Bring On Summer Readers!

Cynthia Compton - May 22, 2019

Our 2019 summer reading program enrollment opened a few weeks ago, but this week and next are the busiest for sign-ups, as the Memorial Day weekend approaches on racing wheels (it’s Indy 500 weekend, and all things zoom toward Sunday at 225 plus MPH). Our schools finish this week and next, and the neighborhood swimming pools open this Saturday, provided the rain ever stops and the high school lifeguards pass their certification classes. Our summer program has been tweaked a bit over the years, but with 1400 annual participants or so, it is now a regular fixture in the community, and seems to just unfold every year like the towels on the pool deck.
Our program is mostly free to join — we do require the purchase of one book of any type or price range to sign up for each participant (so yes, we sell LOTS of books just by announcing the program) and is open to readers and pre-readers through adults. We group our readers by the type of program they wish to enroll in, not by level, which makes the program more open-ended for both kids and adults. Here’s how it works:
Reading Buddies
This is our program for pre-readers, or those children who are enjoying picture books read aloud by their parents, older siblings, or caregivers. We ask that these readers produce a picture or some piece of artwork (we’ve received dioramas, clay models, Lego creations, and have heard original songs) about the story that we can display on the walls of our store. For three-dimensional work, we take a picture and print it, posting these contributions with the book title and author/illustrator indicated on a sticker in the bottom right corner. As the summer goes on, first the doors, then the back wall, then the side walls of our store become covered in pictures in crayon, markers, colored pencils and paint. Some kids dictate a brief review, and some label their pictures with character names, usually added afterwards in pencil.

We have expanded this program a bit, as we have a group of college and post grad students who cover picture books in their children’s literature survey classes over the summer. They also contribute to our wall art, and some have even submitted their class papers to our store for posting, which have then been excerpted into some truly academically solid shelf talkers.
Chapter 4 Readers
For those readers of chapter book stage and those who love them, this is the group to join. This category spans from fans of Dog Man to those still waiting for their letter from Hogwarts, and is probably our widest age-ranging group. Some of our young friends are just bridging into chapters, and might be reading alongside a parent. Some of these group members are parents themselves, reading next year’s school required reading list of their kids, or revisiting favorites from their childhood. My favorite subset, by far, are those grandparents who sign up to read the same books that their grandchildren are enjoying, and then have the opportunity to discuss those titles with the kids. Some of these grandparents are lucky to have their family nearby, but we also have local customers whose grandchildren live out of town, and they use this annual reading program as a way to connect. Of course, we are happy to ship books to those readers, but more often than not, the grandparent shows up with a pre-selected list from the kids, and we smile happily as we pull those books from the shelves.
Readers in this group may also produce artwork for display, or provide us with a short book review. We have short, half-page forms available for these reviews which can be completed at home or in the store, or can be sent via email or text. We have had young readers produce short video reviews, dress up in costume, and make elaborate Lego creations about books…. all of it is great, and we are happy to hear about their reading in any format.
Teen Book Review
This group probably needs a new title, as it has grown to much more than a “teen” audience, but names are hard to change, and the boxes of printed forms seem inexhaustible. This is the group that has open access to the ARC shelves in our stock room, which in the summer we treat like a lending library. Readers of any age are invited to “check out” an ARC, read it, and then return it with a written review before selecting another title. We have middle school, high school, college age and adult customers who participate in this group, and are always amazed by two things: first, all the ARCs get returned, and second by the thoughtfulness of their reviews. Here’s an excerpt from one reader’s comments last year:
I loved this book, but it will be a problem for some parents.  There are some scenes at the party where drugs are used, and there is sex when the main character is not able to say no. My mom would be upset if I read this book, but I know people that this happened to, so I think it’s really important that you have it. I am glad that I read this, because I could tell some of my friends about it, too. 
We have, of course, many young readers in this group, but also adults who choose to read YA. Our policy has always been to allow readers (and their grownups) to sign up for any group that they choose, so we have entire families that are members of Reading Buddies, using their bedtime reading to complete picture books, and other families as members of the Chapter 4 group, reading or enjoying chapter books on tape as a group on vacation.
All of our “rewards” for the summer reading program are the same. Early each spring, I contact locally owned neighborhood businesses to sponsor a week of the program, and provide the prizes. Rewards are only given on Wednesdays (previously our slowest sales day of the week), and so this is the day that most participants stop in to drop off their reviews, pick up their prize, and perhaps purchase another book. Prizes are typically either gift cards or specially printed coupons, and range from a free ice cream cone at the local creamery to a slice of pizza at our neighborhood pizza parlor. Even businesses that don’t sell “kids’ stuff” get involved: one local jeweler brings in cases of glow necklaces and light up wands for kids to use on the 4th of July — and his business sponsors our program on that week. Of course, while the certificates and gift cards are collected at our store, all the prizes are actually redeemed at other local businesses, so the “shop local” message brings its own rewards.
Besides the summer traffic and the book sales, the best parts of this program happen in the next two weeks, when kids stop by to sign up, excited for another summer of reading together. One young friend brought his own pencil today, as this year “I am big and I can fill out the form myself. But I need a boost on the email part.” Here’s hoping your summer programs give you a boost, too — please share what your store is doing!

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About Cynthia Compton

Cynthia is the owner of 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Indiana, a 2600 sq. ft. childrens store founded in 2003. She serves on the board of the American Booksellers Association, is a past president of the Great Lakes Bookseller Association, and is a former member of the American Specialty Toy Retail Association board of directors. 4 Kids was honored with the Pannell Award in 2013 and has received numerous "best of" awards in the Indianapolis area. The opinions expressed in her posts are her own, and sometimes those of her english bulldogs.

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