Keep Up With Your Kids: Back-to-School Reading for Parents

Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Allied

These are boom times for anyone who reads. There are so many great books out there that it helps to have a way to narrow down your choices, while at the same time, getting out of your usual reading habits. If you're a parent, there's an added wrinkle; your children may be reading books that you haven’t read, but would enjoy. Moreover, if you're reading the same books as your children, that gives you a chance to demonstrate that reading is not a solitary experience. When you read a book, you're connected with everyone else who has read that book. If you're related, that gives you something to talk about.

This was brought to mind when my sister-in-law, an English teacher in southern California, told me that the book they could not keep in her library was Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. No matter how many copies they bought, they'd eventually be checked out but not returned. That makes Fight Club a serious first suggestion as back-to-school reading for parents. Only time will tell if Tyler Durden ends up being the Holden Caulfield for the 21st century, but Palahniuk's novel speaks directly to the rebellious spirit in any teenaged boy, as well as to his middle-aged father. The prose anticipated the how-to and maker speak so common on the Internet today, and Palahniuk's tale of cubicle rebellion seems pertinent to both students and their parents. Buy one, hang on to it and read for yourself, then see if your teenager doesn't make it disappear. It helps that most of the best lines in the movie come directly from the novel. For parents, the first rule of Fight Club is buy the book. Everything else will take care of itself.

I made a few phone calls to school districts and teachers in northern California to hear what their students are reading. These recommendations demonstrate the range of what's out there and what's important to students and teachers.

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Veronica Daley Zaleha, Teacher Librarian at Santa Cruz High School says, "[We} can’t keep The Fault in Our Stars by John Green on our shelves! Since being made into a movie, its popularity has increased, and that’s a good thing! Students reading TFIOS are demonstrating a taste for writing that is compassionate and funny, filled with rich language and smart literary references. The story of Hazel and Augustus, two star-crossed lovers who meet at a support group for teens with cancer, is honest and realistic without over-sentimentalizing. Hazel measures her life in half-years, and Augustus is determined to live a life that is significant, worthy of being remembered. If the story of two kids with cancer isn’t heartbreaking enough, any parent will appreciate the recognition Hazel expresses in the first chapter: “There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you're sixteen, and that's having a kid who bites it from cancer.” Without being maudlin, this story takes us on an excellent adventure with these two likeable characters. Green is a tremendous author with a following of “nerdfighters” who fight “world suck” and #DFTBA. Parents should check out his novels and the crash courses the “vlogbrothers” offer on YouTube!"

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Lara Trale, English Teacher and School Newspaper Advisor at Oakland High School, says, "I first read Angela Johnson's The First Part Last when it was new and I didn't have kids yet, when I still felt like I was closer in life to my students than to their parents. I loved it, especially protagonist Bobby, who bounces off the page, full and thoughtful and impetuous, in very sixteen-year-old ways.

"Then I had children of my own. Now when I read this book, I notice the tenderness in Bobby's relationships with his own parents. They take a trip through the wringer when Bobby becomes a young father, and though they emerge creased and battered, they remain intact. Their love holds Bobby together when everything else falls apart. It's one of the first books I shove at reluctant student readers. In its perfect 132 little pages, a likable kid comes of age and in a way, his likable parents do too."

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Lisa Bishop, Teacher Librarian/Media Teacher at Aptos Middle School, says, "I have tons of books for students in the middle years to read but this stuff is DEEP! I highly recommend parents and teachers/teacher librarians to read Donalyn Miller's two books, The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild. They are both about cultivating lifelong reading habits from a young age. Parents and teachers need to know what Donalyn Miller writes about and practices with her 4th and 5th grade students in Texas. Her advice is applicable to all students and children of all ages.

"In these books, you learn these golden nuggets: 1. Reading is its own reward. 2. Every reader has a voice and value. 3. The VOLUME of reading is the predictor of achievement (as per Dr. Stephen Krashen's research). 4. Make it a rite of passage when your child gets his/her first library card. 5. Create a reading community, like your family of readers, friends, family members and blogs like Donalyn's blog. It matters WHO is in your reading community for engagement, enjoyment and to help students find other places to get book recommendations. 6. Reading inspires you to write, inhaling is when you read and exhaling is writing! 7. Expect your children and students to read a lot more than you think they can. 8. Help students find texts that they can own, give them CHOICE, this sometimes means a negotiated choice. Remember, Graphic Novels and magazines are NOT compromised reading! Choice increases reading motivation. 9. Get your children and students reading WIDELY! Have them keep a top 10 list of "must reads" and create a FOMO syndrome or a Fear of Missing Out of the latest greatest books! Always make sure the lists have a poetry book, a non-fiction author, historical fiction, popular titles and classics. Read all genres. Try one genre that jazzes you. 10. What do Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Fahrenheit 451 have in common? The same Lexile band of reading! What this is saying is do not limit a child or student to reading only his/her lexile level. I highly recommend these two books."

Rick Hanford, Library Media Specialist at Lynbrook High School, says, "The third installment in author Rick Perlstein’s examination of the rise of issue conservatism in the 20th century, The Invisible Bridge, checks in at over 800 pages. I enjoyed every one of them. Perlstein’s dedication to combing through newspapers, periodicals, and AP wire stories in order to give the reader a richer context of the social currents that began to gain force in the mid-1970s, and surge in our present times, allows the reader a comfortable perch to examine the muddy political waters that existed during the fall of Nixon and the rise of Reagan.

"The title refers to a comment that Khrushchev made to Nixon regarding giving the public what it wants; even if it’s not necessarily what it needs. From POWs to school busing to the ERA, and perhaps most importantly from my point of view, the control of school curricula, Perlstein illustrates how single-issue concerns can trump all other voter considerations.

"The author also reminds us that the mid-‘70s were a wrenching time for American self-examination because of Watergate, and subsequent congressional hearings that exposed the lack of integrity in America’s treatment of foreign governments. For any teacher, student, or parent who wishes to gain better understanding of the origins of modern campaigning and politics, and why personality matters so much in politics, this book will get you from the recent past to 2014 walking across a solid framework."

Molly Lazarus, Teacher and Librarian at Balboa High School, says, "Wonder by R.J. Palacios is a quick, touching, and insightful read for anyone 8 years old and up. It explores how we fit in the world when we are different. August Pullman was born with severe facial deformities, requiring 27 surgeries to date. He is starting 5th grade after being home schooled for his early years. The story is narrated alternately by August, his sister, and his classmates, and each child’s view is expressed with compelling honesty. There is so much here to discuss with your teen about how we treat each other, peer pressure, bullying, and what it means to be a friend.

"A more challenging book that would be great to read with your teen is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. This intriguing novel interconnects three stories -- a lonely teen in Tokyo coping with her parents’ despair and bullied by her peers, her 104-year-old great-grand-mother who is a Zen Buddhist monk in a mountain monastery, and an author on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest who finds Nao's diary washed up in a Hello Kitty lunch box after a tsunami. Told fearlessly, Ozeki has written an alternately heartbreaking and funny book about being true to yourself in the face of great uncertainty and adversity."

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Did you note a distinct lack of teen dystopias? The diversity you find in this list is just a hint that your children are reading on their own and being asked to read a much wider range of literature than you might ever have imagined. School has started; it's time -- and fun -- to keep up with your kids.

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