For many schoolchildren in the past, the end of the school year meant traipsing down to the local library with Mom to be handed a mimeographed list of books that the kids needed to read before taking up the yoke of schoolwork again in the fall. The reward for plowing through the list? A bookmark, at best, 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 Web-savvy youngsters, launched programs to reach immigrant and low-income families, and offered more elaborate prizes to lure kids who might otherwise spend the summer parked in front of a computer terminal or the television.
Their efforts appear to be succeeding. Summer reading-program enrollment at libraries in Northern Virginia has surged in recent years, local librarians say. Since overhauling its summer reading program three years ago, for example, Fairfax County public libraries saw enrollment in the program climb to 37,000 last year, from 32,000 in 1997. This year, the library system expects the number of children enrolled to grow 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 last year to 21,450 grade-school children from 17,317 in 1996. The library expects to see a big increase this year, as well.
"It really hasn't let up, and we're very, very pleased about that," Tompkins said.
Even in the one-library town of Falls Church, things are looking up. Enrollment grew last year to 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," Taylor said.
To lure children who might otherwise not give pedestrian summer-reading programs a second glance, many jurisdictions have increased their prize offerings.
In Prince William, for example, kids can now win prizes for every five books they read--baseball tickets, sub sandwiches, water bottles and Slurpees from 7-Eleven. The grand prize after children read 40 books: a palm-sized stuffed hedgehog named "Mr. PWPLS" (the acronym for the Prince William Public Library System).
In Fairfax County, libraries launched a bigger incentive program three years ago by approaching area merchants who agreed to offer free and discounted prizes to youngsters who completed the requirement that they read 15 books over the summer. Now kids can get a coupon book with discounts on sporting goods and miniature golf games, as well as free pizzas and video rentals--a total of about $1 million in free and discounted products, the library system says.
Library spokeswoman Lois Kirkpatrick said the increased incentives are designed to "reach the children who need that extra push to encourage them."
Libraries have also created special Web sites for summer readers. In Fairfax County, where the Web site is in its third year, kids can play the interactive game "Brain Ball" to earn a coupon book. Teenagers can participate in a video contest and be awarded prizes in the fall.
The supervisor of services for children and young adults at Chinn Park Library in Prince William, ayo dayo, said the library sees the summer-reading program as a way not only to draw in children but also their families.
"We're trying to do a lot of things that are family-oriented," dayo said. "Also, it's important for parents to know that they can come here and be safe and have activities like this."
Librarians say they have plenty of research to back up their efforts to increase enrollment in summer program.
Studies have shown that children who participate in summer reading programs maintain or improve their reading level, said Barbara Bush, the 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," Bush 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 Chinn Park, a steady stream of youngsters visited the "Summer Quest" reading program table, either to sign up or get their prizes, including free pizza, 20 percent off coupons at Borders Books & Music, and Disney posters.
Wendy Torres, 12, was one of the young volunteers staffing the table. A summer reading program veteran, she decided this year to volunteer and get other students interested.
"I think it's a really good way to motivate young kids to read," said Wendy, who will be a seventh-grader at Godwin Middle in the fall. "They're psyched about reading because they actually get something for it."
Parent Maureen Erickson, who lives in Woodbridge, brought her own two children and two of her neighbor's children to the library Tuesday. She said they clamor every day for the trip to the library.
"The kids love the prizes," she said. "It's really motivating for them."