Friday, June 2, 2023

Summer Reading - Going Rogue


This will be the 10th summer reading of my career, but only the second I've been completely responsible for planning and executing, and the first that I really got to do things the way I wanted.

Last summer I pretty much had a free hand with programming, but had to scrap what I had planned for the reading challenge (a bingo card format) and use an online platform instead. I did not like it at all; it was very labor intensive to set up, did not fit my philosophy at all as it had a very competitive feel and was heavily incentivized, and I knew it would not be a good fit for my very small, rural community where internet access is very limited and many people are not tech savvy. But, the previous administration had already locked us into a multi-year contract, so I was directed to give it a try. Though a few people did like it, the staff and most patrons did not, so thankfully my director did not renew it and let me try it my way this year.

As far as the programming, I am doing things pretty much the same as last year, starting with a big kick-off party on the first Saturday of June, then something each week for each age group on a repeating, regular schedule through the end of July (except the week of July 4th). Almost all the kids/family events are in the morning, and teen/tween programs in the afternoon. The one big change is that after I saw how the numbers dropped for July, and were particularly low during the week of July 4th, I decided this year we would not do a full week of regular programming that week, but just have one family storytime and one family activity. That way we have a slight break in the middle, but there is still something for families to do.

But, here is where I'm going rogue - this year we are not following the CSLP (or iRead) theme, or any theme at all, for that matter! Last year's ocean them was fun, easy to decorate for, and so many directions to go in for programming, it was easy to fit all of our programming to. But, as fun as it was, I have to admit, I was getting a little burned out on ocean stuff by the end. Also, haven't been thrilled with the art most years and I don't find the manual that helpful; I can come up with better activities myself. I, my staff, co-workers, and director were all really under-whelmed by this year's theme, "All Together Now". I mean, it's a nice sentiment, but we could not imagine a good way to decorate around it, and any program ideas that we thought or heard of that tied in with it just sounded....well, kinda boring. So, we decided to go rogue and do our own thing!

I've been thinking for a while that I wanted to come up with an alternative to the term "summer reading" since programming has become more of the focus and what patrons are excited about, something more inclusive of everything. I initially came up with "Summer Discovery Program", but ultimately went with a simple "Summer at the Library". For the theme, I wanted something simple, that had a fun energy, and would cover pretty much any program I wanted to do, and allow more variety.

After getting some input and suggestions from other librarians online, I decided on "Read! Explore! Discover!", really more of a slogan than a theme. In hindsight, I wish I had "Create" in there somehow, since this community is big on crafts, but maybe next time. It isn't something that is particularly easy to decorate around, either, but at least it covers any programming.....explore different activities, discover new ideas and information, explore your talents and interests, discover new friends, etc. For decorating, I'm going with some simple summery giant flowers, butterflies, and bugs. I also have smaller butterfly cutouts for the kids to write their names on that we will add. Our basic logo is pictured, but we have others versions that show kids reading or engaging in science, arts, crafts, or reading a book with different elements coming out of the pages.

Now, for the reading challenge! I'm so excited/relieved I *finally* get to try it my way! I just hope our patrons like it and we get better participation than last year. I want summer reading to be about encouraging reading, trying to build lifelong readers and learners. To this end, I emphasize reading should be fun, kids should have free choice and read what they want, encourage families to read together. This is not school, and summer reading should not be a chore, nor should it be competitive (and this is coming from probably one of the most competitive people on the planet!). It is not about who reads the most or the fastest or the longest books. It is not about reading levels, pushing classics or what someone considers "quality literature", and it is not, in my humble opinion, about big incentives and flashy prizes.

This is where I again go rogue. I do not agree with the circus summer reading has become, with the focus on numbers, rather than children. In the push for bigger and bigger numbers, prizes have become bigger, flashier, and more extravagant. However, in my experience, this doesn't really seem lead to more reading, or more people reading, it just leads to more cheating. Those who may be vaguely familiar with basic psychology may argue that positive reinforcement, i.e. rewards/prizes, increases desired behaviors, they are only partially right. If the reward is only very short term and stops, then yes, you might get a short-term benefit, but the desired behavior stops when the rewards stop. It takes a carefully crafted behavior management plan over an extended time to allow the desired behavior to become generalized, and developing intrinsic motivation is required for long-lasting results. There are studies that imply reading incentives not only don't work long-term, they may in fact be counter productive (I do hope to do a more deep dive into that subject with proper references later, but here is a quick link to an excerpt from a book on the subject of using reward systems to encourage desired behaviors with a few sources related to incentivized reading: 

Instead of big flashy prizes, I really want reading to be its own reward, and for reading and learning to be what kids are excited about. To that end, I designed what I hope to be an easy, fun, non-competitive, no pressure "challenge" loosely based on the Monopoly board game, called "Book-opoly". This is not my original idea; I got it from a neighboring library who got it from another library in our state, who got it from someone else (if anyone knows who originally came up with this, please let me know!). Each square has a reading prompt. It might be a genre, format, subject, or an activity, such as "read by the pool" or "read to someone else". There are also squares for program attendance as well. They can go in any direction, rolling dice to see what they do/read next if they're feeling adventurous, or they can just pick which squares they want to do, coloring them in as they're completed. I also made a separate one for ages 5 and under, changing a few prompts and activities to be more age-appropriate.

(This is along the same lines as the Bingo-card style that many libraries have used for years, but the Monopoly gives you more squares for more choices, and you can pick whatever goal number you want and they don't have to be in a row. Links to blank template are at the end.)

(The board on the left is for ages 6 through adult; the one on the right is specifically for 5 and under.)

Ages birth-18 get to pick out a free prize book just for signing up and picking up their log, then if they turn it in at the end of the summer with at least 10 squares completed, they get to choose another book, and they get entered into a prize drawing. Because people have become accustomed to prize drawings, I was afraid to eliminate them completely, but instead I select very modest prizes with a $25 value. Drawing are done by age group, and each age group has a choice of three drawings they can enter. Some of the choices are Amazon gift cards, a STEM bundle with a science set and a robotics set, a craft kit, an arts/activities kit, a set of chunky wooden puzzles with a wooden sorting toy, movie gift card, and craft store gift card. I felt $25 was enough they feel like they got something, but not so much it overshadows the real gift, which is a love of reading, or enough to motivate lots of people to cheat. Adults can also participate, but will only be entered into a prize drawing (hopefully they will get books next year as well).

I'm really excited about the new reading challenge, and I really hope our patrons are, too! I've already gotten a number of sign-ups, even though officially we don't start until tomorrow. I really hope to see more people truly participating and turning in a completed log at the end. To be completely honest, I'd be happy to really go rogue and ditch any form of logging/tracking reading and just give books away at different locations all summer, but I don't know that I could ever convince the director to give up those stats. But, the system I used to work for has done just that! They give away books at their kick-off, and that's it. The rest is just extra programming for the summer. And this system/community used to be SUPER hard-core about their reading logs, so if they can be convinced, maybe mine can, too, eventually.

I'm looking forward to some of the programs, but I'm also a little concerned about the amount of programming since I'm already worn out just from getting everything ready! I do more programming in the summer than I really think one person should, but I just can't bring myself not to have something for all ages each week, so I compromise by keeping the programs on the more simple side. And I'm taking the day before the 4th off, so I'll have a 4-day weekend right in the middle!

Have you made any significant changes in how your summer program works? How do you balance community needs/wants for programs with preserving your own sanity and not burning out? Good luck to us all, and see you on the other side!

*Here are links if you'd like a blank Book-opoly template to make your own. One is the original Publisher file, so you can make any adjustments you'd like, the other is a png image file to use in any graphics program. These are on my Google drive, and the files are set so that anyone with a link can access. It won't be able to give a preview of the Publisher file, but it will download fine. 


