I recently had a few friends ask me to recommend some books for their boys to read this summer. One was 15 and the other was 9. I’ve listed some of these books below and also given some direction on how to go about a “Summer Reading Challenge.”
SUMMER READING CHALLENGE
For the last seven years or so, ever since our son started reading regularly, I’ve set up a “Summer Reading Challenge.” This first came out of my desire to push him to read books that were maybe a little more challenging than normal by “incentivizing” him heavily. I put books in front of him that have influenced me and encouraged him to read them through some kind of reward structure. I don’t make him read any of them, but I make sure the rewards seem worth the time and effort. I also try to choose books that I really think he would like.
One important step in the process is to actually let your child choose the books he/she wants to read. So I usually put two or three times as many books in front of them and ask them to select five or six to read. I also usually group them by category (fiction, non-fiction, history, spiritual growth, leadership, biography are main categories) so that they don’t pick only works of fiction. Also I rarely put books on the list that I think he would choose on his own. No Harry Potter, Wings of Fire, or Percy Jackson. I don’t have anything against those books – but I know he’s likely to pick those up on his own (and mostly has already).
Note: I’m not against putting one of those in the mix to help grease the wheels. Sometimes getting started on an easy book helps build momentum. You know your kid and what works with them, so use your best judgment.
If you don’t like the books on this list, then think through your own list. If you don’t read much, ask people you admire for a list of books that have influenced them as a child – especially if your child looks up to these persons.
Some call this a straight bribe. I’m ok with calling it that. Incentive just sounds better. Whatever works for you. My view is that there are few things I’d rather spend money on than good books that can influence and direct the life of a child. I remember reading that Ronald Reagan set the course his life after reading That Printer of Udell’s as a young boy and deciding he wanted to be like the main character in the book. I want my kids to have read some life-defining books at a young age and I want to help incentivize them to do what they wouldn’t likely do on their own. I mean, isn’t that what most all of parenting is about?
In this season, my oldest is burdened to save for a car, so for each book completed I offered to put X amount in his car savings account. He countered with “will you do 80% in savings and 20% cash (toward a phone)?” – this is an important part of the process. I know he likes to bargain. In the past we’ve gone back and forth for weeks before we settled on a final reward for the reading challenge. I said ‘sure’ to his request.
In the past we’ve had other incentives – just straight cash, Barnes & Noble gift certificates, money for fireworks for 4th of July, a trip to a water park or theme park – so much of it depends on who your kid is and what stage of life they are in.
Choose an amount that you think would motivate your child to read this summer. And make it more than you think you should. Be VERY generous here. If it helps, imagine you are signing them up for a summer reading camp. How much would you pay for them to go to something like that? You want them to feel that reading during the summer is of huge value to you and to them. You want them to feel that the books you are putting in front of them have a huge weight and value to you and to them. If you don’t feel that way, then pick the books that make you feel that way. It’s a bit of a dance to determine that – but try to think out ahead to the end of the summer. If your kid has read some super valuable books at that time – what would that be worth to you? Both in terms of their time well spent (and time out of mom’s hair) and knowledge gained?
Also, it may not need to be a financial reward. The excitement of completing the challenge may be enough for the child without any financial reward. You might not pick the perfect incentive, so think of something to begin with and come to them and ask them if that is what they would like. They might come back with another idea. Each child is motivated differently.
DESIGNATED READING TIME
One way to help is to set aside designated family reading time everyday or a few days a week. Best if you can do it in the morning and get people started reading because you never know when they might get lost in a book and spend half the day reading. I’d recommend thirty minutes. Put up all devices. Put down all phones (yes, even your own). Gather in the same room and have everyone sit and read for thirty minutes. If that’s too much for you to start, then try ten. If that’s too much, set a timer for whatever works to help get you started and try adding a minute every day till you’re up to thirty.
BOOK LIST FOR A 15-ISH YEAR OLD
This list was written with a boy in mind, but there are many that would work for girls as well. You can buy some of these, or also get most of them at the library. I usually buy the books I really want my child to have laying around so they can re-read them, as one of the great joys of my childhood was re-reading my favorite books. From this list he chose seven books. There are twenty-nine books below. I don’t recommend putting all these in front of your child. Pick two or three per category, or less, depending on your reading goal. Or you might just put one in front of them at a time. Again, you know your kid.
- The Insanity of God by Nick Ripken- Amazing stories from the mission field. Many are so crazy they are hard to believe and the book is hard to put down.
