Summertime . . .
In days of yore, the end of the school year meant traipsing down to the local library with mom to be handed a mimeographed list of books that needed to be read before the school bell rang again in September.
And the reward for plowing through this list? A bookmark, a paper rocket, perhaps a ruler or a pencil.
But in recent years, many public library summer reading programs in Northern Virginia have undergone face lifts to emerge as more glamorous versions of their former selves.
To their plain-vanilla offerings of stickers and pencils, area libraries have added high-tech components to draw Internet-savvy youngsters, launched programs to reach immigrant and low-income families and ratcheted up the prizes in order to lure youngsters who otherwise might spend the summer parked in front of the TV or a computer terminal.
Their efforts appear to be working: Sign-ups at libraries across Northern Virginia have surged in recent summers, local librarians say. Since overhauling its summer program three years ago, Fairfax County public libraries saw enrollment climb to 37,000 last year from 32,000 the summer before. This year, the library system expects the number of children enrolled to soar to 45,000.
Other libraries report similar success stories.
"It has been phenomenal so far," said Mary Tompkins, development officer of the Prince William Public Library System, where participation in the summer reading program rose from 17,317 children in 1996 to 21,450 last year. Another big increase is forecast for this summer.
"It really hasn't let up, and we're very, very pleased about that," Tompkins said.
Even in the one-library City of Falls Church, things are looking up. Enrollment last year was about 800, up from 696 in 1995, said Heather Taylor, acting director of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library. In a city with a population of 9,500, "we think that's pretty good," she said.
To attract children who otherwise might not give summer reading programs a second glance, many jurisdictions have jazzed up their rewards.
In Prince William, youths get something for every five books they read: free minor-league baseball tickets, sub sandwiches, water bottles and Slurpees from 7-Eleven. The grand prize, after 40 books, is a small stuffed hedgehog named "Mr. PWPLS" (the acronym for the Prince William Public Library System).
In Fairfax County, organizers launched a bigger incentive program three years ago by getting area merchants to offer free or discounted items to youngsters who read at least 15 books over the summer. This year's coupon book offers discounts on sporting goods and miniature golf, as well as free pizzas and video rentals--a countywide total of about $1 million in free and discounted products, library employees say.
The increased incentives are designed to "reach the children who need that extra push to encourage them," library spokeswoman Lois Kirkpatrick said.
Libraries also have created special Web sites for summer readers. In Fairfax, whose library Web site is in its third year, youngsters can play an interactive game called "Brain Ball" and receive a coupon book. Teenagers can participate in a video contest and be awarded prizes in the fall.
Arlington County library employees have targeted minority and immigrant children with their summer program. In a pilot program last year, librarians visited the summer school program at Barrett Elementarys, taking books, library card applications and folders for the summer reading program with them, said Kristi Beavin, central children's services supervisor for the county library system. This year, the program was expanded to three summer school sites.
Librarians also are touting the summer reading program at two "outreach centers," mini-libraries in less-affluent areas of the county.
Beavin said Arlington officials see the summer reading program as a way to draw in entire families, not just children. "The kids are key to getting the whole family involved," Beavin said. "Once [parents] get here and see that we have a lot of ways we can help them, they perceive that this institution is not just for their children but for them as well."
Librarians say research supports their efforts to increase summertime reading.
Studies have shown that children who participate in such programs maintain or improve their reading level, said Barbara Bush, public information officer for the Alexandria Libraries.
"If they do not read consistently throughout the summer, studies have also shown that their reading levels drop, often as much as a grade level," she said. "So this is really important. They can read for fun or whatever they like, but it's just important that they develop their skills so they can maintain or improve their reading levels."
At a summer program called "Aliens in the Garden," held at the Reston Regional Library last week, two dozen children sat enraptured as librarian Barbara Adams recited poetry about bugs as she demonstrated various bug puppets and then organized the children into groups to act out Eric Carle's book "The Grumpy Ladybug."
Nine-year-old Teja Chalasani, who played a skunk, is participating in her second summer reading program. "She loves books," said her mother, Rani, adding that she expects to take her daughter to the library almost every day this summer for the entertainment.
Herndon dad Rick Wormeli took his two children, 5-year-old Lynn and 6-year-old Ryan, to the program. Ryan already has read 15 books this summer, including an assortment of sports biographies and fables.
Wormeli, a middle school teacher, said he regards the summer reading program as practically mandatory for every school-age child. Otherwise, he said, "to start up again after not reading for two months, it's really too hard to jump-start the brain."
SUMMER READING; A sampling of books from area libraries' summer reading lists:
Preschool to Grade 2
"Young Cam Jansen and the Lost Tooth" by David Adler
"Meanwhile . . . " by Jules Feiffer
"This Is a Hospital, Not a Zoo!" by Roberta Karim
"At the Animal Hospital" by Carol Greene
"A Mouse Called Wolf" by Dick King-Smith
Grade 3 to Grade 6
"The Kidnappers: A Mystery" by Willo Davis Roberts
"My Life in Dog Years" by Gary Paulsen
"Bone Poems" by Jeffrey Moss
"Riding Freedom" by Pam Munoz Ryan
"Mean Margaret" by Tor Seidler
Grade 7 to Grade 12
"Between a Rock and a Hard Place" by Alden Carter
"Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott
"Among the Volcanoes" by Omar S. Castaneda
"Tangerine" by Edward Bloor
"An Island Like You" by Judith Ortiz Cofer