Pick a theme to focus your summer reading as a family
Summer is fast approaching, and you know what that means…. We’re going to struggle as parents to keep our kids occupied without resorting to screens, at least not too much. Summer also means: Summer Reading lists!!! This year I decided I wanted my kids to read more and I didn’t want it to become a power struggle. I had been kind of doing this the past couple of years, but hadn’t formalized my thought process. I came up with this idea and I’d love to share it with you.
This year we picked a theme to focus our summer reading as a family and to make this stay-cation summer more memorable.
Before you get bombarded by other people’s suggestions (even mine) for what you should read, what your kids should read and what your goal as a family should be for summer reading, let me suggest asking yourself what your family is into? what your kids enjoy doing? reading? learning about? Are there any special events this summer where you live? When it was Canada’s 150th anniversary, we spent the summer learning about our country. It worked really well and got them excited about history.
Always start from where you are (is there any other way to do it?) and work with what you know. My suggestions are things that I know, so adapt everything. Be sure to personalize what you do, it makes everything better.
For those of you who’ve known me for any length of time, you’ll know that if I’m going to approach a topic, I will most often do it thematically. In other words, my philosophy is, why choose a random bunch of things, when you can group them together by theme.
Why Choosing a Theme is the Way to Go
Our summer reading plans had often involved a theme. The trick is choosing the right one. Last year we got into graphic novels, but just sort of happened organically. Being more intentional this year, I’m hoping to cut down on the “I’m bored” complaints and make being home for several weeks a meaningful experience.
I always try to read stuff that brings me enjoyment, but also a little learning. Sometimes I’ll try to learn a new skill, sometimes increase my knowledge on a specific topic. Often, if I’m in a rut, I push myself to read a genre I haven’t looked at for a while. This year, I’ve made a concerted effort to read more poetry, something I used to do all the time years back. As you can guess, I drag bring my kids along for the ride (when I can). I firmly believe that the enjoyment of reading is enhanced when its be tied to learning about a specific topic from several perspectives, exploring an idea in depth or getting to know a type of writing style or genre better.
Mystery Reading this summer: use the Theme we chose
This summer we’ve decided our theme will be Mysteries. I’ve been into Andrea Camilleri’s novels from the Montalbano series for months and since the older kids were into mysteries too, it was a natural choice. I’ve included some links below so you can check out exactly what our TBR (to be read) list will look like, but once you’re browsing through a virtual book shelf or real one, you’ll come across many other series of mystery novels for children and parents to explore. This is what we’ve chosen to focus on, and it’s okay to change your mind mid-way if you see that what you’ve chosen isn’t working. The point is to get your kids excited about reading and having a focused theme helps.
Reading this summer: use themes from the list below
Mystery Themed books for the 9-12 year olds
I chose Mysteries mostly because I was into the Nancy Drew Mysteries when I was a ten year old, and my daughter who is 10 and a half has gotten into them as well. I started her off with the three books that I owned when I was a child (the others I read came from the library). Since she enjoyed them, I bought her this starter set. I’ll get her the next 10 books in the series, if I can’t find them at our local library.
Mystery Themed choices for the 7-12 year olds
For my seven year old, I figured getting started with the Hardy Boys would be a great way to connect his books to his sister’s. I’m going to start him out with these easier versions of the stories, and then maybe by summer’s end he can graduate to the ‘real’ books. I also liked the idea that characters from one series appear in the other, so I figure my daughter might like to see what Nancy is up to in the Hardy Boys novels once her brother is done with them. Another series that I considered was the Boxcar Children series. Maybe next year, or if time allows in late summer, I can add a few to our pile.
Mystery Books for the Toddlers in your house
For the little one, I’m going to stick to simple mystery stories with characters he enjoys like this Thomas the Train mystery. Other board books with mystery-like themes are also available and a good peek-a-boo book or a Seek-and-Find for the little ones are really great ways to introduce this idea of trying to figure something out while reading.
