Smart Mamas Read 2021 Summer Reading List

porch swing

Summer reading is different from the rest of the year. 

The kids are out of school.  More sun means a chance for poolside or beach reads. A slower pace means time in the hammock or porch swing.

Maybe a vacation or road trip is planned with more time than usual for reading.  

I created my 2021 Summer Book List with these things in mind. 

Books to read aloud to kids, engaging novels that keep you up past bedtime, non-fiction that challenges paradigms, accessible classics and fascinating stories of true events. 

The short list is my top picks from all categories of this year’s list.

1. The Lazy Genius Way (Non-fiction)

2. This Tender Land (Novel)

3. To Kill a Mockingbird (Classic)

4. Adventures with Waffles (Kids) 

5. Boys in the Boat (Kids)

6. Call the Midwife (Based on True Events)

window seat

Have you ever had a bad reading experience?

Me, too. 

I can think of three distinct times when unexpected content ruined a book that I was enjoying. There have been countless times when I’ve been underwhelmed and abandoned a book part way in. 

When I’m looking for my own book whisperers, I’m looking for reviews that will alert me to content that will be deal breakers for me without spoilers. 

In other words, I don’t want to know the plot twists ahead of time, but neither do I want to slide into a moral pit that ruins the reading experience. 

So, in my reading guides and book reviews, I’m trying to keep those things in mind. 

There’s some language and some scenes that don’t ruin the experience for me. But, I certainly realize that those preferences are as individual as snowflakes. 

So, without giving any plot spoilers, I’m trying to share content alerts that will clue you in to whether or not a book is going to be a winner for you. 

Let’s be real. 

There’s always going to be some risk involved. Maybe that’s what makes finding an unexpected treasure so great. Some are also going to bomb. 

But, that’s different then a hidden agenda that ruins the reading experience. 

books and flowers

(Note: This post contains affiliate links. At no extra cost to you a percentage of your purchase will go to support this site.) 

Summer Reading for the Young at Heart

Summer is a great time for reading with kids–road trips, vacation, a more laid back schedule and longer daylight hours. 

As C.S. Lewis said, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

One of the key factors for successful family reading time is pleasing all ages, especially the adult reading. Layered humor works. But so does wise, whimsical, compelling stories that captures the imagination of all ages. 

Don’t be afraid to drop any book that isn’t working and move on. The goal is delight for everyone, even if you have to work harder to find what fits in the overlap of the Venn diagram. 

Audiobooks in the car is a great way to get some reading time in. 

After a day in the water or on the beach, clean, damp kids in jammies cuddled up for a story counts among life’s greatest blessings.

Kids books also offer a respite for the mind when a quick, easy read is what the doctor ordered. Kids books can sweep you away with very little effort needed for complex plot or characters. Feel free to read them with or without kids. 

This list is all chapter books. For exceptional lists of picture books I love Read Aloud Revival.  

Adventures with Waffles by Maria Parr

Lena and Trille are next door neighbors and best friends, coconspirators in mishaps. While getting in and out of scrapes, they learn a lot about friendship, family and life. 

Although recently published, this book has the timeless feel of a classic.

 I enjoyed it even without kids in my life right now to read it to.

Cheaper by the Dozen by Frank B Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey

What if you grew up in family of twelve children?

The authors of Cheaper by the Dozen draw from the memories of their childhood days in a big family. 

Laugh out loud funny, winsome characters, appealing for all ages beginning around age 8. 

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgeson Burnett

One of my lifetime favorites, A Little Princess tells the story of Sara Crewe leaving India and her beloved father to go to boarding school in England. A girl of vivd imagination and story telling gifts, she leans on those gifts to survive heartbreak and tragedy.

Begin reading this book immediately following this link to the complete ebook at Project Gutenberg  A Little Princess by Frances Hodgeson Burnett

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

The beginning of Dorothy’s adventures in the magical land of Oz with the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. Like all enduring classics, it highlights recognizable principles of human nature. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is actually the first book in a long series about Oz. I read it to my kids and my son enjoyed it so much he took off reading more books in the series. 

Begin reading the free ebook book immediately by following this link to the Project Guternberg edition.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers

P.L. Travers captures human nature so vividly and humorously that I enjoyed Mary Poppins more as an adult than I did as a child. 

The Banks family needs a nanny. They think it’s to care for the children.

Mary Poppins knows the deeper reason. 

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink

Caddie Woodlawn is perhaps an under appreciated classic. My husband has fond memories of hearing this read aloud by his teacher in elementary school. He remembered the story, but forgot the title of the book. Stumbling across it decades later like reuniting with an old friend. 

Caddie is the spunky spirited heroine growing up during the Little House on the Prairie era. 

