The Words of Summer

A reading assignment to remember all winter long

by Eileen Wedegartner

A reading assignment to remember all winter long

After taking his sweet time choosing a summer reading book, my son finally decided to crack open The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It is from the list provided by the school of books students could choose this summer. Both my husband and I are readers. Whether books, news, blogs, or academic journals, we are both constantly monitoring the world through what others have written. I expect my children to be curious about reading, so I had hoped he would start earlier in the summer, but it’s hard to compete with the devices and the endless array of programs, games, gossip, and online chit-chat at his disposal.

As a certified English teacher, I have always struggled with the idea of requiring students to read specific books in their leisure time to promote reading. Asking students to do a prescribed dose of reading to encourage the love of reading is like mandatory community service. Both are worthy tasks that students should do, but you cannot call it voluntary community service or reading for pleasure if it is required.

To be clear, I understand the idea of summer books supplementing the curriculum. Asking students to continue that work over the summer should reflect a focused academic goal. I also applaud the idea of promoting reading in general (and community service, too), but there is a libertarian part of me that bristles when students’ range of options is limited by adults.

That being said, I was happy that the school offered a wide range of reading options from which to choose two. I restrained myself from prodding my son in one direction or another. I wanted him to make the choice. I watched him peruse the titles. He peremptorily jettisoned some of my old favorites like Steinbeck’s The Pearl and Cormier’s The Chocolate War. He thumbed through and discarded other hopefuls like Thomas’s The Hate U Give and Greene’s Turtles all the way Down. He paused briefly to glance at some of the non-fiction but passed over the biographies of Simone Biles and Steve Jobs.

I was pleased when he settled on The Book Thief, a story based in Nazi Germany. It is a story about the power of books, the power of words, and how that power can be wielded for altruistic or for nefarious purposes. Its deep levels of content probe and explore the underbelly of human experience. In 2022, it is a timely choice.

“We will never pave a path to the promised land if we cannot communicate about how to get there. Words matter, as do stories.”

In education today, and for many years past, political leaders, business leaders, and educators at all levels promote the idea that STEM is the supreme educational pathway. Yet as an English teacher, I have always argued that the aptly if defensively named English Language Arts– literature, writing, and speaking –are essential for a society to flourish. Deep down, I think this is widely felt. That’s why we have summer reading but not summer math. The importance of English and humanities is often overlooked, or taken for granted, in the rush to establish and fund vital STEM programs. Yes: science, technology, engineering, and math are important. But we can’t forget that communication and words weave the fabric of society.

This lesson is as old as the Tower of Babel. We will never pave a path to the promised land if we cannot communicate about how to get there. Words matter, as do stories. These verbal constructs are the blueprints and foundations on which we use the powers of STEM to build our worlds.

Currently, our nation is in a great struggle with language, words, and how to wield power via rhetoric. As The Book Thief suggests, words have power to shape the world, and not everyone has altruistic motives. As a parent, I love my son’s choice because it prompts us to address some of the complexities of the society we live in. While he reads, we can talk about the trial of Alex Jones, the host of Infowars, convicted of defamation in a suit brought by the families of the Sandy Hook Massacre, demonstrating that words can harm people, as Jones’s words did.

In another verbal action, comedian Jon Stewart used his own words and certain other words contained in an official document to pressure Congress to act in the best interest of veterans. Stewart’s efforts, coupled with pressure from veterans groups, stopped public officials from using false rhetoric and misleading talking points to manipulate and deceive the public. On August 2, 2022, Congress passed the PACT act to grant benefits to veterans impacted by the toxins in burn pits. Stewart used the power of language to fight injustice to veterans.

These are just two national events occurring in one week that show the power of language to shape the world. I am excited to talk with my son about this power. I am excited to explore the links between this book that he has chosen to read and real life events in the world.

As a teen, he struggles with the vitriol in the news and the gross injustices in the world. Not only are kids his age seeing it on the world and national stages, but it all keeps hitting closer and closer to the neighborhood. Nearby, we hear racist chants at football games which headlined the news twice. We hear of racist vandalism in school bathrooms. We can draw straight lines of language to the hate groups that desecrated the Freedom Trail in Boston this summer.

We can explore the balance of power between the pen and the sword, and we can talk about how this novel is connected to other texts and other events. Most of all, I want my son to know that he too has a voice, and an obligation to use his voice, his language and his knowledge to help shape a more perfect union.

I hope my son emerges from this summer assignment knowing that every bit of reading we ever do is for pleasure, because learning is a source of pleasure, opening our minds to new perspectives and connecting us to the world around us. Reading empowers people. That is where real freedom begins.

Eileen Wedegartner is a JFYNet learning specialist, an English teacher, and an incurable reader.


Other posts authored by Eileen can be found here.



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