How teachers can create a Summer Reading list that won’t make librarians die or children cry: Unsolicited advice from a public librarian

Summer Reading depresses the bejeezos out of me. While my school librarian friends are looking 10 years younger and more carefree than should be permitted by law, I’ve got the Summer Reading blues real hard. The reference desk lines are non-stop, everyone needs everything right now (stress levels of parents seem to go up to 11 during July and August), we’re running out of titles and our will to live, and the Summer Reading assignment lists from the schools don’t seem to have been written by actual people:

Often, parents hand me lists so outlandish I’ve considered whether I was being featured on a really bad hidden-video reality show. They’re either really poorly organized or they contain titles that I know just by looking at them that we just don’t have. I’ve tried contacting schools and teachers, either by phone, email, or in person, and have had absolutely no luck. We have pre-written form letters that we send home with the parents (we call them “Dear Teacher” letters: Dear Teacher, Name of Child was unable to obtain this book due to 1) lack of copies 2) high demand 3) plague of locusts 4) flood of librarian tears, etc.) so that their children won’t get in trouble for not being able to access the books on the list. The letter has our contact info on the bottom, so the teachers and librarians can talk before the next summer comes around.

(On the rare occasion that I get a really great list, I ask the parents to tell the teacher I said so. I don’t know if that feedback actually goes anywhere, but, girl, I try).

Sending kids home with a Dear Teacher letter instead of a book is not a good moment. The kids feel guilty for not doing their summer homework, I feel bad that they’re not reading, and the parent, child, and school have had a poor library experience. What if this is the only time I interact with this family all year? What if their entire opinion of the library is based on this transaction? This is not literacy positive! This is the opposite of what I hope to accomplish during the summer.

So. Teachers. I love you, but you’re bringing me down (hashtag Not All Teachers hashtag Not All Summer Reading Lists). In response to the bananas lists I’ve seen in my 6 years as a public librarian, here are my tips for writing the perfect Summer Reading list. This will be the list where your local librarians will actually be able to help your students and their families. Don’t be mad. We’re in this together.


Make sure your list is in alphabetical order BY AUTHOR. Not by title. Never by title. Please not ever by title. If there’s a library where books are arranged by title, I don’t know that library but I’d like to smack that library. Most libraries arrange their books by author. No one wants to run in circles looking in the stacks for books. I don’t. I promise your students don’t.

I wrote about it in another post about Summer Reading: Imagine if you listed your books by title instead of author:

And if the Moon Could Talk, by Kate Banks
Buster, by Denise Fleming
Dog and Bear: Two Friends, Three Stories, by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Froggy Goes to Camp, by Jonathan London
Previously, by Allan Ahlberg

Do you see what’s happening here? If our books are shelved by author, that means your future student or the nice if not neurotic librarian is running from B to F to S to L to A, instead of just straight through the alphabet. If you make a list alphabetically by author, the student, parent, or I get to walk in a straight line, instead of in circles like a raving lunatic.

Imagine how easy it would be to scan the stacks, list in hand, and actually be able to find the books in a timely manner. What fun!

♥ Offer options. My favorite Summer Reading lists are the ones where the teacher has given the students some choices. If your students have options, there’s a better chance that they’ll actually get the reading done. As far as choices are concerned you can: 1) Offer a large range of titles but state that students need only choose a few. 2) Say that the students can read any title by a certain author. 3) If you’re offering a book in a series, say that any book in the series will suffice.

♥ Make sure the book is in print and that the library has multiple copiesOnce, a teacher assigned a book that we only had one copy of in our 60 branches. That copy was in storage. It was also non-circulating. No child was going to get this reading done. They were being set up to fail. You can check the library’s online catalog for how many copies the library owns. When in doubt, contact the library. Call us. Email us. We’ll let you know. It’s our job.

♥ Titles and authors should be spelled correctly and accurately. Sometimes I can make an educated guess as to what the teacher intended to include in their list. Other times, I’m not sure I’m sending the student home with the correct title. If the student is searching for titles without the librarian’s help, including both the title and author is incredibly important. Some titles are very common and have been used by multiple authors. Cutting and pasting from the library’s catalog is a good way to ensure the student brings home the right book.

♥ It’s OK to put the reading level on your Summer Reading list, as long as you make it clear that most public libraries don’t organize their books by reading level. Often, summer is the time of year where students and parents realize that the local library isn’t organized like the school library. It’s OK. If you’re listing authors and titles accurately, it should be fine. If you’re simply sending kids off to the library looking for level L or 9 or Orange, things are going to get hairy.

♥ Don’t include books that have recently been made into movies. I see what you’re doing there and it’s cool to discuss books that have a lot of hype! However, the demand for these books is usually bonkers any time of year. Add Summer Reading madness to the mix, and your students are bound to get a hold of these books on the 13th of Nevermember. Past nightmare assignments have included Hunger GamesDivergent, and The Fault in our Stars. Yes, we can sometimes order additional copies of these books, but not always. And maybe not in enough time to help you and your class.

♥ Encourage families to hit up the library as close to the beginning of the summer as possible. Even if we don’t have the title at the moment, we can usually put it on hold so that the students can get their books in a timely manner. Once August hits, hope is often lost. Early birds, worms, etc. etc.

