I’m in the middle of my visits with the elementary school classes to promote the library’s summer reading program, and I’ve been thinking a lot (as usual for this time of year) about summer reading – what it is and why we do it.
I love encouraging kids to read over the summer, since most of my happiest childhood memories involve books and reading. There’s nothing like losing yourself in a story when you’re a child; I haven’t been able to duplicate that experience as an adult reader. So I love that the library promotes reading over the summer, that we bring in fantastic new books for kids to discover and that we also have lots of programs over the summer, many of them literacy-based, to bring children into the library.
But the prizes thing has always bothered me – always. Yes, I understand that offering prizes for reading can often get children who aren’t readers to discover the joy of reading through the back door method of offering them a toy in exchange for time spent reading. This is especially true for the youngest readers, parents tell me. But parents also often tell me that once the prizes go home, they go into a pile and are never looked at or played with again.
Back in my first summer at the library (this is my eleventh summer), I changed the fundamental structure of the summer reading program prize awarding system. The system I inherited involved earning a wooden nickel for every fifteen minutes of reading (the nickels could then be “spent” on prizes which had money values attached to them). Cheating was rampant, since kids wanted the “expensive” prizes, which required more nickels. My first move was to eliminate the wooden nickels; my second move was to limit the total number of prizes that a child could earn over the summer. I added a charity donation voting component to summer reading, so that for each hour a child reads, they earn one charity donation voting ticket. The more a child reads, the more impact they have on which charity receives the donation at the end of the summer. I also added a bookplate in a library book for all children who read at least thirty hours over the summer (I can’t claim credit for either the charity donation or the bookplate ideas – both came from other brilliant children’s librarians). When visiting with classes, I stress that I consider the bookplate to be the ultimate summer reading prize, since whenever someone checks out the library book with your bookplate in it, they get to see how much reading you did over that summer – it’s a real point of pride, and many kids set and achieve high reading goals for their bookplates (some as high as 200 hours over a summer).
But the prizes remain, and over the years they have gotten a bit out of control. My initial order of prizes was manageable, and looked attractive and appealing on display. Over the course of many years, though, the prize display has gotten obscenely large as I’ve had to order new prizes to replenish the supply. We have kept the prizes in their original display boxes, so that each prize is displayed separately. Some display boxes only have a few prizes left in them, some are newly ordered and fuller. This means that we have what looks like a candy store of prizes – boxes and boxes of prizes lined up on top of the shelves. The prizes have taken over the room, simply because I’ve kept them individually displayed.
So this year is going to be different. I found plastic boxes that match the colors I long-ago assigned to the prizes (yellow, blue, and red), and each of those plastic boxes is going to contain an assortment of types of prizes. Kids will get to dig through the colored plastic boxes and select a prize from the assortment. And I didn’t order any new prizes this year, partly because I had to spend money on the plastic boxes, and partly because we truly have plenty of prizes on hand – it’s just that we only have a handful of some types of prizes.
In my next post, I’ll address the troubling issue that has come up as I’ve met with the elementary school classes: the issue of cheating. And then I hope to have one more post on the topic of reading logs and how they can be both a blessing and a curse (inspired by this recent article in The Atlantic).