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Students Find Their Summer All Booked Up

Times Staff Writer

In the waning days of summer vacation, there are malls to be shopped and waves to be surfed, music to be downloaded and gossip to be shared. Oh, and there are books to be read -- all enumerated on the summer reading lists of schools throughout the area.

“The Catcher in the Rye” is a favorite. So is “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton (“who wrote the novel when she was 16,” the staff at the Chadwick School noted in its handout to seventh-graders). “Siddhartha” by Herman Hesse may be nestled in various beach bags this summer as well.

Turns out vacation isn’t quite as vacant as it was in the days before private high school fees rivaled college tuition and applying for college became as competitive as running for political office.

Many schools send their charges home for the summer with reading lists -- sometimes with suggested titles but more often with mandatory readings and required essays.

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And the reading lists would put to shame those of their elders who nod off in bed to a Dean Koontz thriller or the latest Candace Bushnell trifle. (Which is not to say that some parents don’t read the books on their children’s lists. Schools even suggest it.)

Teachers and administrators who make up summer reading lists insist that the assignments aim to stoke a passion for reading.

“A book is like your best friend,” said Genevieve Morgan, head of the English department at the Archer School for Girls, grades six through 12, in Brentwood. “If you keep your mind fresh, you’re never lonely.”

Morgan picks most of the books in conjunction with the teachers.

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“My first thought is to find something enjoyable for [students] to read, so if they’re reluctant readers, they learn to love reading,” Morgan said. The second goal is to find “something juicy that will spark discussion. During the year we teach books you need more leading through.... You don’t really want a seventh-grader reading Shakespeare on her own during the summer. That’s going to turn her off Shakespeare.”

Among the recommended lists for seventh- through ninth-graders are Scott Westerfield’s science fiction fables about the tyranny of beauty in society -- “Uglies,” “Pretties” and “Specials.” They are “the hot books the kids are loving,” Morgan said.

But it’s not just about a good read. Incoming Archer sixth-graders must read the classic “Anne of Green Gables” and Neal Gaiman’s “Coraline,” about a girl’s journey through a mysterious door in her house into an eerie parallel world.

“The theme is going beyond your comfort zone,” said Morgan, explaining that the books are “about two girls who have to be brave and make difficult decisions.”

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Cheerful exhortations accompany the list of required and optional titles. “Bottoms up!” Morgan signs off on her letter to sophomores, instructing them to read “The Lord of the Flies” and “The Kite Runner” and to be prepared for classroom discussion.

“I have two kids, I do feel kids are over-scheduled,” Morgan said. “But in my opinion, sitting down to read a book is slowing down.”

And as the summer draws to a close, even the most interesting book may not be much fun as students scramble to meet deadlines before schools resume as early as this week. (Some schools suggest reading in August so the books will be fresh in students’ minds for classroom discussions).

But it’s not just about the pleasure of reading. Educators cite evidence that analytical skills are lost over the summer if students don’t read.

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While private and parochial schools usually have the most elaborate mandatory reading lists and accompanying assignments -- with grades being docked if the work is not completed -- high-achieving public schools hand out summer lists as well.

North Hollywood High School’s highly gifted magnet program has a summer reading list, as does Alexander Hamilton High’s humanities magnet in L.A., where ninth-graders are reading “The Catcher in the Rye” and 10th-graders are directed toward Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Voltaire’s “Candide.”

Laguna Beach High School puts out a summer reading list with several books listed for each grade, including one or two mandatory books. Incoming freshmen must read “Fahrenheit 451.” Seniors can hunker down with “Emma,” “Jane Eyre,” Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” or Stephen Ambrose’s “The Wild Blue” -- pick two.

For the first time, the Los Angeles Unified School District this summer mailed out a large workbook of suggested reading and activities for students entering grades two through six.

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“We’re trying to educate parents and students about the importance of reading,” said Ronni Ephraim, the district’s chief academic officer at the elementary school level, who noted that the mailing was spurred by parents’ interest.

“We try to have a list that covered different genres, different ethnic groups, that would entice kids to delve into more reading,” Ephraim said.

Those who assemble the reading lists know that reactions will be mixed.

“There are the kids who grudgingly read the one book and others who devour 25,” said Pat Jones, the academic dean for the Chadwick School, a K-12 school on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, which that provides reading lists to its younger students as well as high schoolers.

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The reading list’s cover letter quotes former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins urging poetry readers to "... water ski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore.”

There is a sense of urgency in some of the entreaties to parents: “Research over the past two decades shows that across the country students’ SAT verbal scores have been in a slow decline. One reason for the decline is the lack of reading done by students both at home and at school,” said the letter to parents of ninth-graders at Loyola High School for boys in Los Angeles.

It then, essentially, lays out the remedy to that decline with its demanding reading list.

Eleventh-graders read Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” Twelfth-grade Advanced Placement students read half a dozen books, including “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” by James Joyce and “How to Write a Winning College Application Essay.” The guide will help them craft a 10- to 12-page personal profile that’s due on the first day of school.

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“I honestly never had a complaint,” said Mary Arney, chairwoman of the Loyola High English department.

“Our students are highly motivated, and they’re very good boys. We give them a task and they do it.”

Some students are accepting of the reading list, if not overjoyed.

Elizabeth Daniels, 16, a junior at Archer, who is loaded up with AP and honors classes, prefers the optional reading list.

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“If I choose them, I’m more interested. My fiction was ‘The World According to Garp,’ which I loved.”


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