  1. Great work on this! I did my master's degree final seminar paper on the topic of reading motivation and rewards and basically as librarians we are really going against the grain on decades of research by incentivizing reading. I applaud your work and am anxious to hear if the public is receptive.

    1. Thank you! It astounds me how resistant librarians are to the idea that incentives don't lead to long-term success. It's another "inconvenient truth" I suppose. It's the same kind of thing as how teachers were so resistant to accepting that kids actually do need to be taught how to read using phonics, which is also what decades of research had shown. I would love to read your paper! If you're open to sharing it, you can e-mail me at

  2. This looks amazing and I'm glad you get to do what you want, and see how it turns out! Good luck and dont burn out!

  3. I am SO on board with this! I was also very disappointed with the CSLP theme this year, but we managed to come up with decorations to go along with it - we're doing a groovy 70s thing. None of my programs align with the theme, though. I asked a bunch of regulars what they'd like to do for summer and they overwhelmingly chose STEM, and specifically computer science. So that's what we're doing.

    I'm also giving away free books at every opportunity. Unfortunately, the rest of the admin staff does not agree with all books, all the time. They think kids want junk. I think letting them choose their own books to keep is a much better idea. And the grand prizes for kids are entirely learning based. I have no control over what they do for teens and adults (beyond creating the challenges).

    We do use Beanstack, though. I love it for the reporting capabilities - I send reports to our schools and can easily get the numbers the state needs with just a bit of data entry. And they now have a bingo option, which translated very well to paper logs. I also serve a largely offline community and paper logging will always be a thing for us.

    1. I would be willing to give Beanstack another go in the future if they have a true Bingo card format option now, and I was allowed to also offer paper logs. Last year I was strictly forbidden to offer a paper option at all, which is what killed participation. Staff would get people registered, but then half of those registered never logged anything, and half of those who did and earned tickets for the prize drawings never put them in a drawing.

      Kids do like getting junk, in the moment. But it doesn't really do anything positive for their reading motivation in the long run, and most parents don't want more little junky things cluttering up the house. I've started doing some digging into the research, and so far what I'm seeing shows that giving incentives doesn't work, if you goal is truly increasing reading motivation and creating life-long readers and learners. I've just done a cursory search so far, read a thesis and a couple of lit reviews, but so far not seeing anything that supports incentivized reading or learning.

  4. I definitely agree about the junk, both as a librarian and as a parent - I don't need more bits and pieces around the house! I like that at my system we give out books and "book-adjacent" prizes, so there's some options for kids who might not want a book or see one they like on our prize truck. This year we've got journals, nice pens and pencils, bookmarks, art supplies. It's nice that there's variety, while also being stuff that is designed to encourage creativity.

    1. I had not thought about "book adjacent" prizes before, but it does make sense. After all, we do consider writing, singing, playing, and talking to be early literacy practices, not just reading. I'll definitely look into that for next year! I did have some drawing, craft, and creative writing books this year. Thanks for your comments!

  5. Jen,

    Just came across this as I was finishing up Summer Reading for this Summer and working on evaluating what went well and what didn't work so well. We used the iRead theme this summer, but found that it was mostly just for decorations, our programming didn't really fit into the theme, so next year we may go rouge. This year we used Bingo Cards, but I love the BOOK-OPOLY boards and will definetely copy them next year. Our Bingo sheet focused more on reading adjancent activities "read under a shady tree" "ask a friend to recommend a book" and writing since writing is also an important literacy skill. One of our kids favorites this year was "Write a song and sing it really loud" Parents told me kids kept writing new songs all summer and one kid told me he wrote 28! When they got a Bingo they got a ticket for the grand prize drawings. AND then, for kids and Adults, we designated one wall of the library the "Reading Wall" and for every book anyone read they got to put a bubble up ( a circle of purple paper) on the wall. When we filled the whole wall we had a Library Pool Party! The whole pool just for kids who did their reading this summer, with all their friends who did their reading. IT was a hugh hit! We'll dd that again next year.