What’s on your shelf? To me, summer reading means Harry Potter, Tom Swift, and Zombie Butts from Uranus, almost none of which I’ve actually read. Let’s start with Harry Potter. My son, Theo, and I got through a couple volumes before our interest waned; however, these hardbacks belong to my daughter, who took on the entire series the summer before last. When Order of the Phoenix was first released (way back in 2004), the kids’ pediatrician made news for identifying a syndrome he coined “Hogwarts Headaches,” when a half-dozen 9-year-olds showed up in his office complaining of eyestrain and sore wrists. Dr. Bennett deduced they were suffering from reading all night long (for some reason, the book was released at midnight at our local D.C. bookstore); these kids had been holding the 870-page book in one hand and a flashlight in the other. By the time Eliza was of age, all seven volumes were available, and she started in on them when she went to farm camp, chewing through the books that summer as if they were sweet corn.
Theo, now twenty, hated everything about summer camp, which he categorized as enforced group fun held outdoors, in the heat, with bugs. Never mind that I had longed for camp during summers in Oklahoma, when my siblings and I were required to do a full morning of chores every day. Summer smells to me are Spic ‘n Span, Jubilee (a drippy, smelly white appliance wax that is no longer made, thank god), and silver polish. My mother would say, “The afternoons are all yours,” and she even drove us to the pool many days, but, of course, I remember the mornings.
When I asked my husband how he’d spent his summers, he said he’d been forced to take swim lessons at the lake and then was allowed to retire to his room for the entire afternoon with a sleeve of Saltines and his Tom Swift books. Me: “Sounds lonely.” Him: “It was heaven.” We have his collection of the boy adventurer, including Tom Swift and His Flying Lab and Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle (bringing us to today’s bit of trivia: the Taser is an acronym of Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle because that was the favorite book of Jack Cover, the inventor).
My husband’s joy gave me an idea for Theo, who refused camp and was not much of a reader. I needed to get some writing done, and so rather than pay for childcare, I decided to pay him to read. The rules were that I had to approve the book and that after he read it, he was to submit a 250-word review. For this, I would pay $20. Reader, he finished a book a day for two weeks, when I cut his pay rate to $10! In fact, that summer that the tide changed and he became a reader, he chose all sorts of good books, including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Giver, Jim the Boy and Thunderball. But just as I remember my chores rather than the long afternoons of playing, my memory holds on to the book I rejected: Zombie Butts from Uranus (the American edition of that Australian classic, Zombie Bums from Uranus and the sequel to The Day My Butt Went Psycho). Theo wrote a review in protest, explaining how the main character, Zack, meets a fortune teller who predicts that “the three things that will save the earth are ketchup, the hokey pokey, and a brown hole (the only thing worse than a black hole).” Spoiler alert: Zack saves the world by kicking the Great White Butt into a brown hole. And while the book ends that way, the real ending(s) are that my son recently declared his minor to be creative writing and that his review of that volume closes with: “I feel mom should have allowed this book because it has a moral: never quit at something.”
Happy summer reading.
MARY KAY ZURAVLEFF is the author of Man Alive!, The Bowl Is Already Broken, and The Frequency of Souls. Honors for her work include the American Academy’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award, and she has been nominated for the Orange Prize. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a cofounder of the D.C. Women Writers Group.