SUMMER MEANS BOOKS, games and shows galore, thanks to reading programs at public libraries across the country. As the school year winds to a close, libraries in metropolitan Washington are gearing up for their busiest season. When the months get hot, the library is the hot place to be: Toddlers trot in for story times, school-aged kids join sing-alongs and choose reading prizes, teenagers drop by for a poetry workshop. The biggest draw for many kids, though, may well be the books themselves.

"Summer gives kids more time to read for pleasure," said Cynthia Richey, president of the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association. By phone from the Pittsburgh library where she works, Richey described the appeal of summer reading programs. "Children can set their own pace, make their own choices, revisit favorites, tackle a big book. There are no grades." Typically youngsters register in June at their neighborhood library and set goals for themselves, perhaps reading a certain number of books by the end of August or for a specified period of time daily. Along the way, they can visit the library regularly for puppet shows, discussion groups and even pajama parties for the youngest patrons.

In the midst of digging into the Newbery Medal-winning "Holes" (by Louis Sachar) or visiting "The House at Pooh Corner" (by A.A. Milne), kids are doing good things for their reading skills. Namely, keeping them level or even advancing. "In the fall, we all dread that 'summer drop' in ability," Richey said. When it comes to reading skills, kids gotta use 'em or lose 'em, according to Richey, who cited studies done in Baltimore, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Philadelphia that show library summer programs as key to staving off that loss.

Through these fun, free programs, libraries have been fostering literacy and a passion for reading since the 1890s, Richey said. Planning for the next summer usually begins in September, as staff evaluates and fine-tunes previous events. The result? Kids eager to partake of summer offerings.

"I can hardly wait," said 8-year-old Walter De Leon, anticipating the District system's program, kicking off Wednesday. Participating each year since he was 2, the Hearst Elementary second-grader plans to revel in library activities such as magic shows, storytelling, crafts and book bingo. As he plunges into new books and reads aloud to William, his 17-month-old brother, Walter also hopes to garner stickers, a T-shirt and free books as reading prizes. Inspired by the Harry Potter series, the budding author wants to use the summer to write and illustrate a few installments in his own ongoing fantasy epic.

Walter's mother, Magaly Lara, smiled at her son's enthusiasm. "The prizes are nice," she said. "But the kids seem most interested in reading and listing their books." Lara gives high praise to Hillary Fennell, children's librarian at the Cleveland Park branch in Northwest, where her sons will register. "[Fennell] really creates a place where kids like to come," Lara said. "And I've learned so much from her about which books are most age appropriate and enjoyable."

This summer Washington and every county in Maryland will pump up the pomp with a "Readers Rule!" theme, complete with a crown-sporting lion mascot. The cartoon king of beasts and books adorns posters, stickers and other materials and sets a cheery tone for June kickoff events at main libraries and programs at branches. Being long-term partners and working under one theme gives Maryland and Washington libraries a better chance to reach kids, according to Rose Dawson, coordinator for youth services with the District's library system. "A lot of local kids cross over from Maryland to D.C. and vice versa," said Dawson from headquarters at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. "They might live in one area but go to camp or have parents working in another. This way they can participate no matter where they are."

In Virginia, main libraries develop their own activities, with branches adapting these to suit the interests of their young patrons.

Over the years, programs have evolved to meet the changing needs of participating families. Howard County libraries recently translated some "Readers Rule!" materials into Spanish and Korean, the languages most frequently spoken there after English, according to Kristen Blount, the system's public relations assistant. "We hope to draw in the whole family, including parents," Blount said. If these translating efforts increase patron numbers and satisfaction, this pilot project may help model similar programs for multi-language communities as well as spark the county's translations next year into Chinese and Urdu.

In Washington, youth coordinator Dawson has developed programs for teenagers based on their stated interests. This is the age category that tends to "drop out" of the library, said Dawson, who worked closely with a teen focus group to discover how best to bring them in. Through "Holla' Back @DCPL," those ages 13 to 19 can "strut their stuff through reading and writing" book reviews and attend talks about career and life decisions.

Want a ride out of Washington's dog days? Get a library card and get revved for reading adventures. The card's a free ticket to a great array of books and programs. With activities for young people from 9 months to 19 years, the local library may prove to be your family's summer destination of choice.

TIME TO BOOK

Kickoff events for reading programs will be hosted by local libraries over the next few weeks. Check Web sites for details, for related summer activities (shows, concerts, story times) at headquarters and branches and for branch locations. Library cards and reading program registration are both free.

The District

D.C. PUBLIC LIBRARY -- Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, 901 G St. NW. 202-727-0321. www.dclibrary.org. Kick-off event for Readers Rule! at MLK Library on June 2 at 10:30. Readers Rule! program, June 2 to Aug. 31. Teen Holla' Back @DCPL program, through Aug. 31.

Maryland

ANNE ARUNDEL COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY -- 5 Harry S. Truman Pkwy., Annapolis. 410-222-7371. www.aacpl.net. On June 21, each branch hosts a Readers Rule! fairy-tale kickoff. Program runs through July 30. For teenagers, a Say What? club runs June 21 to July 31.

CALVERT COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY -- 30 Duke St., Prince Frederick. 410-535-0291. www.calvert.lib.md.us. Readers Rule! kicks off at each branch with evening story times in mid-June. Reading programs, music and story times run June 14 through Aug. 11.

CHARLES COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY -- La Plata Library, 2 Garrett Ave., La Plata. 301-934-9001. www.ccplonline.org. On June 12, each branch hosts a kickoff for Readers Rule! and teen programs, which run through August.

FREDERICK COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY -- C. Burr Artz Library, 110 E. Patrick St., Frederick. 301-694-1630, Ext. 4. www.fcpl.org. June 12 kickoff for Readers Rule! and teen Say What? programs. Reading program runs June 1 to July 30.

HOWARD COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY -- Administrative Offices/East Columbia Branch, 6600 Cradlerock Way, Columbia. 410-313-7750. www.hclibrary.org. On June 5 at 11, the Miller Branch Library (9421 Frederick Rd., Ellicott City) provides a concert, magician, crafts and snacks to kick off Readers Rule! program, which runs June 1 through Aug. 23.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC LIBRARIES -- Administrative Offices/Rockville Regional Library, 99 Maryland Ave. 240-777-0140. www.montgomerycountymd.gov/library. Kickoff outdoor concert June 4 at 7 p.m. at BlackRock Center for the Arts (12901 Town Commons Dr., Germantown). Readers Rule! and teen programs run through Aug. 14.

PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY MEMORIAL LIBRARY SYSTEM -- 6532 Adelphi Rd., Hyattsville. 301-699-3500. www.pgcmls.info. Select branches host Readers Rule! kickoffs in mid-June, with reading program in all county libraries through Aug. 31. Teen Read Electric program, with chance to see movies based on books, ends Aug. 31.

ST. MARY'S COUNTY LIBRARY -- Leonardtown Library, 23250 Hollywood Rd., Leonardtown. 301-475-2846. www.stmalib.org. Branches host kickoffs June 28, featuring the Blue Sky Puppets. Tickets must be purchased in advance by calling branches. Readers Rule! program and Teen Reading Club run June 21 to Aug. 14.

Virginia

ALEXANDRIA LIBRARY SYSTEM -- Beatley Central Library, 5005 Duke St., Alexandria. 703-519-5900, Ext. 4. www.alexandria.lib.va.us. On June 23, a concert kicks off the Summer Quest reading program, which ends in early August.

ARLINGTON COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY -- Central Library, 1015 N. Quincy St., Arlington. 703-228-5990. www.co.arlington.va.us/lib. Get Caught Reading program for kids, teenagers and adults runs June 5 through Sept. 11. No kickoff event but plenty of shows and story times during summer.

CENTRAL RAPPAHANNOCK REGIONAL LIBRARY -- 1201 Caroline St., Fredericksburg. 540-372-1160. www.LibraryPoint.org. Kickoffs for Step to the Beat . . . Read! program offered at branches starting in mid-June. Reading program runs June 1 through Aug. 31.

FAIRFAX COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARY -- Administrative Offices, 12000 Government Center Pkwy., Fairfax. 703-324-3100. www.fairfaxcounty.gov/library. Pohick Regional Library (6450 Sydenstricker Rd., Burke) hosts kickoff June 19, with advance registration required by June 5 by calling 703-644-7333. Ready, Set -- Read! and teen Take the Lead: Read programs run June 18 to Sept. 4.

LOUDOUN COUNTY PUBLIC LIBRARIES -- Library Administration, 908A Trailview Blvd. SE, Leesburg. 703-777-0368. www.lcpl.lib.va.us. Each branch hosts a kickoff for Once Upon a Time . . . and Ever After reading program in late June. Juvenile and teen reading programs run June 21 to Aug. 13.

PRINCE WILLIAM PUBLIC LIBRARY SYSTEM -- 13083 Chinn Park Dr., Woodbridge. 703-792-6100. www.pwcgov.org/library. Juvenile Track It Down at the Library and teen Rock 'n' Read programs run June 21 to Sept. 3. Each branch plans a kickoff the third week of June.