Among the many lingering consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are the impacts it had on the education of children. Reports show the disruption to school classes set back reading and math scores, creating the largest decrease in reading ability in 30 years. The declines were greater for low-income students, racial minorities, and students already struggling. This data alarmed educators and researchers.
“Student test scores, even starting in first, second, and third grade, are really quite predictive of their success later in school, and their educational trajectories overall,” explained Susanna Loeb, the director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.
And if students struggle with reading, it not only makes it more difficult for them to succeed in their later classroom experiences but it also makes them less likely to become a lifelong reader. We already have a society where nearly a quarter of American adults admit they haven’t read a single book in the past year (in any format, including print, electronic, or audio). The pandemic threatens to add to this culture of not reading.
At Word&Way, we obviously promote reading. We’ve been sending readers our print publication since 1896. And we also encourage people to read this e-newsletter and other things we produce. Additionally, we encourage people to read books. We publish a weekly review on our website by Robert Cornwall, a monthly review (and giveaway of a signed author copy) here at A Public Witness, and frequently interview authors about their books on our Dangerous Dogma podcast.
Simply put, we believe in reading. And we think reading well can help form better people and better Christians. That’s why we do our part to fight the pandemic of not reading.
So as the temperatures rise and vacations approach, this issue of A Public Witness includes some of our recommendations for summer reads. Whether you find yourself on the beach, in a secluded cabin, or just in your own backyard, we hope you’ll find the perfect book with which you can curl up.
Some Recommended Books
Here are some books recommended by six Word&Way writers.
Brian Kaylor, author of For God’s Sake, Shut Up!:
The Ventriloquists by E.R. Ramzipoor. This novel tells the true story about a fake newspaper. While doing thesis research, Ramzipoor discovered a little-known anti-Nazi effort in occupied Belgium in 1943. After a Belgium newspaper, Le Soir (the evening), was transformed into a German propaganda publication, some in the resistance movement decided to publish a satirical paper, Faux Soir (fake evening), as a one-day replacement for the propaganda rag — an act that bemused people in Belgium but outraged Nazi officials. Based on the known historical details, this book unwraps a dangerous story of a resistance movement armed with satire and hope.
When the English Fall by David Williams. It’s difficult to say much about this novel by a Presbyterian pastor without giving away too much of the story. Here’s part of the publisher’s description: “When a catastrophic solar storm brings about the collapse of modern civilization, an Amish community is caught up in the devastating aftermath.” A nonviolent and mostly separate community finds its world changing when those in the outside world — the “English,” as the rest of us are known — face apocalyptic tragedies. This book breaks the mold of typical Amish fiction popular in Christian bookstores. And fascinating theological debates appear without disturbing the page-turning drama.
Beau Underwood, co-author of Dear Son: Raising Faithful, Just, and Compassionate Men:
Bouton: The Life of a Baseball Original by Mitchell Nathanson. I’m a huge baseball fan, but it’s sometimes difficult to find books that cover less worn sod (i.e. aren’t about the glory years of the Yankees) and do so in an expert way. The University of Nebraska Press offers an impressive series of baseball books that achieve both these goals. So I was excited to see they had published a comprehensive biography of former pitcher Jim Bouton, one of the few players more famous for how he changed the game through publishing Ball Four, his candid insider account of life in the major leagues during the 1960s, instead of how he played the game.
A Philosopher Looks at the Religious Life by Zina Hitz. Among the more unusual life transitions one can make is joining an intentional religious order. In the middle of a philosophical career, Hitz did exactly this by entering and then leaving a religious community known as Madonna House. Part memoir and part philosophical reflection on such communities, Hitz explores the roles that self-denial, community, and piety play in human flourishing. It’s an opportunity to understand an element of religious practice many Christians won’t directly experience from someone who has both authentically lived it and is well trained to examine it.
Flying Solo by Linda Holmes. Some people say they don’t like romantic comedies, but the way this book subverts the conventional “happily-ever-after” might just win some converts. After her wedding is called off, our protagonist Laurie Sassalyn returns to where she grew up in order to manage the estate of her adventurous great-aunt. Written by a veteran NPR culture critic-turned-author, this literary journey includes charming small-town capers, a mysterious wooden duck, and insights about marriage and growing up. Add to this some bighearted humor and it’s everything you want from escapist fiction.
Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside by Nick Offerman. You might know him from his iconic role as Ron Swanson in the gleefully Midwestern sitcom Parks and Recreation, but Offerman himself is also an accomplished woodworker and all-around nature enthusiast. So his passion and wit are combined here with the thrilling tales he brought back from a real-life adventure in Glacier National Park with two of his close friends: musician Jeff Tweedy and author George Saunders. Sprinkled throughout you will also find insightful musings about our role in environmental conversation and the fascinating history of our national parks that will surely have you planning your next outdoor adventure.
Sarah Blackwell, author of God is Here:
Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman. What Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and The Hunger Games were to previous generations, this book will be for today’s young adults. In this case, the dystopian future is one where the climate crisis in the southwest has escalated quickly, leaving southern California with no water. A small group of teens try to find a way to survive among the increasingly desperate people around them. While the non-stop action will keep you and your teens reading, the larger themes about scarcity, hoarding, survival, ethical use of resources, and care for fellow humans will prompt some deep conversations.
I Take My Coffee Black: Reflections on Tupac, Musical Theater, Faith, and Being Black in America by Tyler Merritt. In 2018, Merritt released a viral video, “Before You Call the Cops,” where he pleaded with us to consider the humanity of the people around us before jumping to conclusions. This witty and poignant memoir further opens a window to his soul as he recounts growing up in Las Vegas, attending a conservative Christian college, playing with a rock band, teaching Sunday School, and loving Broadway musicals as a 6’2” Black man with dreadlocks. The first chapter may be one of the most insightful essays I have read about the ways we judge each other.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. Several years ago, I was burned out from work and needed a good read, preferably fiction. A friend recommended this moving story about two young British women who are friends during WWII. One is a pilot, the other a spy. When the spy, “Verity,” is captured by the Nazis, she tells the story of their friendship as part of her “confession.” I quickly became engrossed in the book as it is both transcendent and thought-provoking. It pairs well with a warm, sunny day and maybe a small packet of tissues.
My Inner Sky: On Embracing Day, Night, and All the Times in Between by Mari Andrew. I vividly remember reading this book while waiting in line for my second COVID shot in May 2021. I was 37 weeks pregnant with my second son and ready to be delivered. My Inner Sky captured my imagination throughout the dingy church basement/vaccination site and made standing on my tired pregnant-lady legs feel bearable — even pleasant. This book is a collection of essays and illustrations about transitions, trauma, and healing. While it has melancholy notes, Andrew’s thoughtful reflections and charming illustrations go down easy. If you’re seeking a lighthearted but insightful summer read, this is it.
Robert Cornwall, author of Called to Bless: Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots:
The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text by Barbara Mahany. This book serves to remind us that before there was scripture, there was nature. It was nature that spoke to humanity about the presence of God the creator. In fact, nature still bears witness to God the creator. What this book does is bring out various elements of that sacred text (nature) so that we can pay greater attention to that word of revelation and open our senses to that word of revelation.
Summerland by Michael Chabon. What goes more with summer than baseball? This book mixes together America’s national pastime with a fantasy adventure involving Native American lore. A boy is asked to help save a world under threat as well as a father who has been kidnapped by the evil Coyote by joining with a ragtag band playing baseball to save their land of eternal summer. It’s a great opportunity to just sit back and let your imagination run wild.
Hopefully, one of these dozen books will spark your interest and take your imagination to a new place this summer. For more options, you can check out last year’s summer reads list or our list of top books published in 2022. If you have a book you’d like to add to this list, feel free to add it in the comments (note: only paid subscribers can comment). I look forward to seeing those suggestions in hopes of finding one to add to my reading goals for this summer.
In an age where many people don’t read, picking up a book can be an act of resisting our culture of mindless social media videos. Like exercising to build our muscles, we need to keep our brains in shape. Reading a good book (and, of course, an award-winning e-newsletter) is just what our brains need. That helps us fulfill the biblical call to love God with all our minds.
As a public witness,