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Set during the time of the United States War for Independence, Johnny Tremain tells the fictional story of a young man apprenticed to be a silver smith. 

His front row seat to the history making events of his day creates a compelling backdrop for his own personal challenges. 

The Boys in the Boat, Young Readers edition, by Daniel James Brown

The background story of the Olympic rowing team of 1936. 

A huge takeaway for me from this book was the critical element of trust in teamwork.  

In addition to the practical principles of building a winning team, the pathos of a couple of the boys on the team pulled the heart strings. 

I originally checked out the print version of Boys in the Boat from the library to read to my 16-year-old. When that had to go back, I checked out the e-version.  When that was returned, there were no more available copies of the book.  So, I checked out the young readers edition.  I liked it even better than the original.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

My mother read to us scads of books while I was growing up, but my favorite memory of reading James Herriot was when my Dad read this to me and my brother on a trip. We would have been about 7th and 9th grades and we laughed so hard we could hardly breathe. 

The tales of a country vet working in the English countryside set the scene for some fascinating and humorous stories. 

For more book recommendations for reading with (or without) kids read Best Family Read Alouds and Where to Start

Engaging Novels

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

“The unforgettable story of four orphans who travel the Mississippi River on a life-changing odyssey during the Great Depression.”—from Amazon

The story is told through Odie O’Banion’s adolescent eyes. 

It’s his quest for home, family and the meaning of life. Along for the ride are his brother Albert and his friends Mose and Emmy. 

The human experience is more complicated than most novelists are able to express. There’s the complexity of human nature and relationships, the complexity of our belief system and how our experience influences our beliefs. I feel like This Tender Land wrestled with that complexity and won. 

It doesn’t downplay the true depravity of man. It has lots of plot twists.

The novelist deals with the most delicate of subjects in an inoffensive way. 

There was one element of the book I didn’t care for, but it wasn’t enough to ruin it for me. 

It reminded me of Peace Like a River. I’ll want to read it again and again. 

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Nineteen year old Cussy Mary in the hills of Kentucky faces more than poverty and  a difficult job. She faces prejudice due to the color of her skin—her blue skin. 

I did not enjoy the first half of this book, but I liked the second half a lot. 

There was a lot of unknown history in the book that I found fascinating. 

I had not heard of the Blue People of Kentucky before reading this book. I don’t think I ever really related to the main character. 

In all the books written about race relations and the color of people’s skin, I’ve never heard the issue of blue skin addressed. I even had trouble believing it to be true. 

The Tehran Initiative by Joel Rosenberg 

I had never read a Rosenberg book before and it surprised me by drawing me in. 

I don’t read very many people who know that much about what’s going on in the middle east. I found it fascinating. I felt like he did a good job of keeping the plot unpredictable. 

I liked the characters, too and found myself rooting for them. And, always, the critical element of every page turner, what’s going to happen next? 

It’s part of 3 book series.

Things We Didn’t Say by Amy Lynn Green

“Headstrong Johanna Berglund, a linguistics student at the University of Minnesota, has very definite plans for her future . . . plans that do not include returning to her hometown and the secrets and heartaches she left behind there. But the US Army wants her to work as a translator at a nearby camp for German POWs.– from Amazon”

I liked the fact that I didn’t know much about POW camps on U. S. soil.

It’s interesting to stop and ponder what were things really like for the prisoners who were there as well as the people responsible for them and the local people who knew about them and interacted with them.

For a behind the scenes look from the author, read Amy Lynn Green’s guest post on how to create a relatable historical fiction character.

Dear Mr. Knightly by Katherine Reay

Five stars for Dear Mr. Knightly!  I struggle to find wholesome, well-written fiction.  This one’s a winner.  I’m a huge fan of Webster’s Daddy Long Legs, and this modern re-telling knocked it out of the park. I like it better than the original.  The Austen references were fun, but the story itself was poignant.

Even though it’s technically Inspirational fiction, the Christian message was subtle, not overwhelming.  Kudos to Reay for a wholesome, engaging work.

Jewel by Bret Lott

Jewel is one of my favorite novels of all time. Based on the story of the author’s grandmother, it’s one of the best literary depictions I’ve found of a mother’s fierce love for her child in the midst of prejudice and ignorance. 

It is 1943 in the backwoods of Mississippi. In the land of honeysuckle and wild grapevine, Jewel Hilburn and her husband Leston – whose love for his wife is the surest comfort she’s ever known – are truly blessed. They have five fine children who embrace the world as though it were a sumptuous table set for a feast; and when Brenda Kay is born, Jewel gives thanks for yet another healthy baby, last-born and most welcome.”

