Pre-kindergarten student Albert Pinkrah is excited about the books he is taking home to read during summer break. He is enrolled at Saint Francis International School in Silver Spring. Librarian Carolyn Johnson amasses books there every year to give to the kids, an effort to encourage reading when school is not in session. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

It’s one thing to borrow a book from a library. But Theis Williams and his classmates say it’s much more exciting to take one home for keeps. So, as the Great Book Giveaway opened at his school, Theis clutched a favorite by author Eric Carle close to his chest.

“I always wanted a dragon book!” said Theis, 4, thrilled at his luck.

His enthusiasm was widely shared this week at Saint Francis International School, a Catholic school in Silver Spring, Md., where students got the chance to peruse tables arranged with paperbacks and hardcovers that were theirs for the taking.

The idea was to spur summer reading and bolster efforts to stave off the learning loss — or summer slide — that often follows long breaks away from classes. Many students at the school are economically disadvantaged, and not all have easy access to books and libraries.

The books they were offered were new as well as used, some with brilliant illustrations and others with lengthy chapters — more than 2,000 in all, amassed and curated by the school’s book-loving librarian, Carolyn Johnson, who thinks she has the greatest job on earth.

Librarian Carolyn Johnson talks to second-grade student Chriswayan Louis about the books he is taking home for the summer from Saint Francis International School in Silver Spring. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

“There’s nothing better than putting kids and books together,” she said as she examined each child’s selections, asking them about their picks as she bagged them.

“The Mouse and the Motorcycle.”

“Pinkalicious.”

“The Really Big Pet Show.”

“Are you going to do lots of reading this summer?” she asked — a question with a purpose.

The answer was always yes.

The school’s first book giveaway came five years ago as a way to get extra books Johnson was not shelving in the library into the hands of families who might appreciate them, and the idea has expanded since then. This year, donors included a D.C.-based literacy nonprofit called An Open Book Foundation and St. Elizabeth’s school in Rockville. Other supporters pitched in along the way, and Johnson hits thrift stores to round out her collection.

Students take home three to 13 books, depending on the stock for each grade level.

“I tell every student, ‘This is just a start,’ ” she said. “I’m really hoping every student will have some adult in their lives take them to the public library on a regular basis.” But she adds that she also likes the idea of children starting a book collection.

“I just don’t think a child can have too many books,” Johnson said. “The families we serve, many struggle from day to day, and I just want the children to have books.”

Research has shown that children from low-income families lose the most during summers, slipping in math and reading, while middle-class children tend to lose ground only in math, said Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

Cooper lauded the idea of the book giveaway, noting that the project could be especially helpful to children from families that don’t use English at home. Having books in English, he said, would help children “refresh their facility in the language of instruction.”

“The more kids are surrounded by books, the more likely they are to pick one up and read,” Cooper said.

Saint Francis has about 400 students from prekindergarten through eighth grade. More than 60 percent live near the poverty level, and most are children of immigrants. The book giveaway is one of several ways to boost summer reading, said Principal Tobias Harkleroad. Not all families have shelves of books at home or can manage regular library visits, he said.

“Research shows that kids are stronger readers when they are in print-rich environments,” he said.

Dolores Bonilla-Machado, a kindergarten teacher, said her students love going to the school’s well-stocked library, with its neatly organized shelves and displays — and 22,000 books, partly accumulated from several other Catholic schools that closed.

The giveaway, she said, adds a lot of extra excitement.

“It’s all about the power of choice and ownership,” said Kathy Perencevich, a third-grade teacher. “They feel ownership when they choose the book. They get very, very excited, and they do make wise decisions. It’s not this willy-nilly randomness.”

That point seemed to bear out as students made their picks.

Johnson, who had been collecting books for months, sorted them ahead of time by grade level so students like Felix Alejandro Cruz, 7, arrived to see four tables arrayed with possibilities for second-graders like him.

Felix’s first pick: a hardcover book called “Game Day,” about Tiki and Ronde Barber.

“It’s about football, and I like football,” he said.

Nearby, Jayden Taylor Covington, 7, picked a “Magic Treehouse” book that included volcanoes, which got him imagining eruptions of lava.

“I wish I could fall in it without even getting hot,” he said.

Ariana Campos, 8, looked for both scary books and those about ponies. She liked the idea of keeping the books — and not having to pay for them. One day, she said, she might share those she selected with her baby sister.

“If she would get bigger, I would read to her,” she said.

Meron Tewodros, 8, said the good thing about owning the books is having the chance to read them more than once. “Sometimes you can forget all about them,” she said. “Then you can go back and read it all over like it’s a new book.”

The Great Book Giveaway — a name that Johnson picked because “it sounds kind of catchy” — stands out for its size and participation of students across the school, said Janet Zwick, education director at An Open Book Foundation, which works to promote literacy among children from low-income families in the D.C. region and donated about 500 books.

“It’s a great idea, and it has a lot more power than meets the eye,” she said. “We believe it’s really important to have a book that’s your own and to be able to read it over and over again, to be able to go back to it, to be able to share it with others.”

Johnson said this year’s giveaway was her largest yet. Some children said they only wished they could take home more.

Tickled as she watched 4-year-old Theis Williams hug his dragon book like he would never let go, she said she would love to see the idea spread.

“One of my hopes,” she said, “is that this will give other schools the idea to do something similar.”