Growing up, the summer reading program was the highlight of my summer. Every year, I’d sign up as soon as I could, report back to the librarians every week, and basically survive on the coupons and treats I got from reading. One year, I was so close (and so desperate) to win the next prize that I included “Spy Junior,” a story I’d written, in my reading log. Reading over my reading log, the librarian on duty noted that she’d never heard of “Spy Junior” and asked me for more details about it. I nervously gave her a short summary of my spy action thriller and she nodded politely (probably trying to overlook the obvious plot holes) and let me count it on my log. With adventures like that, the summer reading program was an integral part of my life as a child and I know it was for many other people as well.
It about time for your summer reading program to start. This yearly practice is a favorite for child readers (and for adults, where libraries offer adult programs) and most libraries offer incentives for children to read. Currently, 95% of public libraries in the United States have summer reading programs in place.
These programs haven’t always been this widespread. In fact, in the late 19th-century, the thought of summer reading programs for children were still novel. That's where the development of summer reading programs began. Linda Eastman was a librarian who started creating children’s programs at her library in Cleveland in 1895 - bringing more children’s books, children’s book recommendations, and starting a Library League to encourage young readers to take good care of their books. The league took off and after a few years, Eastman had over 12,000 participants in the league. She then started instituting reading clubs within the library to encourage people to keep taking good care of their books and also to encourage reading in Cleveland. Because of her work in Cleveland and her work as president of the American Librarian Association, Eastman was selected as one of the 100 most important librarians of the 20th century.
At this point in time, summer was barely getting to be considered a vacation time. Popular stores (such as Macy’s) began to advertise light reading for the summer and traveling magazines suggested that vacationers take books with them. As time went on, light reading became a must for any vacation and several novels were written for the purpose of being taken on vacation. As time went on, there was a backlash against light summer reading. Newspapers began publishing lists of the best summer books, including both light and heavy reading. Summer reading was beginning to be a practice for adults, but could it also be one for children?
The Pittsburgh Public Library thought it could be. In the early 20th century, they began bringing children’s books (which were a fairly new development) to playgrounds during summer months for children to look through. Librarians would even do storytime at the playgrounds. Demand for children’s library cards in Pittsburgh exploded.
Next, libraries began to start storytime to encourage reading among children. They didn't stop there, however. They also distributed book lists for children and offered programs to children to promote reading. Some libraries began to reach out to children over the summer, sending postcards to encourage kids with library cards to come to the library more often. Playground outreach programs and library leagues began to spread and soon, many libraries were instituting these programs.
By the 1920’s, librarians were creating lists of books for children to read over the summer and distributing certificates for children who completed the challenge. Some librarians gave children a quiz that could be only be answered by reading specific books. Other librarians asked children to give oral reports on their summer reading. Gradually, summer reading programs continued to spread and develop into what we see today.
Without such small beginnings and librarians reaching out - on playgrounds, in libraries, to schools, to communities - we would not have a program that motivates children to read and makes it an exciting challenge for them instead of a chore. I’m excited to continue participating in summer reading programs - not only to encourage me to read more, but to support my local library.
What are your summer reading stories? What are the best summer reading programs you’ve participated in? What makes a good summer reading program?