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In this bonus episode, Rachel Bozek, Gretchen Vierstra, and a few of their Understood colleagues share summer reading recommendations. Learn about books that embrace differences for readers of all ages. Plus, get tips on how to make summer reading fun for kids. 

Reading recommendations mentioned in this episode

  • Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You, by Sonia Sotomayor

  • Rosie Revere, Engineer, by Andrea Beaty

  • Fish in a Tree, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

  • Button Pusher, by Tyler Page 

  • Disability Visibility (Adapted for Young Adults): 17 First-Person Stories for Today, edited by Alice Wong

Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It." I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor raising two kids with ADHD. We're between seasons right now. Just taking a little break before we get to work on a bunch of great conversations for Season 5.

Gretchen: That said, we are not disappearing on you. We'll be dropping bonus content here and there throughout the summer, including today.

Rachel: Yes, there have been a lot of water cooler discussions — or, in our case, virtual water cooler discussions — about good summer reads here at Understood, especially for kids who learn and think differently. So we thought it would be a good idea to pass some of those suggestions on to you.

Gretchen: First, though, we want to go back for just a minute to a conversation we had last year with Jeremee DeMoir about summer reading.

Rachel: Jeremee used to teach middle school and high school. Now he's the owner of a bookstore in Memphis, Tennessee, called DeMoir Books and Things.

Gretchen: In our conversation with him. He made the excellent point that even for kids who struggle with reading, summer reading doesn't have to be a burden. There are lots of ways to open them up to a love of books. Let's listen.

Jeremee: As an educator, you often deal with children who have learning disabilities, such as like dyslexia, or just issues with focusing — ADHD, ADD. And so for them, it's challenging finding pieces that work for them. But the beauty about it is that literature comes in so many different mediums. As an educator, we know that literacy is an umbrella, and so we know that it's not just reading, it's also speaking and listening. So we find audiobooks that might work for them. You find graphic novels where the text might be a little more chopped up to where it's more digestible.

And so when you find something that kids can engage with that is super awesome to them and then finding it in a medium that's accessible to them, then it becomes like this door that's being blown off the hinges and they're able to kind of find something that really fits them.

Rachel: That's a great reminder that there are lots of ways to make reading accessible to your kids during the summer.

Gretchen: Let's get to our book recommendations. The first one comes from Kim Greene, the editorial director here at Understood.

Kim: My summer reading recommendation is "Just Ask, Be Different, Be Brave, Be You." And it's written by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. "Just Ask" is a picture book. Mostly it introduces readers to different characters and tells you more about their differences, but also their superpowers. So it includes characters with autism, Tourette syndrome, kids who stutter, diabetes, food allergies. We're talking a really wide spectrum of the beautiful things that make us all different.

I'd recommend this book to any parent or caregiver of a child in elementary school, maybe even a little bit younger. The book is, I think, officially recommended for ages 4 to 8, but I read it with my 3-year-old. It really has this great message about "just ask," which is so innate to what young kids do is they have so many questions, so they just ask.

I should say that the book is not encouraging children to go up to people with disabilities and interrogate with them questions and whatnot. It's actually quite clear that that's something that some people don't like, but instead encourages kids to, you know, turn to the adult in their life and to ask questions.

Rachel: You know, I've seen that book. And besides having a great overall message, I just add that the illustrations are wonderful. OK, let's get to another recommendation.

Craig: I am Craig Woody. I am a senior data engineer here at Understood. I have a summer reading recommendation. One of my daughter's favorite books is "Rosie Revere, Engineer." It's written by Andrea Beaty. It's a great book about a young girl who's got ideas that are different from her classmates and her family. And she finds ways to power through learning and thinking differently and inventing things that not everyone else appreciates.

One of my favorite scenes is when her great aunt visits her. Her great aunt is called Rose, but the way she dresses and the way she's presented it definitely implies that she's Rosie the Riveter, because she talks about her time building airplanes and how she never got the chance to fly.

That character really — I think it's pivotal for the story, because she steps in and shows little Rosie that you can think differently and you can build things differently. And ultimately, at the end of the day, if you're helping other people, if you're trying to be a good person, the how you get to the end, it doesn't really matter. As an engineer myself, I think that it's great to show people there's more than one way to get to the end.