Pick a theme everyone in the family will like to help you all focus together
I’m a big proponent of the idea that a family that reads together stays together. I figure that choosing a topic that we can all have in common will make for sharing on an interesting level. They just might be genuinely curious about the mystery story I’m reading when they realize that the genre has certain tropes that repeat. I’m hoping its something they’ll understand once they see the pattern in the way the novels are written. After 1-2 of the mystery stories we’ve chosen, I think it’ll sink in. I’m repeating myself, but the point is always to try to make the reading experience more engaging for your children, so a focused theme might help. If it doesn’t, take whatever tips you’ve found in all these words and mix it up.
Choices to work with the theme for the Adults and Adolescents in your life
For myself, I was torn between going back to my old Agatha Christie books or delving more into the Inspector Montalbano mysteries I love so much. With the latter, I will be reading in Italian, so it will be a way for me to keep up with my Italian reading too. In the end, that’s what I opted for because I’m also watching the TV series from RAI italia that I bought on DVD recently.
Pick a theme to focus your summer reading as a family
As I mentioned, we had kind of chosen a theme for our summer for the past few years and it hasn’t been a struggle to impose one, mostly because my kids are young and they go along with what I propose. Sooner rather than later, my ten year old will surely want to negotiate with me on our chosen theme. I’ve included a list of possible ideas in this post to help you with decision making. I’ve compiled the list for myself, so next summer I’ll be prepared.
Themes work for several reasons. Here are some of the main ones that come to mind:
1) a Theme offers an idea to hang onto when you’re about to finish one book and move on to another. You don’t worry about what to do next and you don’t waste time dilly dallying over a choice.
2) a Theme connects your choices together and gets you looking for patterns in the books you’re reading. It’s much easier to compare the books you’re enjoying when they have something in common.
3) a Theme can often allow your children, and you, to delve more deeply into a genre or topic. It makes for deeper learning and less surface skimming, which is a problem we all need to work on. Our digital lives encourage us to skim rather than delve deeply. Offering your family a reason to thoroughly learn something is a gift.
4) Choosing a Theme makes you hone in on activities or other books that might take the experience further. If you’re stuck thinking about what to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon, choosing a movie to watch can be easier when you have a theme to hang onto….it avoids the ‘Netflix rabbit hole’ problem, where you end up spending an hour searching for what you could watch rather than actually enjoying a movie or series.
5) It’s not our case this summer, but if you’re travelling, its a great opportunity to connect your summer learning to your trip, or a way to bring a bit of home on vacation if you’ve chosen a theme that doesn’t have anything to do with your destination.
Taking it Further: Beyond reading for summer learning
Pick a theme to focus your summer reading and activities as a family
Once you’ve chosen a theme for your summer reading as a family, I’d suggest making a list of secondary activities that you can draw on when you need to mix things up. For example, with our choice this summer, I decided to add the Nancy Drew Movies from 2007 and 2019 to our list. I also found this throwback , that might be fun which brings together Nancy and the Hardy Boys. I might also look into the Hercule Poirot series because its one that the whole family will enjoy. You can’t have a Mystery Summer without some Agatha Christie, right?!
Activities for the Lovers of Mystery and Suspense
I think a backyard scavenger hunt will also be in the cards for us, this way the toddler can join in on the fun. Logic puzzles will also be in our pile of go to activities. Apart from the fact that they’re great for improving math skills and critical thinking, considering the game to be a mystery to puzzle over or to solve makes it even more fun. Here are the logic puzzles, board games we most enjoy:
- Usborne puzzle books
- Rush Hour
- Puzzles for baby with a similar theme so he feels included
- Love this versatile game with blocks
- Scotland Yard
- Ravensburger games: Whowasit?, Labyrinth, Enchanted Forsest
Here’s a list of possible themes you can work on. Let me know what you decide and how you organize your summer reading in the comments section. Happy reading!
List of Themes to help focus your summer reading as a family
When creating lists that involve the many different age groups and interests that can exist in a family, I’ve found that keeping the topic broad enough gives you leeway. Don’t leave it too open ended though, or you won’t really have a solid theme to work. I try to stay focused on one thing so that I’m always able to re-direct if we get off track, which happens often, so expect that too!! These are some ideas I’ve been working on for my own family. Let me know how they work our for yours.
(Ancient Greco-Roman, Norse, Native American mythologies etc.)
- Explore these age-old stories and characters. Pick one culture to dive into, or explore them all. They have great books on the subject for kids of all ages.