- Disciplines of a Godly Man by R. Kent Hughes – A great overview of the major ‘disciplines’ (Bible study, prayer, etc.) that help a Christian grow.
- God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts – A short intro on how to think of the Bible as one big story and how it all fits together. Hugely important book.
- Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis – Probably better suited for college age – but so good.
HOW TO UNDERSTAND THE WORLD
- The Vanishing American Adult by Ben Sasse – What do we do as a culture about the reality that young people are not thriving? Written by a sitting Senator who is also a former college president.
- Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. This is a MUST READ for everyone. Put it at the top of your reading list if you’ve not read it.
- Onward by Russell Moore – how Christians engage with a hostile culture in a God honoring way.
- How Should We Then Live by Francis Schaeffer – This is a difficult one, so make sure to get the version with pictures.
- A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry – Tim Keller says this is the most important book you can read to understand the way the world thinks. Written by an atheist French philosopher to show the major movements in thought across western history. Though he is an atheist, I thought he was very fair with the message and influence of Christianity.
- Just Do Something by Kevin DeYoung – great short book on how to figure out what to do with your life. Great read for high school or college grads. His key advice? Wait for it…. “Just do SOMETHING.”
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – Classic work of philosophical insights by a Roman Emperor.
- Mastery by Robert Greene – Tries to debunk the idea of ‘pure genius’ by showing that many of the people we consider ‘genius’ (Einstein, Beethoven) became so because of a few simple principles: they fell in love with something at a young age (math, music) and practiced like mad – thus developing a higher level of competency at a younger age. There’s an early chapter on how we ‘evolved’ into this type of behavior – but I don’t think agreeing with that view is necessary to benefiting from the book. Some similarities to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice rule but with more storytelling/examples from well known figures.
- Be Obsessed or Be Average by Grant Cardone – Cheesy title but I enjoyed this book. Read it with a huge grain of salt. I have no idea if this guy is a Christian or not. Maybe. It’s all about making the most of your life and making lots of money. Like I said, read it with a grain of salt. I think it can be applied to any sphere of life where you want to see some improvement. I like that he’s such a positive person. You get the sense that he really believes in you and your own dreams.
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie – A classic work that tries to represent “Love your neighbor as yourself” without overt Christianity.
- The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh. Written by former NFL coach of the 49ers. Core idea: focus on systems/process that will lead to results – i.e. if you’re doing the right things day-to-day, then the score at game time will take care of itself. Fixating on the game will do nothing. Instead, fixate on the process. One well known reader, who reads 250+ books/year, said this was his favorite book a couple of years ago.
- Seeds of Change (Kerry Livgren – former leader of the band Kansas) – powerful story of his journey to Christianity.
- Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas – Can’t say enough about this biography. Definitely worth reading for mom and dad as well.
- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris – with the books I put in front of my child, I try not to make any seem more important than the others – because I want the selection to be his/her own. BUT for this book, I did put a hard sell on it because I felt it best represented all the things my oldest said he was interested in reading about this summer. This is the first in a series of three biographies on TR by Morris. Goes up to the beginning of his first presidency. All three are FANTASTIC. But it is long. 750pp. But worth every single page.
- When Character was King by Peggy Noonan – Short bio on Reagan by a former speech writer of his.
- 7 Men by Metaxas – Great collection of short biographies about some amazing people that might whet their interest in reading more. Features people like Bonhoeffer, Wildberforce and Liddell (he also wrote 7 Women.)
- For the Glory (bio on Eric Liddell by Duncan Hamilton) we interviewed Hamilton for Passport2Identity and his insights were amazing. I haven’t read this but a co-worker did and raved about it.
- Amazing Grace by Metaxas – bio on William Wilberforce who fought to end slavery in Great Britain (also featured in 7 Men). The movie based on this book by the same title was THE MOST MOVING movie I’ve ever seen.
- Churchill by Paul Johnson – This is THE BEST short-bio/introduction to Churchill I’ve read. The subject matter is so enormous, thus most bios on Churchill weigh in at many hundreds of pages. But this was in the 150pp range. Definitely worth reading.
- That Printer of Udell’s – This Was Ronald Reagan’s favorite book as a boy. Available through Lamplighter Publishers.
- The Pendragon Cycle – Series on Arthurian Legend by Stephen Lawhead – I LOVED these books. Lawhead is a great writer and he has a number of series on interesting topics.
- Fahrenheit 451 – I highly recommend reading this one in conjunction with Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death. Amazing how these two books complement each other so well. This is one of my favorite novels and I re-read it every year, sometimes multiple times a year. There’s so much to be gained from it.
- Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton – highlights some of the key events of espionage and subterfuge from WWII. NOTE: Mentions that some of the spies and military leaders were unfaithful to their wives but is never explicit.
- The Faithful Spy by John Hendrix – this is a very visually engaging retelling of Bonhoeffer and WWII. Blends together narrative and imagery in a way I’ve not seen. The writing is fair, but he covers so much territory in such a short space. Very good.
- Band of Brothers by Ambrose – Amazing story of brotherhood on the WWII battlefield and the power of a leader of character. Also provides a great contrast in this book between a true leader and a false leader.
- Defiance by Tec – holy cow this book is amazing. A polish Jew leads a group of fighters against the Germans during WWII. They hide out in the Forest and help 1,500 other Jews survive the war. Truly mind-blowing story of perseverance and resilience. Can’t say enough about this book. Parents – put this on your list if you’ve not read it. Wow. So amazing. Also was made into a movie.
LIST OF BOOKS FOR A NINE-YEAR-OLD
Here are my top six books for this age. List was initially written for a boy interested in the outdoors. Quite a few appeal to girls as well though.
The Call of the Wild – by Jack London My favorite book as a kid. I probably read this illustrated classic version that I linked a hundred times. No joke. I love the story because it has so many amazing elements: outdoors. animals. the hard life of the frontier. Moral choices. Jack London’s original is a masterpiece. Worth reading it as well. And it’s pretty short – maybe 100 pages or so. We’ve done this one as a family read aloud. Easily found at any library as well.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – My second favorite book as a kid. Read this over and over again. Still read it again every couple of years. I normally wouldn’t have recommended it to a nine-year-old, but our daughter – who just turned 9 – listened through this audio version (which is AMAZING) in two days while we were living in Fiji last year. She loved it. The other link is to a print version with lots of pictures.
Hatchet – story of a boy who gets lost alone in the Canadian wilderness and has to survive. Hugely popular. Great read. Has to learn to tough it out, be resourceful, and along the way learns gratitude for the mom he left behind. NOTE: I first read this aloud and I skipped over some of the stuff about his own confusion about his mom and dad being separated. I didn’t think it was inappropriate, I just didn’t think it added much to the story. But just wanted you to know that was in there. There are other books in the series too.
Way of the Warrior Kid – Marc’s Mission– by Jocko Wilink – I hesitated to recommend this one so highly because i’ve not read it. But I’ve read ALL of his other books that were written for adults. And the kids versions are highly rated. Written by a former Navy Seal and his main message: own your own stuff.
The Faithful Spy by John Hendrix. (also mentioned above) Story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his bravery in WWII to go from prominent German Pastor to spy in the plot to kill Hitler. The amazing part of this book is the imagery. I’ve not read another book where the author does such a fantastic job of integrating art and words (See one example). And the story truly is mind blowing. I read it aloud to the kids.
Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson – the remarkable story of the chase for Lincoln’s killer. Took almost two weeks to chase him down. And it seems that if he hadn’t broken his leg jumping from the balcony to the stage, he probably would have escaped entirely. Fascinating story from history. This is also a youth version of the adult version (called Manhunt – which parents should definitely put on your list). Lots of pictures. My oldest LOVED this book and a neighbor boy of similar age recently devoured it.
Eight More that I recommend
- Iron Thunder by Avi – story of the first battle between Iron Clad ships ever recorded (civil war). Beauty of this book though is that’s told from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old boy that was supposedly on one of the ships working at the time. So it helps put a young boy in the story.
- 7 Men – Mentioned above but also works for younger kids. There’s also a “7 Women” version.
- Wings of Fire series – a fantasy series about dragons. We’ve been slowly reading through the first few of these. Fascinating and gripping. Most kids will likely blow through these, and there’s something like 13 books (or more) in the series, so you might want to do Library here if you can.
- Operation Red Jericho by Joshua Mowll – I ran across this one in a used book store in Phoenix and LOVED it. It is chocked full of fascinating illustrations and fold out maps. Story of a brother and sister that had to fight a made up organization to try and find their missing parents. Two other books in the series. If you get this one, make sure it is the hard cover (Ths what I linked above).
- Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi – story of a boy living in medieval times, his travels and journeys and a surprise he learns along the way about a fellow traveler. I read this one aloud to my oldest years ago and he really enjoyed it.
- The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart (Local Author) – Haven’t read it but my son liked it. Written by a local author from our town and has gained national prominence.
- Horten’s Incredible Illusions by Lissa Evans – another that I haven’t read but my oldest really liked.