I’m not very good with details. I lose them all the time.
– Hank Zipzer
It’s Christmas in July. In Australia, that is, when Christmas is broiling hot. The December 25 celebration is in the middle of summer. Yowza, where’s the air conditioning?
It’s so hot, the country kids take their horses out to the neighbourhood watering hole and have a splash with their beasts happily lumbering into the H2O along with their humans.
At least, that’s what Ashleigh Miller and best pal Becky Cho do, two 11-year-olds with horses in Aussieland. Horse Mad Summer, by Kathy Heliodoniotis (2005), is the second in a series that hitches kids to horses.
These short novels are for fans of gymkhana, dressage and jumping (or for those who want to learn the lingo). In Horse Mad Summer, the kids must compete for two spots to a regional cross-country riding championship. They must raise money for the trip, as well, while battling the Creepketeers, a rival gang determined to stick Ashleigh and Becky in last place.
Then there’s Jenna, Ashleigh’s best pal from the city, who arrives for a month of vacay. Ashleigh’s two besties, however, don’t seem to like each other very much, leaving our heroine in the middle, in agony. The fun Christmas break is not going as planned.
Here are a few more summer reading suggestions. Actually, here’s one about a kid who hates reading. Mostly because Hank Zipzer can barely manage it. He’s dyslexic.
On top of that, while there are many great teachers in the world, there are also a handful of boring ones, no matter how well-intentioned: “There are 32 seats in our classroom. I know this because I spent the last year counting them every time I wasn’t paying attention to Ms Adolf, which was most of the time. It’s not that I don’t want to pay attention. I start every day thinking that today I’m going to pay attention from nine to three. It’s just that my mind will not cooperate. By ten after nine, I’m thinking about the Mets game, and by nine-fifteen, I’m wondering if my dachshund, Cheerio, is licking the bricks over the fireplace, and by nine-sixteen, I’ve already gone into orbit around the outer rings of Saturn.”
Hank Zipzer thinks of himself as the world’s greatest underachiever. And so he’s devastated, but resigned, to discover that he has to go to summer school to repeat Grade 3. And yes, he resents that all his friends are having fun, while he’s being forced to work on an oral report on some guy named Albert Einstein. I mean – Albert what? Who the heck is he?
And now his father has agreed that Hank can perform with friends in a magic show – but only if he gets an A on the presentation. Hank is going to have to work pretty darned hard for an A.
The good news is that he finds a librarian to help. Listening to books is a solution to Hank’s trouble, but Ms Adolf considers books on tape to be a cheat.
The librarian thinks differently, and says simply that the most important thing is to enjoy the book. So Hank listens to some, and reads others, helped with the big words by his grampa and a younger friend he makes in the schoolyard. (Grampa also keeps Hank’s strength up by feeding him a steady diet of garlic pickles from his parents’ deli.)
We have to wait to the very end to discover whether Hank has been successful. Serious topic, funny writing. The book Summer School! What Genius Thought That Up? is written by Henry Winkler (an actor and director diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of 31) and Lin Oliver (2005), and is part of a Hank Zipzer series of reads.
Other kids aren’t attending summer school, nor are they having fun swimming or plotting magic shows; they’re working! Lawn Boy Returns (by Gary Paulsen, 2010), reintroduces us to a 12-year-old accidental entrepreneur. Lawn Boy made a few dollars doing yard work, then hired a stockbroker who returned with thousands upon thousands of dollars for the boy, who now runs a rather large company.
In this sequel, he’s given a BlackBerry and a PR manager to book interviews with demanding reporters. He continues to oversee the boxer Joey Pow, whom he sponsors. And he has to explain to his best friends, back from holiday, that’s he’s now a very, very rich big shot, with all sorts of financial responsibilities.
And all of it is giving him a tummy ache.
This is a breezy read, about how a 12-year-old Andrew Carnegie must decide how to live his life. Cameos feature the IRS, organized crime, and a hippie stockbroker who’s, like, cool, man. Chapter titles are satirical takes on get-rich-quick books and business guides.
I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER
Unsurprisingly, children’s books end well (for the narrators, at least). Books for older readers often call on something a bit more horrible as a plot device.
Author Lois Deacon has penned a now-classic novel of suspense.
A ten-year-old boy decides to ride his bicycle home in the dark, on a mountainside road. He is hit by a car, and dies. The car disappears. A police investigation leads nowhere.
Inside that car were two couples. Led by a fear of punishment and loyalty to the driver, the four teens make a pact to never, ever discuss the incident ever again.
The guilt has been eating away at them ever since.
A year later, an anonymous note arrives in the mail addressed to Julie, who has just graduated from high school and is about to leave for university, to begin the great adventure that is life. The letter reads simply: “I know what you did last summer.”
Someone is stalking the four. Of course, to protect themselves, the four must first believe the threat is real.
But no matter what, there can be no happy ending for these four who were involved in a death, as accidental as it may have been.
The movie of the same name has, as often happens, changed large chunks of the narrative. It’s a bona fide slasher flick, while the book (published in 1973 and filed in Young Adult) is a novel of suspense.
SCIENCE AND PARENTING
It’s official: Reading to kids is good for them.
“Read aloud to your children and grandchildren. Read and sing and talk to them every day. Read to them until they can read for themselves. Then read together. And read to them some more until they start school, then encourage them to read even more.” That’s according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Doctors should prescribe “reading together as a daily fun family activity.”
Illiteracy, the physicians say, leads to poverty and poor health.
And, as reported in the Globe and Mail, “in addition to prescribing reading to kids, they should be prescribed library cards, and parents-in-need should be steered to literacy programs.”
“Forty-two per cent of Canadians 16 to 65 years of age do not have the minimum literacy skills for coping with everyday life and work in a knowledge-based economy…. People with low literacy skills are twice as likely to be unemployed.”
As for children, “most kids who have not mastered reading by the end of Grade 3 will never catch up.”
So please, read to your children. Learn to read together. Or listen to audio books together. There are many ways to use books for learning and fun.
Nadine Gordimer died this month, aged 90. Born in South Africa to European immigrants, Gordimer was a moral voice condemning apartheid. Three of her novels were banned (A World of Strangers, Burger’s Daughter, and July’s People). As the Guardian notes, she “was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1991 for novels and short stories that reflected the drama of human life and emotion in a society warped by decades of white-minority rule.
“Many of her stories dealt with the themes of love, hate and friendship under the pressures of the racially segregated system that ended in 1994, when Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.
“She was called one of the great ‘guerrillas of the imagination’ by the poet Seamus Heaney, and a ‘magnificent epic writer’ by the Nobel committee.”
– Eleanor Brown, July 18, 2014