- Most museums will have some kind of exhibit with some artifacts from these time periods as well, sometimes art-work depicting a myth. It is a cool thing to see your 6 year-old identify a Pegasus, or winged horse, in a painting.
- If you want to add some toys to play with, this theme works well too because you can find figurines from companies like Schleich and Papo that are a lot of fun to play with.
- Movies are also a good add-on to this reading theme because they can really engage the older children and adults. I wouldn’t recommend the popular movies based on mythology for the younger crowd because they can get very graphic. They have more child-friendly versions out there if you want to go that route.
- A funny choice for a reading list for kids and adults, but this can be a really great way to spend time actually going to plays.
- The first thing I would do is check out what the local theaters are putting out for their summer program and try to read the plays before you go.
- They have adaptations of Shakespeare in print that are great and my children loved the Usborne edition from 5 onward. If you can’t get to Shakespearean production or live adaptation, you can also watch a movie version, although not for the younger ones.
- Puppet theater for the 2-7 crowd is a great way to introduce the younger ones to live performance and you can often find books with similar themes or characters to read before or after. Help them make the connection between what they saw and what they read.
- This is another genre to explore over the summer. If you are a lover of poetry, re-read your favorites and introduce your children to the sound of the poems you love to read. It will change them forever, in a good way.
- There are even some studies that suggest that reading poetry can increase your problem solving skills. Just saying!
- If you don’t know much about poetry, I’d suggest buying a good anthology of poems for children.
- Read the poems aloud to each other, if you can.
- If you haven’t read much poetry yourself, buy or borrow an anthology of poetry for beginners. They offer explanations and good variety so you can get to know what you like.
- As you wonder where to begin, try breaking your poetry reading up into sub-topics, like silly poems, nature poems, The good thing about poetry is that you can often read an entire poem in one sitting and it will stay with you the rest of the day, dancing around in your head. It’s a lovely experience. I encourage you to give it a try.
- Here are some suggestions for anthologies for children, and adults: A Child’s Garden of Verses, one of my faves Emily Dickinson is for everyone but this version is illustrated and has notes, a good introduction that includes a CD, for adults mostly there are also poems for mindfulness, and a book of the Top 500 Poems according to their editor.
Pick a City or Country
- Focus on a particular place to learn about throughout the summer.
- I think next summer might be a Hawaii summer. There’s so much to learn about the Hawaiian culture and since its so beautiful, weather wise, it will make for some fun secondary activities like having a luau, trying to make a roast pig the traditional way, or maybe trying our hand at Poi. I honeymooned in Hawaii, so that personal connection makes it part of our family history too. With all the volcanic activity in Hawaii of late, we could include any and all reading about volcanoes too.
Food and Culture: take several virtual trips!
- If your family is into food and cooking like mine is, maybe you could have a rotating theme, like a movable feast!
- Pick four cuisines you want to explore
- During that week, cook in that style and spend your reading time focusing on that culture
- For example, you could read recipes, fiction and non-fiction from that culture, articles about recent events taking place in and around where that cuisine is most popular. If my family were to chose this option, we’d probably break it down as follows:
- Week 1-2 Germany
- Reading would include German recipes with sausages and sweet puff-pastry deserts
- Although wintry, we like Christmas in July at our house, so a plethora of Nutcracker repetition would go over well.
- Hoffman’s Nutcracker in its many versions such as the board book and original, Listening/Watching would include Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker,and the new version of the Nutcracker movie which I thought was lovely.
- Week 2-4 New Orleans
- Reading and watching would include The Princess and the Frog, a board book reading for little ones,
- Julia Reed has a great cookbook with some fun ideas,
- For some short stories for adults, you can’t miss with Flannery O’Conner and her accounts of the Deep South
- We’d be listening to a whole lot of jazz.
- I’d choose this city, just to have an excuse to eat jambalaya a few times
- Week 5-6 Pompeii
- My kids love the stories surrounding Pompeii, so this would be interesting but it would also be a challenge to eat really simply and try to follow the menus of this ancient Roman city.
- Here are some books I’d love to look, but my favorite is by Alberto Angela. Some fiction and non-fiction to enjoy.
- Here are some books for the kids to read The Dog of Pompeii, Buried Alive, Pompeii Today