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Ready, set, read! Summer fiction ideas for kids of all ages

| November 7, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Holly Korbey

Teachers and experts have long suggested that reading over summer break helps kids from losing everything they’ve learned over the school year. And new research shows that reading fiction especially might do more than serve kids academically – it may even make them better people.

Several recent studies show that reading great literature makes individuals more empathetic and more able to understand the world from another’s perspective, writes Annie Murphy Paul in ‘Reading literature makes us smarter and nicer’.2 The results of the two studies Paul cites in the article, conducted by Canadian psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley, were similar when applied to children: Mar’s study on preschoolers3 showed that, even when controlled for age, gender, vocabulary and parent income, young children who were read more stories developed a stronger “theory of mind”, or the ability to imagine the beliefs and intentions of another. Increasing empathy isn’t the only way fiction makes us better.

In a New York Times article on how the brain processes fiction,4 Paul breaks down research that shows human brains don’t really distinguish between fictional situations and real ones. “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life,” Paul writes. “In each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” For instance, cites Paul, when researcher Véronique Boulenger of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, had study participants read “Paulo kicked the ball”, brain scans revealed activity in the motor cortex region of the brain, which is responsible for body movements.

‘Feeling’ fiction
According to psychologists, fiction creates a vivid real-life simulation in which humans get to experience the world through another’s thoughts and feelings. While even more research points to ways the brain ‘feels’ fiction – from experiencing sensory details like smell to freely experiencing characters’ deep emotions as if they were our own5 — Paul writes on her blog6 how it may feel for fiction to work magic on our brains: “Who hasn’t felt, at the end of a truly great novel, a little exhausted and wrung out – as if, as [William] Styron says, we’ve been living several other lives in addition to our own?” Why does fiction whisk us away during the long, leisurely days of summer? “I think we read fiction in the summertime because we want to allow our minds to travel (whether we actually go anywhere or not),” Paul says.

Reading suggestions
Los Angeles Public Library children’s librarian and author Mara Alpert7 and Scarborough, Maine, Public Library children’s librarian Louise Capizzo8 offer titles for kids of all ages rich in sensory details, with great characters who will take kids on summer adventures without their feet getting tired.

Kindergarten-Grade 3 (chosen by Mara Alpert)

Awesome Dawson by Chris Gall (Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; ISBN: 978- 0316213301)
Young Dawson’s motto is “Everything can be used again!” This ‘Hero to Toys Everywhere’ has been recycling… well, everything, to make his creations since babyhood. In his secret he prepares to make a new body for his robot friend Mooey. Unfortunately, his mom wants him to do his chores. Hey, what better way to use his talents then to build a robot to do the chores for him! Until, of course, it runs amok… Dawson makes recycling look awesome, indeed.

Ralph Tells a Story by Abby Hanlon (Publisher: Two Lions; ISBN: 978- 0761461807)
“Stories are everywhere!” insists Ralph’s teacher, but this kid has the worst case of writer’s block in the history of the world. He’s got nothing to write because nothing ever happens to him. Even when he learns that his classmate Daisy has written a bunch of stories about things that have happened to Ralph, he doesn’t believe it. Then he remembers the inchworm in the park, and with the help of his friends, Ralph discovers the joy of crafting personal stories. The creative and collaborative process, laid out neatly.

Clementine, by Sara Pennypacker illustrated by Marla Frazee (Publisher: Disney-Hyperion; ISBN: 978-0786838837) Second-grader Clementine was just trying to be helpful when she cut off all of Margaret’s hair. And when she assisted in colouring what was left with a red marker. And when she cut off her own hair in solidarity. And… well, Clementine’s mind works in strange and mysterious ways, but she always makes a certain mad sense. She’s a feisty, creative soul, and kids will enjoy getting to know her.

Grades 4-8 (chosen by Mara Alpert)

Hold Fast by Blue Balliett (Publisher: Scholastic Press; ISBN: 978-0545299886)

Early Pearl, her little brother and her parents share a oneroom studio in a not-so-great neighbourhood in Chicago, but it is a home rich with library books, imagination and love. Then her father disappears, their home is destroyed, and the three remaining Pearls find themselves in a homeless shelter, learning survival skills they could never have dreamed they’d need. Early is a smart, resourceful, creative and loving girl, who rises to the challenge of this new life, and of figuring out what really happened to her father, with fierce determination. The poetry of Langston Hughes, the glory that is the Chicago Public Library, and importance of reading play a major role is this ultimately optimistic tale. Larklight or The Revenge of the White Spiders! or To Saturn’s Rings and Back!

