True confessions time. In a frantic desire to keep the kids occupied, I committed the cardinal sin of summer. I over-scheduled.
Here’s what Summer Vacation Week One looked like: six hours of daily sports camp, followed by tennis in the late afternoon (because once you pay for three weeks it’s the same price as five weeks, and of course you should go, because we made a commitment). Throw in an assortment of random other activities—a birthday party, a doctor’s appointment, a sibling’s swim meet and neighborhood gathering… and the next thing you know, your child is begging for mercy. From his summer vacation.
Now, each of these activities is good fun, on its own. It’s the bundling that’s the problem. It’s like replicating the exhausting school year, but with a big ‘ole dose of heat.
We mean well, we over-schedulers. We have this fear, you see. We fear boredom. (Not for ourselves, we are dreadfully busy.) We fear it for our children. We say things like, “But if I don’t sign her up for activities every second of the day, she’ll have nothing to do.” As if that is the worst thing imaginable.
We forget that nothing to do can be completely glorious. It’s a time to create, to imagine, or—my favorite—to read (which combines all the good stuff). Because here’s the thing. A good book transports a child from boredom and nothing to do to instant adventure.
What’s sad is that in the midst of so much busy-ness, these adventures can fall by the wayside. I think of my own favorites, the books and characters that once held such sway in my life. Out of sight, out of mind, I suppose. But sometimes stars align and reunions transpire, and we remember why they were so very important.
Max was the first to resurface in my life. My mother introduced us in the 1970’s; we reconnected when I had my own children and opened the pages of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Fierce as ever, Max still wore his wolf suit and he still made mischief of one kind and another. Max also understood the pull of home and the push of adventure, of the need for secret places one can visit when one desperately needs to get away, if only for a little while. My friends and I made paper-bag monsters and ran around our yards howling and gnashing our teeth. I loved being a monster and knowing dinner would always be waiting.
Then there was Harriet the Spy (Fitzhugh), a favorite of my daughter’s fourth grade class. One look at her bowl haircut and fierce glare and it felt like old times. Like Max, Harriet had a willful streak. She’d stomp her feet and scream and make cakes collapse on a bad day. She wrote with wild abandon and no mercy. Harriet was the first spy I knew, and oh, did my ten-year old self want to emulate her. I climbed the garage roofs that lined our back alley and lay flat and silent, notebook in hand. I huddled under decks and porches. I watched and listened. And like Harriet, I wrote. Journals filled with scrawls about our neighbors, their cats, the occasional fights and drama of my street. From Harriet I learned that a good writer must be keenly observant. I learned to be mindful of the power of words. I also learned that most people prefer not to look out their window and see a child huddled in the bushes taking notes.
I have many such friends, dear companions who snuck into my life on the flat pages of a worn library book; friends who lingered long after those pages rested in another’s hands. Bilbo and Frodo, with their dark battlegrounds and light-filled elfin retreats, enchanted me. I was fascinated by Mary Lennox in her Secret Garden, the kind Witch of Blackbird Pond and the brave Finch family of Maycomb, Alabama.
How have they shaped my outlook, these old friends of mine? They took me to worlds I could not have imagined. They asked nothing of me—and yet, by virtue of their example, they inspired me to travel, explore, consider the consequences of my actions. They helped me understand that every life is a story unto itself; that brilliant stories surround us, if only we pay attention.
Our children are so lucky. There can meet these old characters and discover enticing new ones. Auggie in Wonder by RJ Palacio. The One and Only Ivan, written in first gorilla by Katherine Applegate. All the characters in anything ever written by the masterful Kate DiCamillo. (I dare you not to love Mercy Watson, Despereaux, Flora and Ulysses.). The conspiring teens in I Kill the Mockingbird.
One summer we decided to read Harry Potter—the first one—out loud, as a family. We were hooked from page one. We read over 4,000 pages of Harry that year, out loud, every night. Sometimes we ignored bedtimes and read late. Sometimes we got a little teary, especially on the last page when we knew it had come to an end, not just for Harry but for this family adventure of ours. And we never even left the house.
The problem with adults, even us well intentioned ones, is that we need reminding about these books, these characters, about all the good that can come from nothing to do.
My son and I agreed that some activities can be skipped, that there will be big chunks of free time this summer. And still. What if he got bored? Out doing errands this weekend, I checked in to see if he wanted to call a friend, go to the pool.
“I just want to read my book,” he replied.
“Is the book good?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s great. Bye, I want to read.”
And so kicked off a perfect summer day. And if it ends with one of my kids huddled with a library book on the porch, or spying on the neighbors from the bushes, or organizing a game of quidditch… then supper will still be waiting. Because I like the nothing—and yet everything–to do version of summer too.
As for now, bye. I want to read.
Author’s Note: Please share your favorite reads as a child—and the books your child can’t put down this summer! Book recommendations for 13-14 year-olds are particularly welcome. We’re checking out Newbery honorees and winners, as well as the New York Public Library’s 100 best children’s books list.