(CNN) — In a world filled with never-ending conflict and bad news, it's no surprise that many people want to stick their heads in the sand this summer.
But I can't stop thinking about the injustices that have been dominating the news cycle.
That's why I'm reading Bryan Stevenson's argument connecting the US history of slavery through segregation to mass incarceration, "Just Mercy." He lays out his case about the reasons to confront this brutal history. Denying it, he argues, hurts everyone, no matter your color or race or nationality. I'm also brought back to Ron Chernow's "Alexander Hamilton," the biography of the Founding Father that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda -- who was reading it on a beach vacation -- to write his award-winning musical.
"A civic lesson from a slaver," says Miranda's Hamilton, calling out Thomas Jefferson in the musical. "Hey neighbor, your debts are paid cuz you don't pay for labor."
"The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family" by Annette Gordon-Reed is also on my stack of summer books, as I attempt to work through the contradictions of the man who wrote "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" while enslaving people.
Is that too heavy for summer?
Rather than ignore the unrelenting and brutal news of the day, here's another idea for your summer reading list.
Focus on books that explore other people and cultures, teach kindness and bring hope. Address the issues that trouble your mind and heart, whether they're ripped from the headlines or part of your everyday world.
With those themes in mind, here are recommendations -- new works and classics alike -- to give hope, build bridges, cross borders and inspire.
Margarita Engle loves poetry and verse that bridge the gaps between cultures. So it's no surprise that Engle's theme as the current Young People's Poet Laureate is "Bridges, Not Walls; Poetry for Peacemaking."
The 2002 bilingual edition from White Pine Press contains her all-time favorite poem, "the title of which is also my all-time favorite line of poetry: 'En mi verso soy libre' (In my verse I am free)," says Engle, whose young adult novel, "Jazz Owls: A Novel of the Zoot Suit Riots," was published in May.
A young adult novel with an Afro-Latina heroine, "The Poet X," by Elizabeth Acevedo, "is so beautifully written, and so inspiring for any teenager, yet it's sophisticated enough to cross over to adult readers," says Engle. It's also an exquisite introduction to the Poetry Out Loud movement, she says.
No single "immigrant experience"
"Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid tops Priya Parker's list of summer reading.
"Hamid uses our love of love stories to sustain a much more complicated investigation of the refugee's relationship to his/her new home," says Parker, author of "The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters."
"'Exit West' reminds the reader, again and again, that there really is no single 'refugee experience' or 'Muslim experience' or 'immigrant experience,'" she says.
Parker calls "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie a "masterwork."
" 'Americanah' is a bold and careful exploration of race, immigrant identity, African identity, interracial dating, place and belonging," she says.
"And it is above all else a reminder that a novel -- just like the characters within it -- is never 'only about one thing.' "
Hope in our history
Rare book dealer Heather O'Donnell, owner of Honey & Wax Booksellers in Brooklyn, finds hope in these classic American works. Betty Smith's "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" features what O'Donnell calls "one of the most sympathetic heroines in American fiction: young Francie Nolan, who dreams of becoming a writer."
"What made the novel such a success with American soldiers abroad was Smith's expansive portrait of the Brooklyn tenements, full of characters drawn with humor and compassion, from the neighborhood ward heelers and schoolteachers to the peddlers and saloon keepers," says O'Donnell.
So writes Smith: "How wonderful was Brooklyn, she thought, when just being born there automatically made you an American!"
The only novel by African-American poet Sherley Anne Williams, "Dessa Rose" was inspired by "real-life events in antebellum Kentucky and North Carolina, and remains one of the most ambitious treatments of interracial friendship in American fiction," says O'Donnell.
"A fugitive slave condemned for killing her master teams up with a cash-strapped plantation mistress abandoned by her husband, two women divided by every social and racial code but united in their daring," she says.
Tenderness, beauty and love
When searching for kindness, DiCamillo recommends "The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty," a book she reads every year. Welty "looked at the world and its people so tenderly and with such clear eyes," DiCamillo says. Also on her list: Jesmyn Ward's "Sing, Unburied, Sing," which won the National Book Award, "which is ferocious and beautiful and just breaks your heart."
Of course, she has a recommendation for children, although adults would love the book, too.
"There's a famous quote from E.B. White about all he wanted to say -- all he was ever trying to say in what he wrote -- is that he loved the world," says DiCamillo. "And that love for the world is in every word of 'Charlotte's Web.' The book is suffused with love. That is why I keep coming back to it again and again."
More for children
"Not only does it introduce children to the daily lives of migrant farm laborers, it also shows how poetry is an essential part of traditional Latino culture," she says.
O'Donnell's pick is Louise Fitzhugh's "Harriet the Spy," a classic novel about another young girl determined to be a writer. But her burn book about other kids at school teaches her never to trust anyone.
"It uses a sixth-grader's social fall and redemption to ask grown-up questions," says O'Donnell. "Can a person be both critical and kind? Is it possible to balance the conflicting demands of a sharp curiosity and the social contract?"
"Harriet's surveillance of her neighbors offers a vivid anthropological survey of New York City in the 1960s, but her investigation of herself is what makes her a great spy," she says.
She asks an important question, says O'Donnell: "Is it terrible to get what you want?"
Blending cultures on a plate
Prefer to do your learning on a plate?
I love the stories and recipes in "Turnip Greens & Tortillas," Atlanta chef Eddie Hernandez's cookbook that combines the food traditions of his native Monterrey, Mexico, with his adopted Southern home. (It's what he and business partner Mike Klank do at their Taqueria del Sol restaurants.)
"In Mexico, we eat what we like and don't worry about what's authentic to this cuisine or that," he writes in his cookbook, co-authored with Susan Puckett. "We improvise. We adapt to whatever is around us."
"He connects his own life experiences with those of the people he meets in his journeys to under the radar places across America, and finds common ground at the dinner table," says Puckett.
"I am also greatly enjoying flipping through the pages of Todd Richards' 'Soul,' which is more of a personal journey into his roots as a chef. He honors his African-American heritage to inspire his creativity rather than limit it, thus redefining soul food in a way we can all relate to. " Pickett often turns to the late Edna Lewis' "The Taste of Country Cooking," which she calls "a classic that never ceases to inspire me and remind me of the simple timeless pleasures of good cooking made with fresh seasonal local ingredients and TLC, and its ability to strengthen the ties within families and communities."
Still want that summer beach read?
Still want a less intense summer beach read? I can't blame you! I've read three so far, and they were delicious books I could not put down because I didn't know: Would everyone end up happy? Would their issues be resolved? In the end, they all ended up focusing on issues that mattered.
Camille Pagan's "Woman Last Seen In Her Thirties" about a wife and mother who deals with the aftermath of her husband's departure, made me think about what women give up when they dedicate themselves to their spouses and children and forget about themselves. Forgiveness, communication and genetics all play a part in "The Ones We Choose" by Julie Clark. A female geneticist who chose to have a child by herself struggles with her son's struggle in school without a father, even as her dying father re-enters her life. Even Shelley Noble's "Lighthouse Beach," with its blue, beach cover promising summer relaxation in a small Maine town, is secretly more than a light read.
A broken-off wedding leads four friends to head to the town to sort out their various problems -- infidelity, death of loved ones, lost dreams. Along with other residents of this struggling town, they sort through their issues and try -- as they heal together -- to build a better community than the ones they've left.