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For Summer Reading Lists, Some Schools Take A More Modern Approach


Lately we've been bringing you suggestions for your summer reading, from new Southern Gothics to tales of personal transformation to good old-fashioned adventure stories. We're hoping it didn't feel like homework because we know that for the students in our audience, they already have plenty. The dreaded summer reading list is still a widely promoted tradition, and some of that reading may be familiar to you. But some of it may not. And here to talk about what's new on required reading lists is Kathryn VanArendonk. She teaches developmental reading and writing at Union County College in New Jersey. Welcome to the program.

KATHRYN VANARENDONK: Thanks so much for having me.

CORNISH: When you are looking at middle school and high school reading lists, what is the approach schools are taking these days? Do you see any shift?

VANARENDONK: Yeah. So I have noticed that a lot of schools are moving toward including nonfiction and, particularly, memoirs on their required lists. You know, there are still a lot of classics. There's still "Wuthering Heights," and there are still Dickens'. But more and more, you're starting to see books that are recent and that are about real people's lives.

CORNISH: What's driving that?

VANARENDONK: One thing that may be behind it is that the Common Core curriculum has a real emphasis on informational texts. So when you're looking at something like a memoir, it's often written in a very literary style. And so there's symbol and repetition and literary language for analysis, but you also have all of that real-world geography, history that makes it very easy to access if you're a history teacher or social studies. So I think that might be something that's going on in these lists.

CORNISH: So you've brought some books that you say are actually appearing on school lists more often and one that fits the description you've just given. It's "I Am Malala" by Malala Yousafzai, and people may know her from the news. She survived an attack by Taliban gunmen in 2012 when she was on a school bus. And she went on to become the youngest Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Now, why is this book being taught in schools?

VANARENDONK: I think it's being taught in schools because this terrible thing happened to her, but the text is humanizing in a way that I found really remarkable. She writes a lot about her life before the event. She writes about her life after the event. And she just comes off as such a recognizable teen voice. This amazing thing happened, but she's just trying to situate her own self in it.

CORNISH: Another memoir you're bringing us - "The Color Of Water" by James McBride. Tell us more about this book.

VANARENDONK: This was published in 1995. And it's his own memoir, but it's also a biography of his mother, Ruth McBride Jordan. And it is just this amazing book because it's written in two different narrative threads. So half of the text is his own stories of his youth, and then half of the text are his mother's stories of her childhood and young adulthood told through her own voice. McBride has written it, but he's written it as though she's speaking it directly to him. And the personality in each voice comes through so strongly that you feel incredibly attached to these people. And their interwoven in way that I find really fascinating.

CORNISH: You've brought us some memoir, but also, you brought fiction and specifically, a young adult novel called "Fangirl" written by an author I love - Rainbow Rowell - who I discovered without knowing people considered her a kind of young adult writer. Tell us about this book.

VANARENDONK: I love this book. So "Fangirl" is the story of Cather Avery and her first year as a freshman in college. And it can fell a little bit like a familiar arch in some senses. It's a coming of age story. She has this really strong relationship with writing fan fiction, and that has shaped her entire adolescence - and now, as an 18-year-old, is trying to come to terms with what it means to write fan fiction. It's just a really unusual way of thinking about how we relate to literature, and I think it's really fascinating to think about in the context of an English class.

CORNISH: Right, where, as in the book, she is accused of a form of plagiarism.

VANARENDONK: Right. Exactly. She hands in a piece of fan fiction in her college class. Her professor says, you didn't make these characters; you didn't make this world. And she's deeply hurt by that. And I don't think Rowell presents an easy answer. She absolutely is invested in the way that building other people's characters beyond their own stories can be this valuable experience. But at the end, Cather is also pushed to writing her own story about herself, so I think she's definitely trying to consider how we draw this line.

CORNISH: Now, this wouldn't be a chat about high school reading if we didn't have at least one classic.

VANARENDONK: (Laughter).

CORNISH: What's your choice?

VANARENDONK: So the book that I've chosen as a classic is Kate Chopin's "The Awakening." It was published in 1899. And I was actually surprised to see it on as many high school lists as it is because it's a tough read for a lot of high schoolers, I think, and it does not have a happy ending. But it's something that rings a lot more true for me as an adult thinking about the ways that adult roles can be restrictive or freeing or not what you expected.

CORNISH: Now, as an adult, as someone who still does required reading, technically, how do you approach your summer list?

VANARENDONK: My summer list is sort of half-and-half. I try to give myself time for new things, for stuff that I want to reread, which there's not a lot of time for during the school year. But inevitably, it's also a chance to think about new things for the curriculum. And that's really fun too. That's something that gets you excited about the start of school again.

CORNISH: That's Kathryn VanArendonk. She teaches developmental reading and writing at Union County College in New Jersey. Thank you so much for speaking with.

VANARENDONK: Thanks so much for having me. It's been really fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.