If the library has its own Summer Reading list of recommended titles, consider using it. Use the whole thing! Use parts of it! Chances are, we’ve ordered extra copies of those books! The library has done the work for you! Sit back and relax! You’ve earned it!

When in doubt, contact the library. I’ve been making myself crazy in the coconut chasing teachers around so that we could work on Summer Reading lists together. I would totally plotz if a teacher actually called me regarding a Summer Reading list. I’d laugh. I’d cry. It’d be better than Cats. Whatever medium-hard work I’d have to put into creating the list with you would pale in comparison to the joy I’d feel in my heart everytime someone handed me an SR list that actually knew how to list! I’m here to help! Let me help!

Teachers? What could librarians do to make Summer Reading easier on you and your students?

Librarians? What did I leave out?

~Love and Libraries, Ingrid

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47 thoughts on “How teachers can create a Summer Reading list that won’t make librarians die or children cry: Unsolicited advice from a public librarian

  1. Julie

    Thank you for reminding me that we aren’t the only ones dealing with horrible summer reading lists. I would start to cry if I listed all of the offenses on our local public school lists.Trust me they have committed even more offenses than in your list. This is even after we have tried to work with the schools.

  2. Deb

    You said “I feel bad that they’re not reading, and the parent, child, and school have had a poor library experience.” And yet teachers and schools never seem to be concerned about this causing a bad school experience. As a parent, I have gone through this sort of thing from the other side. It generally results in: My child comes away from the experience turned off to reading in general and school assignments in particular. As a taxpayer, I do not have any enthusiasm to increase school funding and especially the wages of the teacher and principal who did this to us. As a parent, I do not support anything that teacher is going to do for the rest of the year because I think he/she/it is a moron who can’t teach and doesn’t care about my child’s needs or my time. As a voter, I vote against the entire school board in the next election because they are obviously incompetent since they support this kind of nonsense. And the next time a school bond is on the ballot, I vote against it because it obviously is a waste of money based on my experience. If I can, I pull my kids out of this worthless school and either home-school or send them to private school. And I spend a lot of time apologizing to the librarian who has to help me deal with this situation, because they have better things to do than deal with the dumbing-down of the educational system.

    1. Jane

      I’m sure all these actions make you feel better–and superior to the minions in the school system. But they don’t do a thing to address the problem at hand. How about some constructive responses?

    1. My “town” is Brooklyn, NY, though we often serve children from other boroughs. Some schools have school librarians, others do not. I adore school librarians and if you can make friends with them, they’re a good “in” to the school.

  3. Monica

    Last year, I was contacted by the teacher in charge of the school district’s summer reading lists. I arrived at the meeting full of suggestions, bearing reading lists and amendments to their reading lists. At the second meeting, I arrived to discover they had decided to do a Read One Book summer reading program. For middle school through high school. Same book.

    The best I could do was give them suggestions on how to make this better (created a read-alike list, please let them read other things, etc.) , offer our library as a book discussion site, and go back to the library to order 2 dozen copies of the book. Ugggggh. The kids hated it, the book discussion never happened, and this year they’ve decided “read whatever, just let us know you’re reading” with a nice link to the public libraries’ reading programs. So yeah. Not sure if that was just a rant, or to make you feel better about not getting that call 🙂

    1. It does make me feel better! Sometimes it feels like failure and no librarian likes to fail. I think it’s important for us to talk about these shared experiences, even if they’re not pleasant!
      “Read whatever” sounds great. ❤

  4. Thank you for posting these suggestions! If only one teacher sees it, we are on our way. As a fellow librarian you have brought my summer stress level down to a 5.

  5. OMG yes. For years at Borders I had 1 high school whose only kinda in-print book on a list of 60+ books was The Way Things Work by David Macaulay, and it also listed the ISBN for the 1988 hardcover instead of The New Way Things Work which was the edition actually in print. Now they’re a penny and $4 shipping on Amazon but at some point in my Borders career you could only get one for $80 because it was a 10-year-old hardcover first edition, mint.

    Also memorable: the teacher who wanted her 6th grade class (60+ students) to read a minimum 200-page autobiography of a still-living author. The ones we could find, technically, sorta-kinda, were not appropriate for kids.

    Thank you for using a BLACK BOOKS gif–this post totally made my day. I hope some parent/teacher out there takes pity and heeds your advice.

  6. The two things that come to mind are: remember your students aren’t our only patrons, and encourage library use along with reading.

    Every now and then we encounter a teacher who doesn’t understand why we won’t hide all 6 of our copies of Wonder just for their students, or buy 12 copies of something we don’t have any space for. I would love to have access to the space, time, and money for those services – but I just plain don’t. And I need to spread what resources I DO have to all my patrons.

    The other is part of so many of these. Like you mentioned, these things usually lead to a bad library experience or a parent just hitting Amazon before even seeing us. I would love teachers to sometimes consider that, while their enthusiasm for certain books is lovely and understandable, by being flexible and reaching out to us, they might have a better chance of fostering ONGOING commitment to reading and libraries – which is great for EVERYONE.

