Suzanne Tobias

What should your kid read this summer? Have them pick a person, not a book

Anne, Eden and Emma Maack
Anne, Eden and Emma Maack Courtesy photo

Anne and Steve Maack never had trouble getting their daughters to read.

Eden and Emma read a lot, even during summer vacations and even during those bewildering middle-school years, when they were too old for Battle of the Books and too young for high school summer reading assignments.

They read mostly fantasy and young-adult fiction, devouring chapter after chapter of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, Suzanne Collins’ “Underland Chronicles,” Kathryn Lasky’s “Guardians of Ga’Hoole” and Tamora Pierce’s Tortall universe.

“It was never about asking them to read,” Anne Maack says. “It was about asking them to read something else.”

But how? If you’re a parent who has ever recommended a book to your tween or teen, you’ve likely experienced the standard reaction — eyeroll, heavy sigh, apathetic nod. Like, “Yeah sure, Mom. I’ll read your vintage copy of ‘A Separate Peace’ right away.”

So the Maacks came up with a novel idea, a fun and meaningful summer project for their girls. It went like this:

Choose three adults whose opinions you respect — relatives, church leaders, friends of the family — and ask them what book you should read this summer. You pick the person, he or she picks the book.

Eden and Emma Maack, now grown and attending college and graduate school, say they remember balking at the idea at first. But the challenge inspired them to read books they wouldn’t have selected otherwise.

Eden, 23, remembers reading “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America,” a 2002 best-seller by Barbara Ehrenreich that chronicled the author’s undercover experience working at poverty-wage jobs.

“It’s definitely not something I would have picked up on my own,” she said.

Emma, 21, says she chose her father’s cousin Julie as one of her three people to recommend books because Julie was 20-something, hip and precisely the kind of person Emma envisioned growing up to be.

“I’d always ask Julie because I wanted to know exactly what she did and what she read and what she was interested in, because I wanted to be that way, too,” said Emma, who is studying art history and communications at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

One summer, Julie recommended “Q&A,” a debut novel by Vikas Swarup that inspired the blockbuster film, “Slumdog Millionaire.” In typical fashion, Emma says, her dad’s cousin was ahead of the curve.

“I read it before ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ came out. So when everyone was obsessed with ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ I was like, ‘Well, I read the book first.’ ”

I asked Eden and Emma what they would recommend if they were on the other side of the challenge this summer, if a middle-schooler selected them as their respected adult and said, “OK, what should I read?”

“Whoa,” said Eden, pausing under the pressure. But it didn’t take her long to pick a book — “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot.

“As a scientist and somebody interested in science, it’s an amazing discussion of ethics, the new frontiers of genetics and the information you can get from them,” said Eden, a grad student studying medicinal chemistry at the University of Iowa. “It’s also just a good story, well written.”

Emma’s pick: “The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak. It was a middle-school summer read recommended way-back-when by her grandmother and — you guessed it — cousin Julie.

“It’s amazing,” she said, sighing. “Just a really good book.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias