Why We Need Summer Stories by Gillian McDunn

Toward the end of first grade, my son started wearing glasses.


Once we got past certain logistical issues, such as: where to store them? (not on the floor!) and when to wear them (not while swimming!)–he loved his new, improved vision. Reading had always been his favorite activity, and with the new glasses he began to plow through books at an astonishing rate. And, as anyone who’s ever seen a seven-year-old in glasses would know, the cuteness levels were off the charts. All seemed well.


But when he returned to school in the fall, he began to complain that the words looked blurry.


It seemed impossible that his vision could change so quickly. Unsure what to think, I made an appointment with the eye doctor. I figured she would tell us his eyes were fine–but I was wrong. Not only had his prescription changed, it had changed significantly. He needed new glasses right away.


When I asked how this shift could have occurred in less than three months, she smiled.


“It’s because of summer,” she said. “That’s when kids grow the most.”


Of course, she meant physical growth–something about growth hormone and getting lots of sleep and exercise.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that kids grow in other ways during summer as well.


Anytime there is change, there is an opportunity for growth–and summer is all about changes. Routines are shaken up.  Days stretch out. Street lights blink on sometime way past dinner. As summer passes, bedtimes creep later and later. All that time, kids are growing. Sometimes the growth can be measured by clothes and shoes that no longer fit. Sometimes it is not so easily measured. Hearts and minds need time to grow, too.


Some kids have scabby-knee summers or math camp summers. Some have first-sleepaway summers or visit-grandparents summers. In summer, kids spend hours playing with cousins, jumping off the high dive, or learning to play chess.


Summer lets kids explore who they are when they aren’t at school. Unstructured time is easier to come by, and most days seem to have a little more space around the edges. Kids make more choices in summer. Suddenly, there’s time to think some of the big thoughts that may get lost in the hustle and rush of the school year. Everyone knows a kid who chose summer to reinvent herself, and came back to the new grade as someone almost entirely different. There’s a reason why we’ve all written essays titled “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” Summer is a story.


This isn’t to say that all summers are carefree. Summer brings stress to many families. Whether that means food insecurity or providing childcare to siblings–kids face big challenges in summer, too.


One of my most memorable summers was the year I turned eleven. My younger brothers, Andy and Jared, were nine and six. After a brief illness, Andy died. We were shattered.


Months earlier, tickets had been booked to visit my maternal grandparents in Illinois. Even as we spun with grief, my parents decided that we would continue as planned.


That trip, my mind was full of unsolvable mysteries–the loss of my brother, the nature of death and grief, the improbable truth that my mom had been a child in this house I had no memories of.


But what I remember most?


Those pieces of summer that wove themselves into my days: the double-scoop ice cream cones at the shop down the road. The hours I spent on the unairconditioned back porch, kept company by stacks of Reader’s Digest and National Geographic–so humid that the pages stuck together. Cicadas screeching in the trees. The tomatoes from the garden, which my grandfather sliced and sprinkled with salt.


In vivid detail, I can see, feel, hear, and taste that time in my life. I’m convinced that summer is responsible for that.


When I returned to school in the fall, I was a different kid. I was quieter, more serious. Things were hard at home. Sometimes I felt lost. I was happy to return to the safe, familiar comfort of my school.


Teachers witness all that growth and change. It may be a smile in the hallway or a big hug on the first day. It can come from a librarian asking what books they’ve read over the summer, or a PE teacher who notices someone can jump much higher than before. Teachers acknowledge these important stories and help students tell them.


All summers are different. Some are happy and full of light. Some are lonely and empty. Some are a mix of everything under the sun.


But summer is always a story that needs to be told. It might be the kind of story that makes you laugh. It might be the kind of story that makes you cry. Or it might be the kind of story that makes you see more clearly–even if you don’t wear glasses.






Ten Books About Life-Changing Summers

Some books remind us that summers can be more than a time for ice cream and endless days by the pool. Check out these ten books that tell the story of a summer that will change its characters forever.


One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia


The story of three sisters who travel to Oakland, California, to meet the mother who abandoned them. This is a story about family, brilliantly told, and Delphine is an unforgettable narrator.


The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall

The first in the series, The Penderwick sisters spend a summer on the grounds of Arundel having adventures with their new friend Jeffrey Tifton. Sweet, tender, and funny.


Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

Astrid does everything with her best friend Nicole, but this summer they’ll be doing different camps, because Astrid loves roller derby. A story about growing up, friendships, and finding what you love.


Midsummer’s Mayhem by Rajani LaRocca

A contemporary-fantasy retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a baking competition twist. This story follows Mimi Mackson, desperately wishes for the something special that will help her stand out in her family. When she hears a mysterious song from the woods, she follows–and begins to bake better than she has before. The only problem is the strange things happening around her. Could Mimi’s creations somehow be causing the mayhem?


Just South of Home by Karen Strong

Sarah is ready to spend the summer with her favorite science books and bossing around her little brother, but when her cousin Janie arrives, everything changes. Together they unearth a ghost story and a town mystery. The characters pop off the page and Strong captures the feeling of the rural South. Readers will turn pages quickly looking for answers.


Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

A California girl born and raised, Mai can’t wait to spend her vacation at the beach. She is less than thrilled to find out that instead she will travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War. To Mai, Vietnam is hot, smelly, and the last place she wants to be. This engaging story explores ideas of home and family.


Summer of the Monkeys by Wilson Rawls

Deep in the Ozarks, Jay finds a group of monkeys in the river bottom. From his grandfather, he learns that they escaped from a circus and that there is a large reward for their return. Jay is full of dreams abou how he would use the reward money, and comes up with several plans to catch them. A book about working hard and discovering what’s important.


Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm

Sunny Lewin is packed off to Florida to spend the summer with her grandfather in his retirement community.  We learn through flashbacks that her family is in crisis to her brother’s drug addiction.  This book was a hit for all the members of the mother-daughter book club I belong to. Lots to discuss!


Black Girls Like Me by Mariama Lockington

Makeda wonders What would it feel like to grow up with a family that looks like me? After a move to New Mexico with her adoptive white family, questions about identity, family, and race come to the surface. This story is not contained to summer, but summer is a pivotal time for Makeda as she she digs deeper in her understanding of her family and her place in the world.


Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

When a summer trip doesn’t go as planned, Cat and Chicken have to spend three weeks with grandparents they’ve never met, in a place called Gingerbread Island. Life on the island is easier, simpler, and Cat feels more like a kid than she has in a while. But as she gets to know her grandparents, one thing is bothering her: why haven’t they been a part of her life before now?


GILLIAN McDUNN has lived in California, Missouri, and North Carolina, and is a fan of both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans. She lives near Raleigh, North Carolina, with her family. Like Cat, Gillian grew up as the big sister to a younger brother with special needs. CATERPILLAR SUMMER will be released April 2, 2019.