“Bret Lott has created one of the finest and most indomitable heroines of contemporary American fiction.”–Goodreads

I think it resonates with every mother who has struggled to help a child navigate a lonely and little understood journey. Mothers make sacrifices for their kids as a rite of passage. 

Bret Lott describes this journey and it’s ripple effects so beautifully for me it was soul-touching. 

Beautifully crafted. A pleasure to read.

When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin

Reese first meets little Annie Stephens at her lemonade stand. It doesn’t take long to see that she’s fighting serious health issues while fiercely holding to a dream of a long and healthy life. She’s lost her parents and lives with her aunt. 

Reese is hiding from his past life in the medical profession. 

The plot could be considered predictable, but the journey to get there is so enjoyable. Charles Martin has the magic touch to draw you in and practically force you to fall in love with his characters. 

Rereadable Classics

What benefits do Classics have?

Since they’re not the hot books just off the press, there’s no waiting list at the library. Since they’ve stood the test of time, they have the credibility that brand new books don’t. They also carry with them the benefit of not bending to the winds of trendiness.

It doesn’t matter if it’s first read or a favorite reread. They are just as good the second or tenth time. 

Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

It’s almost hard to imagine why the story of a shipwrecked family on a deserted island is so fascinating, but it is. The mom and dad and four boys survive, they build, they entertain themselves. Simple and satisfying. 

Follow this link to begin reading the free ebook version on the Project Gutenberg site Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

Another of my top picks from Gene Straton Porter is the story of Freckles, a handicapped boy who found his purpose and meaning living close to the earth.

Butterflies, birds, trees and plants. These are all Gene Straton Porter’s domain and she is a master at making them as much a part of the story as the humans and animals themselves. Clearly a student of human nature as well as a naturalist, she is able to capture the emotions and relationships in clear detail that is a joy to read.

Read the free ebook version at Project Gutenberg,  Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter

Sherlock Holmes A Study in Scarlet

Sherlock Holmes is one of fiction’s most iconic characters. Exceptionally brilliant and socially clueless, he leans on his sidekick and friend Dr. Watson to fill in the gaps. Holmes solves the most puzzling mysteries using his highly developed powers of observation and deduction. 

Start reading the free ebook version at Project Gutenberg by clicking this link  A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Connon Doyle

Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss

The fascinating thing about this novel is how much culture has changed since the 1800s.  Lancing baby’s gums when they’re teething? Wow. I find it interesting how gender roles have changed. How much should they change? 

The story traces the main character throughout her life. Her struggles to live a godly life. She captured some of the universal struggles of women in all times and cultures. Her relationship to her children, the use of her time and energy, loss and grief, the desire that things be different, the struggle to be content. 

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery

Valancy Stirling, age 29,  lives with her mother and aunt. She’s stifled by the expectations of her relatives and her coping method is to build a dream castle in her imagination.

One day she receives unexpected news that radically changes her outlook. With new freedom, she throws off convention to begin living her own life. 

Throughly relatable to anyone who’s ever daydreamed and wished they could walk away from stifling convention.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I made it 49 years without reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer.

Scout and her brother have a front row seat to watch their attorney father stand for his principles against prejudice in the South.

So glad I finally made time for this classic.

I’m not sure if I’ll tackle the sequel or not, since reviews were mixed and many negative.

A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton-Porter

I heard about a genre of fiction called eco-fiction on the What Should I Read Next? podcast. I think A Girl of the Limberlost would fit into that category with it’s beautiful descriptions of nature.

Gene Stratton Porter weaves a fascinating story around so many details of flora and fauna. She was a naturalist before she became a novelist, before she became a film maker.

I’ve seen the house she built in Northern Indiana, a work of art that stands in all it’s glory more than a century later.

If you enjoy a “close to the earth” novel, this one’s for you.

Click here for the audio version of A Girl of the Limberlost.

For more classics with links to begin reading immediately, go to 19 Best Project Gutenberg Books.

Fascinating Stories Based on True Events

I love a brilliantly  written novel inspired by true events. It’s been so fun to stumble across quite a few in this category over the last couple of years.  Some of these books have made it onto other lists and some are new to me, but all are five star reads for me.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

callmidwife small

Earthy. Vivid.

I loved the PBS series and the book was helpful to know what was fact and what was on screen embellishment.  Jennifer Worth paints the picture of life in an impoverished London community in the fifties so vividly you can almost smell it.

The full range of human emotion and drama from birth to death.  Some descriptions are earthy, but, then, so is the subject matter.

 I Was Anatasia by Ariel Lawhon

The world is enthralled by the story of Anastasia Romanov.  So much of it shrouded in mystery. What is fact, what is fiction, what is myth and what is legend?  We are drawn to the mystery, to the possibilities, to the tragedy and to the pathos of this story.

