Summer Reading Programs

Summer Reading

It’s almost July and many kids around the nation are halfway through their summer reading lists. These might be assignments from school or they might be summer reading programs with the local libraries. The school assignments will have to wait for some other post, if I haven’t already dealt with that issue. I want to talk about library summer reading programs.

When I was a kid I don’t think these things existed. I know we had the R.I.F. trailer that came around to our countryside. And I did learn to check out books from school. It wasn’t until I was a little older and living in a small town with sidewalks and a local library that I really started reading extensively. The library was a few blocks from home, along an old, tree lined, residential road. It was a fine walk to get to the library, and it was a fine old library to get to. I wandered the aisles, picking things at random, or went straight for my favorite sections like science fiction or examining the fresh unknowns of the new book- display. I had no trouble reading during the summer, because it was far easier in the summer to read what I wanted without feeling guilt over neglecting the assigned stuff of the school year. Also, I had a lot of allergies. So, that was where I was coming from.

Now I know that kids lose a certain amount of reading or math skills over summer vacation. I can see the practical application of library programs. It also gives kids a place to go during their free time, if they have free time anymore. Libraries might also experience a loss of patronage during the summer because they are not needed so badly for book reports and other school work. Whatever the cause, reading programs have their place. Just not so much in our lives as a family.

When my kids were pretty little, we earnestly signed up for the local reading programs for summer time. We got our instructions, a printed sheet for recording titles, and bookmarks, pencils, and stickers. Then we went home and proceeded to make reading an assignment. I heard some demented motherly voice issue forth from my mouth that said insane things like this: “Have you done your reading today?” or “How many chapters have you read this week?” or “We have to go back to the library to check out more books, your goal is 25 books, etc…” and my most especial favorite: “We’re doing the reading program for the library, for school, and for Barnes & Noble, because the same books count for each list and we’ll be saving some effort while working hard to strip the fun out of reading.”

You must understand, I didn’t say it that clearly, and yet it became clear that this was what I meant. This was what I was doing to my kids. This is what we were doing to ourselves.

Then when the end of the reading program came, here was our pay-off:

Library program: you won tickets that represented chances to win some object or other, from puzzles and books to music devices. So, after reading with an idea of some goal at the end, that goal was nothing more than to win a chance at winning something else. Worse still than this mild but apparent gambling, or the years when neither child ever won anything, was the year one child won something yet the other did not. Oy! We’ll just refer to that incident as the learning lesson of that summer.

School program: you won the chance to attend a special assembly that seemed to promote the products of some company or other that might be associated with childhood reading and/or education. Either that or they got an ice cream cone, which my older child couldn’t digest. I can’t remember exactly.

The B&N program: You got a chance to choose a book. This was a pretty cool idea, until we got to the store and discovered the books available for this opportunity were thin, ordinary, school approved, and a bit lame. They were on one little spinning tree that the girls spun around and around for a very long time, hoping the classics or the adventures or the imagination might yet spin magically into sight. Meanwhile, I had to resist the budgetary nightmare of wandering a retail book store in a penniless condition. Perhaps we unwittingly disappointed the intentions of the store managers in their even offering a reading program to begin with. Why offer a program if you’re going to glare at us when we redeem our book list and then leave? Hey, I’m a reader; I need things spelled out, ha ha.

So for us, the downside of summer reading programs was that our efforts made reading into a chore. It turned summer vacation into a list of assignments, teaching our family to jump through more hoops, and finally, it threatened to turn my kids off reading. We did ultimately learn to do this instead, the upside of reading programs: ignore reading programs and do it our way. By the time my oldest was in the higher levels of elementary school we had ditched the summer programs. Let the programs work for those they work for; they did not work for us- we worked for them. With less than ordinary pay offs. I never did get the librarians to understand this; they thought my children were in some terrible danger.

As a side note, I recently noticed that I had the same reaction to the Goodreads reading challenge. I did it a couple years in a row, setting a goal for the number of books I would read that year, and then doing it. But I stopped because it just felt like I was tracking something that really didn’t need to be tracked. Just because we have computers to cook up ten times the statistics we lived with back when people had to use slide rulers, does this really mean we have to? I do confess that I couldn’t help but notice a detail, thanks to Goodreads and their tracking: when I stopped measuring my book count for myself, my reading actually increased considerably. Not that I’m being statistical. Perhaps just droll.

Without these looming little reading programs, we read when and what we wanted, with no counting of pages or titles, and no tracking deadlines. We read out loud because we enjoyed the language of the story, not to push one more chapter into the day. We read to be transported, not to be book mules. We read during the summer because it is a delightful thing to do, not because we wanted to win a chance to win some material thing which we might very well not win at all. Sure, those incentives can help people discover reading. Many of us in this life have done something as an assignment only to discover that we loved it. But how many times have such programs taught a person to dislike the thing that was the supposed end goal? IS there ultimately any end goal when it comes to reading? How many people even react the way we have to such public-minded efforts? I know we did when it came to reading programs.

I’d love to hear from others and their experiences. Do summer programs work for your kids? I don’t just mean the stuff they won; I mean the achievement of a love of reading? Were there other after effects that pleased or dismayed you? Did you do these summer programs when you were a kid? How did they work for you?

God bless libraries. Without the one in our small town I wonder how I would have made it through those years. There were alleyways of bookshelves to prowl. There were music records (including my first audio books, played on an LP!). In this enclosed microvillage under one roof I could look at and even borrow framed artworks. There was a corner for a bookstore, where I flipped through books available for keeps for the donation of a nickel that I could clutch all the harder because they were mine, all mine, both covers and all that magic in between. I would just as easily spend a quarter on a pile of old books as I did on a bag of candy. And back then, a quarter got you a lot.

It’s the day before July today. One kid is off to camp and the other is working on an art project. I just finished a book for my own pleasure. The rain hits hard outside, the air conditioning hums, and pretty much no matter which way I turn my head I can see books. I made ‘camp kid’ pick up all the books she’s been dipping into lately. A pile of books by the chair is just fine unless you won’t even be sitting in that chair for a week. Besides, she always comes home from camp a slightly different person; who knows what she’ll be interested in reading next week? I can say this much: it won’t be an assignment.