A Rousing Tale of Dauntless Pluck in the Farthest Reaches of Space by Philip Reeve, illustrated by David Wyatt (Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC; ISBN: 978- 0747582403)
Just look at that title. ’Nuff said. In a Victorian era that never happened, Art Mumby and his annoying older sister Myrtle share a rambling old mansion that travels through space with their dad. When he is kidnapped during an attack of space spiders, Art and Myrtle hook up with a band of youthful space pirates to try and save him, and the universe. Oh, and to figure out what happened to their mother. This is world-building at its finest, told in a rousing, Saturday-Afternoon-Matinee style, complete with weird aliens, mad scientists, the beginnings of a romance for young Myrtle, and the opportunity to save the entire universe. Huzzah! First book in a series.

City of Fire by Laurence Yep (Publisher: Starscape; ISBN: 978-0765358790)

In an alternate 1941 universe where magic and technology exist more or less comfortably side-by-side, 12-year-old Scirye, a princess with a miniature griffin, gathers around her an unlikely group of allies (including a motherly dragon who happens to be an assassin, an orphaned boy who happens to be the assassin’s target, a shape-changing trickster, and a Hawaiian goddess) and begins a quest to avenge the death of her older sister and the loss of some of her family’s greatest treasures. World-building, interesting characters you want to learn more about, breathless adventure and a determined and intelligent heroine make this trilogy-opener a winner. Grades 9-12 (chosen by Louise Capizzo) “These are books that I love and still think about from time to time,” said Capizzo of her teen selections. “Do you ever have that feeling of sadness after reading a wonderful book; a book that kept your interest; a book that had you racing through chores or rushing home so you could get back to your characters? And you didn’t want to finish the book too quickly, because then the story would be over. When that happens to me, I feel a bit sad because I will never be able to experience this book for the first time ever again.”

One Whole and Perfect Day by Judith Clarke (Publisher: Boyds Mills Press; ISBN: 978- 1620910252)
With all the chaos from her family as they prepare for her grandfather’s eightieth birthday, Lily’s wish is to have just one whole and perfect day. Set in Australia, many threads come together in this thoroughly engaging novel.

Finding Somewhere by Joseph Monniger (Publisher: Ember; ISBN: 978-0375897559)
Hattie and her friend Delores kidnap a horse slated to be put down because of age. The three embark on a road trip across America and find many surprises, but most importantly the power of friendship. The Thief by Megan Turner (Publisher: Greenwillow Books; ISBN: 978-0060824976) One of the best books I have ever read. Set in fully imagined medieval land, Gen, a thief, has one chance to save himself from life imprisonment by stealing Hamiathes’s Gift. Yet, things are not what they seem.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (Publisher: St Martin’s Griffin; ISBN: 978- 1250012579)
Two high-school misfits find love and friendship in this warmly told story that takes place in 1966 over the course of one year. Their path to romance is gentle, sweet, believable and some scenes – how Park strokes Eleanor’s hand – will leave readers breathless. Achingly beautiful.

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; ISBN: 978- 0316056199)
Set in New Orleans in a futuristic world, Nailer works by scavenging copper wire from beached tankers. When he finds a luxurious clipper ship with a survivor aboard, Nailer must decide whether to sell her or help her. Gripping. Exciting, with plenty of action.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff (Publisher: OUP Oxford; ISBN: 978- 0192753922)
Set in Britain under Roman rule. Marcus Flavius Aquila, a Roman soldier, sets off beyond Hadrian’s Wall; a land ruled by native tribes, to discover what happened to the First Cohort of the Ninth Legion that was commanded by his father. Historical fiction at its best.

1. Alexander, K.L., Entwisle, D.R. and Olson, L.S. (2007) “Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap.” Available at:
2. See:
3. Lee, H. (1988) To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Grand Central Publishing.
4. Paul, A.M. (2013) “Reading literature makes us smarter and nicer.” Available at:
5. Mars, R.A., Moore, C. and Tackett, J.L. (2010) “Exposure to media and theory-of-mind development in pre-schoolers.” Available at:
6. Paul, A.M. (2012) “Your brain on fiction.” Available at:
7. Goldman, C. (2012) “Fiction books give a boost to the brain, says Stanford professor.” Available at:
8. Paul, A.M. (2013) “How great books work their effects on us.” Available at:

This article first appeared on and appears here with that website and the author’s kind permission. Read more of Korbey’s work at: and read a longer version of this article on our website at:

Category: Book Reviews, Summer 2014

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