bunch of boys under the age of eleven, you know it has to be good.  (There are other characters in the book besides the girl, which saves it from being a “girl book” in the minds of my boys, but still, there was the section with the manicure and nobody groaned or stuck their fingers in their ears.)  At night I’m reading The Random House Book of Fairy Tales to Chipmunk, who was supposed to hear it during the actual school year but didn’t.  The other boys are all listening in even though I think they know these stories, so I guess that makes it a family read aloud, too.

high school summer reading

The second shelf is the high school shelf.  There’s still a column of Greek books because we didn’t quite finish the Greeks this year and maybe we’ll do some more reading this summer.  There were more books on this shelf, but they’ve been plundered by both my son and daughter and I’ve forgotten what they were.  (By the way… the large hardback that says SHADES OF GRAY is not the one you are afraid it is.  It’s actually a comic dystopia by Jasper Fforde.  I found it on the AO 12 Free Reading List.)

middle grade reading shelf

Third shelf is for George and the twins.  It, too, was plundered before I could take a picture of it.  I’ve had to actually make a reading rule for the twins, which is something new for me: they have to read at quiet time.  That’s about an hour a day.  But since it’s summer time I’m not requiring them to read off this shelf, even though they often do because I chose the books according to the boys’ interests.  (Right now the WWII themed Landmark books in the front room have seen a good deal of use, with interest sparked by Memorial Day.)

I am not kidding myself that these books are going to last all summer, though… George has blown through almost all the new Sonlight summer reading books that I bought (plus a number of books we already own) and it’s only been two weeks.  Our library system is only mediocre and I am still sorting out lost books and fines from our last trips (ahem).  But this is what I remember most fondly about my own summers as a girl of ten or eleven… long, hot afternoons spent reading not skinny books, but big, companionable, thick ones!












  1. I actually think that in my house some years we get all of our “school” reading done in the summer. Thank you for writing this- I share the tendency to try to do too many things in one summer (though no garden! Here I know my limits. I can keep my children fed and watered, but not a lot else.) Picking their reading is the most enjoyable and hardest part sometimes. I’m looking forward to browsing around your blog to learn more, and I’m glad you are ahead of me in this!

    • Alex — nice to see you here! Hopefully, I’ll be moving all my old posts from when we lived in New York here, too. We weren’t doing high school then, of course, but I do have some junior high stuff on that blog. The url right now is . Wish me luck in moving a Typepad blog to wordpress; I keep putting it off.

  2. We just read the Moffats series and The Saturdays series as well, and I too preferred The Saturdays. My daughter really enjoyed the fourth Melendy book, which involves a scavenger hunt. :) Now we’re on to two more series: Redwall and All-of-a-Kind Family. My son is absolutely enchanted with the first and my daughter with the latter (though neither is all that gender-specific in their reading choices, so they’re both just enjoying them all). I too have wonderful memories of gulping down favorite novels during lazy summer afternoons, and I’m pleased to see my kids doing the same. Now if only *I* could carve out a little more reading time… :)
    Celeste recently posted…Picture Books We Love :: Favorite Folk Songs (Part Two)My Profile

    • My boys love Redwall. I don’t think all the books in the series are on audio, but the boys have listened to every single one that they could find. (Considering that all my kids are somewhat late readers, we rely on audio books a lot until reading finally clicks.) After the first couple of books they’re pretty formulaic, but Brian Jacques really had an amazing ear for dialect!

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