Suggestions for Leaving your Literary Comfort Zone

by | Sep 2, 2021

Written by: Amanda Schumaker

For the past two years, I’ve written blog posts to suggest a few summer reading titles for our students at Hamilton Education. I try to base these suggestions on the trends and habits I notice in my own reading, like becoming an avid reader because of trips to Barnes & Noble with my dad when I was younger or trying to break the incessant Netflix bingeing of the shutdown last year. So, when I sat down to write this year’s reading recommendations, I found myself once again in a literary reflection.

I recently asked my dad to go to Barnes & Noble with me again. He had just finished a book, and I wanted to look for some books that my middle school students might enjoy (and browsing in a book store is much more enjoyable than browsing online!). A couple hours later, when we were ready to check out, I saw that my dad had picked up several current events and history books with titles that were outside of his usual interests. When I asked him about it, he said he’s been trying to branch out and learn more about what’s going on around us today, and how we got there. “It’s good to get outside your comfort zone once in a while, you know?” he asked me.

I thought about this for a second and looked down at my own selections: two historical fictions, one science fiction, one history, a collection of feminist essays, and the first installment of a YA trilogy. Turns out my dad isn’t the only getting outside of his reading comfort zone.

For several years, my book hauls would consist mostly of 20th century history. As a historian who specializes in the Cold War, this makes sense. But this year I challenged myself to read fifty “fun” books (in addition to the books I teach in our Brainiacs and Reading & Rhetoric classes). I’m well on my way to reaching that goal, and as I look at the list of titles I’ve read so far, I realize that it’s all over the place – fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, social science, current events, beach reads… Some of the books I’ve read are suggestions from students, others I’ve seen on bestseller lists or I just happened upon them during my browsing. All of them I’ve loved.

So, this year’s advice for summer reading… Try something new! And if you’re not sure where to start, here are some suggestions.

High School Students:

For someone who usually shies away from fantasy: Shadow and Bone trilogy

The Shadow Fold, a swathe of impenetrable darkness crawling with monsters, is slowly destroying the once-great nation of Ravka. Alina, a pale and lonely orphan, discovers a unique power that thrusts her into the lavish world of the kingdom’s magical elite – the Grisha. Could she be the key to destroying the Shadow Fold and setting Ravka free? Alina must find her strength and courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, powerful foes, and secrets beyond her wildest dreams. Recently turned into a Netflix hit series (and recommended my several of my students), you won’t be able to put this series down!

For those who avoid science fiction: Andy Weir’s The Martian

How do you survive on Mars after your crew leaves you stranded? After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark Watney has to use everything he knows about biology and engineering to keep himself alive until NASA can come up with a plan to rescue him – assuming he can find a way to contact Earth, that is. Luckily, Mark also has a hilariously sarcastic sense of humor that gets him through his many setbacks. You won’t even have time to feel sorry for him because you’ll be laughing too much.

For the student who steers clear of the nonfiction genres: David E. Hoffman’s The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal

Who doesn’t love a good espionage story? This nonfiction book reads more like something out of a James Bond film. Thisis the riveting story of a spy who cracked open the Soviet military research establishment in the most daring espionage in the last years of the Cold War. From having KGB agents regularly break into CIA operatives’ apartments, leaving coded messages across Moscow, and a number of spy gadgets, The Billion Dollar Spy is a brilliant feat of reporting that unfolds like an espionage thriller.

Middle School Students:

For the reader who stays away from fairy tales: J.K. Rowling’s The Ickabog

The kingdom of Cornucopia was once the happiest in the world. It had plenty of gold and exquisite foods that made a person dance when they ate them. Everything was perfect – except for the misty Marshlands to the north, which (according to legend) were home to the monstrous Ickabog. Any sensible person knew that the Ickabog was just a myth to scare children into behaving, but the funny thing about myths is that they sometimes take on a life of their own. Could a myth unseat a beloved king? Could a myth bring a once happy country to its knees? Could a myth thrust two children into an adventure they didn’t ask for?

For those who sidestep the somewhat serious stories: Jack Chen’s See You in the Cosmos

11-year-old Alex Petroski loves space and rockets, his mom, his brother, and his dog Carl Sagan – named for his hero, the real-life astronomer. All he wants is to launch his golden iPod into space the way Carl Sagan (the man, not the dog) launched his Golden record on the voyager spacecraft in 1977. From Colorado to New Mexico, Las Vegas to L.A., Alex records a journey on his iPod to show other lifeforms what life on earth, his earth, is like. But his destination keeps changing. And the funny, lost, remarkable people he meets along the way can only partially prepare him from the secrets he’ll uncover – from the truth about his long-dead dad to the fact that, for a kid with a troubled mom and a mostly not-around brother, he has way more family than he ever knew.