Shelf life: Summer reading challenges aren’t just for middle schoolers

A character dives into an open book full of colors.
(Seohyeon Lee • The Student Life)

For many people, the phrase “summer reading” ignites an automatic sense of dread. They associate it with book reports and approved reading lists from English teachers. It reminds them of blissful summer freedom being periodically interrupted by sickening reminders of the upcoming school year. 

I understand this response. I, too, suffered through vague instructions to “read a memoir” before my seventh grade English class and bemoaned the list of approved summer reading novels before my ninth grade orientation. 

Now, though, my summers are all about reading. More than late-night swimming, slow afternoons and long walks to the ice cream store by my home, summer reading is what I look forward to each year. I relish the opportunity it provides for me to slow down, try new genres and branch out. 

I owe this mindset to a singular summer reading program: summer book bingo, an activity sponsored by an organization in my hometown (Seattle Arts & Lectures) and the Seattle Public Library. The game is simple — it’s bingo, only with book genres. The board contains 25 categories, from straightforward ones (“Recommended by a Friend or Family Member,” “Activism or Social Justice,” etc.) to ones that may be a little more complicated (such as “Set in a City of Literature” or “Made You Laugh Out Loud”). Once you have read a book in that genre, you write the name and author on your card, and you’re done. There are prizes, sure — gift cards to local bookstores, tickets to readings and other literary events — but, cheesy as it sounds, the real prize is the process itself. I’ve never “won,” but I’ve kept coming back. For the past four summers, I’ve made it my goal to strive for blackout: reading all 25 books and, often, a few more.

Though it sounds intimidating, summer book bingo is low-stakes, low-pressure and, above all, really fun. I love poring through to-read lists and librarian recommendations, doing the math and puzzling together which books I want to read. I love the books I have discovered, and I love the way the program serves as an ode to Seattle’s public library system. The library gives out the bingo cards and posts pages of recommendations in every category on their website, encouraging library use and exploration. Summer book bingo black-out is not only feasible but entirely free. 

So, in the spirit of summer, branching out and the approaching book-bingo season, here are some of my favorite summer reading books (each one from a different genre, of course). May they provide inspiration and encouragement as you embark on this summer reading season yourself. 

Romance: “Beach Read” by Emily Henry. Augustus and January are rival novelists living across from each other in separate vacation homes, each struggling to write their next big hit. When they decide to combat writer’s block by trying to write in each others’ separate genres, they ignite inspiration… and maybe something more. This book is the perfect summer romance, a beach read not only in title but also in spirit. Read it if you want to feel butterflies, for the kind of giddy romance novel that leaves you unable to stop smiling. 

Comic Book/Graphic Novel: “This One Summer” by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. In a dreamy, lonely coming-of-age tale with a stunning blue-and-lavender color scheme, the Tamaki sisters tell the story of Rose and Windy, summer best friends who are returning to the sleepy beach town where their families vacation every year. If you feel that your summers are deeply associated with nostalgia — if you miss summer-camp friendship bracelets, creaky wood floors and freezer-burnt convenience-store popsicles — then this book is for you. Read for the sensation of walking up from the water with your hair growing cold on your neck and sand sticking to the bottom of your flip-flops, the scent of campfire smoke in the background.  

Poetry/Essay: “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us” by Hanif Abdurraqib. Abdurraqib’s stunning collection of essays on music and pop culture is probably the best summer read I could possibly recommend. In his essays — about artists from Fall Out Boy to Carly Rae Jepsen, The Weeknd concerts to obscure midwestern punk shows he went to as a teenager — Aburraqib uses his specific experiences with pop culture to examine broader struggles. His essays about music become essays about the exclusivity of the punk scene, police violence and the cyclical process of getting over the loss of a loved one. He writes with empathy, enthusiasm and a veritable treasure trove of pop culture knowledge. This is a book for people who adore making ultra-specific Spotify playlists, or for those who want the kind of book they can read in bits and pieces over the course of a month, the kind you can pick up and put down periodically, knowing for a fact that it will blow your mind every time. 

Cookbook: “Dining In” by Alison Roman. I know, I know, a cookbook isn’t something you read. But at the same time, I’ll admit that I read all of “Dining In” — every single word. Roman’s snarky stories and romantic dinner party anecdotes, combined with brightly-colored food photography, are an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Read if you find yourself daydreaming about long summer dinner parties, cheese-and-fruit pairings and perfectly chaotic gatherings of friends and family as the sun goes down. 

Sci-Fi/Speculative Fiction: “The City We Became” by N.K. Jemisin. In this world, cities are living, breathing beings that are “born” when they come of age. It’s New York’s turn, and every borough is embodied by a different character — all of whom must join forces to keep the city alive. Jemisin is one of the most innovative speculative fiction writers I’ve ever read. I flew through “The City We Became,” enamored by the world she rapidly spun around me. Read if you love falling head-over-heels into adventures, have a weakness for character design or are in any way connected with New York City. 

And with that, I leave you for the semester, and for the summer. I hope that the next few months are full of the best kind of reading: joyful and earnest, authentic and exploratory and above all, just plain fun. 

Kate Jones PO ’24 is from Seattle, WA. She eagerly awaits the release of the 2022 Summer Book Bingo card.

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