As a child, I was completely unaware of my local library’s summer reading program. I was too busy trying to read all of the books in the children’s section to be aware of anything but the next book. I’m not exaggerating. My first exposure to the library’s summer reading program happened when I was 14 or 15. My mother, who was trained as a children’s librarian, started working at our local library as a shelver, then as a reference librarian, and finally as a children’s librarian when that position opened up. The schedule of the previous children’s librarian’s summer reading program with all its prizes was already in place. For some reason (probably having to do with staffing issues), my mom could not oversee the film showing of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and had a library staff person host the program. [Correction: She was not yet the children's librarian.]
After the film was over, it became quite clear that almost everyone was there for the prizes. They swarmed up and loudly clamored for the beach balls. One boy said he’d forgotten his summer reading program sheet, but he had read all the books. I believed him, and gave him a beach ball. Soon after, the patrons started yelling at me. We had run out of beach balls, and only had Frisbees left. The parents said they had come for the beach balls, and I was ruining their child’s summer reading program experience. (No, I don’t think they actually said that, but they were quite whipped out of shape.) After scolding me, one of the moms told her daughter, “You don’t get a beach ball after all,” and radiated triumph when her daughter started to cry.
My mom will probably point out in the comments that I got parts of the story wrong [Yes indeed! Corrections are noted], but I definitely know that she was appalled by the behavior of the patrons. She said, “They watched a movie that addressed kindness and selfishness, and the message didn’t sink in at all. I can’t believe they came to the program just to get a 3 dollar plastic beach ball.” The next year, and all the years after that she was a children’s librarian at the local library, my mom had more mellow summer reading programs with books as prizes.
As the sole children’s librarian in a branch independent of the county library system, my mom was able to make those kinds of decisions without having to wrangle with a centralized system. When I myself became a children’s librarian, I worked in large systems where the themes, programs and prizes were already mandated. I do appreciate the benefits of large systems (being able to place holds on books that are then delivered to my home branch, online full-text periodicals databases), but I wish that the children’s librarians had more of a say in how they oversee their summer reading programs. Frankly, I wish they wouldn’t be run ragged by the intense schedules. When I worked in the libraries, I was always so grateful when the summer was over and the school schedules began. As busy and lively as the libraries were during the school year, it was nothing in comparison to the frenetic intensity of summer.
I'm happy to say that Seattle Public Library has a low-key, simple summer reading program. The reader writes down ten books read during the summer, and then gets to choose a free book and enter his or her name in the "Breakfast of Champions" drawing at the end of the summer. Subsequent groups of ten don't warrant more prizes, just more chances to enter the drawing. Lucia loves choosing a free book for her prize. The reward for her reading (i.e. being read to) is more reading.