Ariel Lawhorn created a masterpiece, weaving all the strands of the story into one, cohesive, intriguing narrative.

Captivating till the end.

Code Girls by Liza Mundy

Thousands of women worked on breaking codes during WWII. The government began by recruiting and training at women’s colleges, sending secret letters to students in the fall of their senior year.

Then they started recruiting teachers.

The work took special skills, and they didn’t always know what they were.

Intercepting and understanding enemy communication proved to be the critical strategy for the allies to win the war.

Thousands of American women working secretly to break enemy codes turned the tide.

This is the untold story of those women.

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

Fascinating novelized account of the country’s first female sheriff.

Three sisters living alone in the country manage to get on the wrong side of some shady characters.  Tell how they defend themselves, throw in some family secrets and end up with the a female sheriff.  Well played.

Stewart writes in an engaging style that kept me flipping pages.

I was glad to see the author follows the sisters’ story in another book.

Brain Stretching Books from Thought Leaders

Summer is a great time to learn from thought leaders.  Sometimes it takes some time away from the normal pressures of life and routine to challenge your brain with something new. Or to remind yourself of some truth that has gotten lost. 

The Lazy Genius Way by Kendra Adachi

In easy to digest, bite sized pieces, Kendra Adachi lays out the rationale and outline for living life as a Lazy Genius. “Embrace What Matters, Ditch What Doesn’t and Get Stuff Done ”

Kendra gives you a framework for making your life work for you. Heavy on insight and low on guilt. Feeling like a failure doesn’t help. Getting clear on what’s important is a critical first step. She calls it naming what matters. 

In the forward, Emily P. Freeman says “being a Lazy Genius is not about doing things the right way but about finally finding your own way.” 

Atomic Habits by James Clear

In the avalanche of self-help books, Atomic Habits stands out from the pack. James Clear communicates clearly about habits, routines and systems making profound observations about the science of transformation. 

There’s several reasons why Atomic Habits is such a great book. First of all, is the depth of understanding of how habits work in our lives and how powerful they are for life change. 

Another reason is the power of habits to increase focus and productivity in our lives. 

The third reason is that it’s a ground breaking book from a thought leader that challenges the status quo. 

On his website, James Clear lists his top 100 recommended books, many in the areas of personal development and life change.

Eat that Frog! by Brian Tracy

Eat That Frog! is a quick read.  It is a compilation of wisdom from many gurus of time management, self-management and motivation.  The subtitle is “21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.”

If I have one beef with the book, it’s that he doesn’t attribute his ideas to the original authors.  But, the content is gold.

Simple and profound.  So why isn’t everyone doing it?  Because it’s hard.  At least, it’s hard to start.He does tackle the psychological side of motivating yourself to do difficult things.

It is a book full of action points, laced with a few stories to illustrate the effectiveness of the principles he advocates.

The whole “eat the frog” analogy comes from Mark Twain who said that “if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.”

Talking ourselves into doing difficult things instead of avoiding them gets us ahead.

Total Money Makeover by Dave Ramsey

Out of all the financial gurus out there, why listen to Dave Ramsey?  What sets Dave apart is his understanding of human nature and the emotional roadblocks that keep people from make good financial decisions.

Part of his signature advice is the “debt snowball”.  Arranging your debts from smallest to largest doesn’t necessarily make sense, except, you need the encouragement of seeing progress, of seeing a debt paid off . . . “sometimes motivation is more important than math”. This encouragement keeps you on track to meet your financial goals.

Another thing that sabotages a good plan is an emergency expense.  Planning for emergencies is a bedrock principle for success financially, according to Dave.

He suggests two ways to do this.  First is a small emergency fund.  Later, a larger fund is created in preparation for a financial tidal wave.

It takes an intensity and focus to succeed financially. Dave calls it “gazelle intensity”.

The book oozes with stories of people who have overcome significant obstacles to achieve financial freedom. These serve as an inspiration and encouragement to those in the trenches.

Dave advocates each step as the way to financial peace.  He also testifies that the Prince of Peace is the only way to true peace.

One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp

Every person in the world knows pain and heartache.  And every person can number their blessings.

Ann Voskamp challenges us to be intentional about looking for and expressing gratitude.  Even though I read it years ago, it colors my thinking to this day.

I understand that her poetic prose doesn’t appeal to everyone.  Grammar Geeks beware.  But the message is universal and important.

Find more of my top picks by thought leaders by following the link 22 Exceptional Books Focused on Life Change

The 2020 Summer Book List has many similar categories, including Humanity’s Greatest Rescue–inspiring missionary and redemptive stories.

opened book in hands of person against floral background on sunny day
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

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