    1. I wish teachers realized that while they are important to use, they aren’t our only patrons. I agree.

      When patrons go to Amazon/Barnes and Noble/etc., it’s a bad moment. For librarians, for libraries, for families. Especially when families can’t afford to buy books. I only buy books that are near and dear to my heart. Students/families shouldn’t have to purchase books they’re not even excited about.

      Also, Amy, you’re the best. It’s blog official.

  7. My favourite was the year our Catholic school system (at my last job) went to a lot of work to check a library catalogue to make sure a library had all the books they had on the SR list. Guess what? They checked a county library system outside the city, not the city system 99% of their students would be using.

  8. If it makes you feel any better:

    I had a bunch of kids at the beginning of the school year asking for various new titles in some confusion (i.e., they clearly weren’t big readers and the authors weren’t familiar to them). After 4 or 5 kids I ask – turns out they’re doing an assignment for English. They have to read 4 books over the course of the year. Any four books from the current list of Best Fiction for Young Adults. I nearly passed out. Not four books by Norma Klein, Lois Duncan or Gary Paulsen or whoever the teacher read when she was in high school. Four brand-new books, attractively packaged, well-reviewed and generally well-regarded. Books that these indifferent readers might actually connect with.

    I emailed the teacher to congratulate her on her impeccable taste and tell her I’d order the few titles we didn’t already own. She invited me to come booktalk to her classes. We fell in love and everyone lived happily ever after.

    Most of this story is true, and now I have an in with a real, live teacher!

    The end.

  9. While I agree with everything in the post, let us all remember that being a teacher is a very difficult job as well. They have a billion things going on all at one time, and some things are going to fall to the bottom of the “to-do” list. I am sure that most teachers would love to connect with their local libraries, but just can’t find the time to make that call in between calling parents, planning, correcting, etc. I would guess that many of these lists are handed down to new teachers, who may not know any different. Yes, I wish the lists could be better and easier for us at the library. I just don’t like making the teachers look like villains (and I don’t think the original post was doing that). We (teachers and librarians) all have the same goal, to perpetrate a love of reading and literature. We don’t all agree on the best method to achieve that, and that’s ok. Hopefully, as school districts are forced to remove school libraries/librarians due to shrinking funds, the libraries and the schools can begin to work together more and more.

    1. “I just don’t like making the teachers look like villains (and I don’t think the original post was doing that)…”
      I think I made it clear that I appreciate what teachers do, I’d like for it to go both ways.
      I appreciate that teachers are busy. I do. Know who else is busy? Public librarians, during the summer especially. We’re facing the same lack of funds and staff as they are.
      If teachers don’t care that bad are lists stressing out the library/librarians, I wish they’d care that they’re stressing out their students and their families.

  10. I definitely agree with this and with other commenters! It is a struggle. It took years and years and various steps, but I am now part of our high school’s summer reading book list committee (woo!) It has helped immensely in tackling some of these problems (every school putting The Hunger Games on their list, out-of-print books, etc.) I also get to suggest a lot of YA titles that will circulate THE REST OF THE YEAR (glory be). I also found out that everyone else on the committee was sick of A Separate Peace and wondered how the heck it has stayed on the list so long.

    For this reason I think Ask Your Librarian should be #1 on the list. It sounds like everyone has sympathy for teachers’ schedules and a lot of folks have done outreach to their schools. Don’t give up! Eventually it WILL pay off and everyone will be much much happier.

    Although I will be stoked for the day when they just tell the kids to read anything they like, so long as they read something.

  11. marissajeanine

    Dear Teachers,
    Please inform us of your summer reading list plans before the fiscal year closes on June 30. It is impossible to order books with an exhausted budget. Also, pick some more current books, please!

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  13. Leanne

    THANK YOU! I feel like this happens every year! Although my favorite is still when the high school sophomores were assigned Jane Eyre by Jane Austen…

  14. Abby

    One thing to add – NEVER require the child to bring the physical book in to school. That happened to me one year. It punished the kids who used the library and caused me to nearly have a meltdown in the middle of the Teen Room as 300 kids came in at once to get a copy of the book they had returned weeks ago.

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  16. Reblogged this on Why a librarian? and commented:
    This is a rant I go on every year, so nice to have someone else do it for me. She captures all of the pain and suffering inflicted upon librarians and students as they struggle over the summer to figure out what the heck the people making these “assigned lists” were thinking!!

  17. The Cowpie Librarian

    The school librarians in my community sit around with their feet up all summer while we’re in summer reading list hell. We’re expected to have ESP and just know the books on the summer reading lists? School librarians really need to get their shit together!

  18. The Cowpie Librarian

    Same goes with teachers. Excuse me, we work all year round! While you’re vacationing all summer, we’re trying to get these books to your students!

  19. Belinda

    This. Finally someone tells it like it is! Why even have school librarians if they can’t accommodate their own school’s summer reading lists? Doesn’t it make sense that school librarians should be working during the heaviest book circulation period for the students? I can understand why teachers do, but why do school librarians have summers off? The type of attitude you describe on the part of teachers and the nonresponse from school librarians is one reason school libraries are in trouble.

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