Rachel: How about you, Gretchen? Do you have a book to recommend?

Gretchen: I do. Actually, I asked my kids to recommend a book, and they told me about something they both read, probably in about fourth or fifth grade. And the book is called "Fish in a Tree" by Lynda Mullaly Hunt. And it's probably for ages about 10 and up. And it's a fiction book, and it's about a sixth grader named Ally who struggles with reading and writing and has been covering it up by acting out. And it's only when she has a substitute teacher who says to her "I'm going to figure out how to make you stay in this classroom and not get sent to the office" that he discovers she has undiagnosed dyslexia.

And that's why my kids said they liked it. They liked it because they said they loved reading about a teacher who really took a moment to care about a kid and see through the acting out and figure out what was going on. But full disclosure, I have not read it myself, but my kids say it's a great read.

Rachel: You know, I haven't read that either, Gretchen. But I really love the idea that it's a substitute teacher who comes in, because I think that they get kind of a bad rap a lot of time. And personal story: One of the best teachers that both of my kids ever had and who I remain friends with started out at their school as a substitute. She was in for maternity coverage and at the beginning of the year I was like, "Oh boy, we got a sub for the year." And she's wonderful. And, you know, I think, I think subs — I'm glad to see that they got a little moment in the spotlight here in this book.

Gretchen: Mm hmm. So what about you? Do you have a recommendation, Rachel?

Rachel: I do. I do. So this is one that I heard about and tracked down for myself. It's called "Button Pusher," by Tyler Page. It's a YA book. So it's really for, like, the 11 to 14-ish or 11 and ups. But I love a graphic novel, so I found it. And it's also a memoir. So it looks like a comic book, but it's the author's own story about his childhood and kind of tells the story of his journey of learning about ADHD and kind of a lot of the things that he ran into as a kid.

There are some intense family dynamics with the parents. The book covers counseling and therapy. There is medication talk, all from this kid's perspective and from a very real perspective, because this was his actual experience.

You know, one thing that I thought was really interesting, too, is that every so often he kind of breaks from his own story to offer an explanation of the science or the research behind something that's going on in this kid's life. So there is like the "what's happening in the brain right now," and it'll stop. And like that page will be kind of like a different color palette or you just, you know, that you're in a different section for a page or two.

And then there is the same kind of thing with like time blindness, when something like related to that is happening in the story. And those are all things that we've talked about here. And so it was really nice to see it kind of applied to this kid's life. So I just, you know, I really enjoyed it from that perspective. And I think it's something that adults might also really enjoy, even though it's technically in the kids' section of the library and in the bookstores.

Gretchen: Yeah, I think it sounds really cool. I love the fact that it actually has some science, right? Some information about ADHD in the book. That sounds really great. We actually have one more recommendation from one of our colleagues. So let's listen to that.

Jennifer: Hi, my name is Jennifer Spindler and I'm a senior research manager at Understood. The book I'm recommending is "Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories From the 21st Century," and it's written by Alice Wong. It's actually a compendium of short stories written by other disabled writers that she put together as a part of a larger project to bring more disabled voices into literature and into the media. Each of the stories features a person with a disability and difference, and one of the reasons that I really loved it was that you get to see a glimpse of someone's life and an experience that is similar to yours, but at the same time really different.

One of the things that really drew me to the book is Alice Wong is a part of a disability movement for ensuring that authors, as well as writers who are neurodivergent, who have chronic illness, are at the forefront of writing their own stories. And reading each of the stories, it helped me diversify in my own mind — the struggles and barriers that people who are not accepted in this world by an ableist society have to go through.

I recommend this book for everyone, maybe specifically for adults, because of the reading level. But you know, anyone can really connect to the stories and feel the experience that these writers are speaking about and enjoy it as well as, you know, become more introspective about their own lives.

Gretchen: Jennifer's book recommendation sounds like it's obviously great for parents, adults to read, but I bet teens in your families might enjoy reading a collection of stories like that, too. So you never know.

Rachel: And you know, don't worry if you also didn't manage to get all the titles that came up here today, like I did not. It's not a problem. We've got all of that information in the show notes from the episode.

Gretchen: Well, that is it for today. We really hope you're having a great summer, and hopefully you're reading some great books, too.

Rachel: Thanks for listening and thanks for always being in it with us.


  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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