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Just Read

A longtime librarian on how to get your kids to dive into books this summer.

Collage of books selected by a librarian.
Photo illustration by Slate

Get your child genuinely excited to read this summer with Slate’s kids’ summer reading package. Lois Lowry, Kate DiCamillo, Tui T. Sutherland, and other beloved children’s authors recommend the books that shaped them the most. Got an awkward middle-schooler on your hands? He should read these books. Want to broaden your high schooler’s horizons? Read YA author Tochi Onyebuchi on why school summer reading lists matter.

In my teenage years, I worked at my local library as a page—a romantic-sounding title that calls to mind polishing armor and mucking out stables but in reality consists of reshelving returned books and mucking out the library’s guinea pig tank. (Rest in peace, Fireball, you furry little terror.) As minimum wage gigs go, paging was a dream, especially during summers, when the children’s department would announce its annual summer reading program theme, and I would add an accompanying T-shirt to my growing collection with the year’s motto: “Make a Splash @ Your Library.” “One World, Many Stories.” “Fizz, Boom, Read.”

I learned later, though it now seems obvious, that those themes were not exclusive to my little neighborhood library of Fanwood, New Jersey: They were chosen by the Collaborative Summer Library Program. The CSLP was started in 1987 by 10 Minnesota libraries that banded together to create an annual unified, themed children’s summer reading program. It has since expanded throughout the country and around the world. Even after I graduated high school, I returned each summer to the library, lured by the promise of more themed T-shirts, to work the desk in the children’s department and teach book groups to kids.

There was the year of “Dream Big—Read!” when we made frobscottle—vanilla ice cream, raspberry sorbet, and ginger ale—to drink while discussing The BFG, and I learned the hard way never to give that much sugar to a dozen delighted children in an enclosed space. Then there was the year of “Dig Into Reading,” during which I folded origami foxes until my fingertips hurt for the fourth-graders reading Fantastic Mr. Fox, and then folded even more and lied that they were coyotes for the second-graders reading Coyote: A Trickster Tale From the American Southwest. The themes helped bring a sense of cohesion and purpose to the otherwise general mission of “read more,” both for the kids and for me. I read almost as many books from the 39 Clues series during the summer as I had Jane Austen novels during the school year.

The BFG by Roald Dahl.
Puffin Books

The BFG by Roald Dahl

Drink some frobscottle and read The BFG.

I took home my last T-shirt in 2015 (“Every Hero Has a Story”), but I recently went back and asked my boss, children’s librarian Susan Staub, about summer reading, how she keeps kids interested, and what the library is doing to prepare for this year’s CSLP theme, “A Universe of Stories,” which aligns with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Like any great children’s librarian, she was a fount of recommendations for great books for kids at every reading level.

Marissa Martinelli: I can’t believe I don’t already know this, but when did you start as the children’s librarian here?

Susan Staub: It was either summer ’94 or ’95. Either way, it was a long time ago.

What did Fanwood’s summer reading program look like back then?

Summer reading was pretty much a promotion by corporations, like, McDonald’s would make posters and pass out bookmarks. I remember that year: The theme was [the mystery genre], and the art for the posters was done by the guy who did the art for Masterpiece Mystery!, Edward Gorey.

Now we always go along with whatever theme is chosen by the Collaborative Summer Library Program. They pick the theme a couple years in advance, and the illustrator, which is a big deal, for the graphics. This year the illustrator is a local artist, Leeza Hernandez. She did a program for us a few weeks ago and showed how she draws a character she’s been working on lately, a girl who turns into a superhero—and the theme is “A Universe of Stories,” so space.

How much has summer reading changed in the almost 25 years since you’ve been at the library?

It’s harder and harder, especially as parents need kids enrolled in weeklong, 7 a.m.–5 p.m. programs—something with babysitting while both parents are working. But now we do Monday night events and the Friends of the Fanwood Library foot the bill. There’s more evidence and statistics now that show not being able to read and be part of the library during the summer, the gap it creates for kids when they go back to school. They’ve lost a lot of what they knew at the end of the year. I think people are more attuned to that. So parents look to us for more than just being a babysitter. I’m finding that, more and more, the libraries are expected to be a partner educationally, not just having a for-fun book group, but teaching.

How do you do that without making summer reading feel like homework to the kids?

Well, that’s it, because I’ve always been more for summer as a time to relax. Kids need to know reading is for fun too. Not everything has to be work, work, work and drudge, drudge, drudge. We try to pick books that kids know or themes that are funny.

There are a lot of incentive programs in place too, right? I have fond memories of walking around town handing out flyers with Sparkee, the canine mascot of [local minor baseball team] the Somerset Patriots.

That’s a big hit with the kids.

How did that partnership start?

The Somerset Patriots reached out to libraries. They do it during the school year too. The children receive a page that is basically a baseball diamond, and when they’ve read six books, they can get one free voucher to a game. And they do a thing where they recognize the kids that are in summer reading programs and have them stand up before the game. We have around 75 kids who participate, which is a lot for us.

Besides the incentives, there are also organized book groups for kids of different ages.

Different staff members will take turns running those, as you know.

What books will some of the older kids be reading this summer?

The Nerdy Dozen: Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind by Jeff Miller, and Space Case: A Moon Base Alpha Novel by Stuart Gibbs—he’s popular, he wrote a series of spy books that kids came in asking about—and Jigsaw Jones: The Case From Outer Space.

Space Case by Stuart Gibbs.
Simon & Schuster

Space Case: A Moon Base Alpha Novel by Stuart Gibbs

Elementary school kids love any book by Stuart Gibbs.

Do you have any recommendations for books that parents can read with their kids, besides the obvious ones like Harry Potter?

A lot of parents like to go back to a book that they love and read that to their family—especially the guys, I find. Hold on while I go look.

[She disappears into the stacks for five minutes and reemerges with a tower of books in her arms.]

These are some of my favorites that I think would be fun read-alouds. Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library and the series that follows. Holes, a classic Newbery winner. A Year Down Yonder is hysterical, and I like to use historical fiction to explain to kids how things were. These two kids during the Depression end up at their grandmother’s out in the country and she’s a character. It’s the sequel to A Long Way From Chicago. Any books by Gordon Korman. When you find yourself in a strange place, laughing out loud, you know it’s good.

Holes by Louis Sachar.
Yearling

Holes by Louis Sachar

Holes is one of those classics every child should read.

And this one is my all-time favorite.

The Sword in the Stone. A classic.

That was my first introduction to fantasy literature, and I love the humor in it. I think kids should know the roots of Harry Potter and other fantasy.

The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White.
HarperCollins Children’s Books

The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White.

Read this classic with your children so they can better appreciate the roots of modern fantasy series like Harry Potter.

How do you keep summer reading engaging when there are so many other things competing for kids’ attention, like social media?

There’s so many ways to read. They can use the internet or any kind of device to read, and I don’t care if it’s a magazine or online or a comic book.

So, you don’t feel at odds with the internet.

No. Just read.

Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl.
Puffin Books

Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl

Mr. Fox’s wily ways will charm your reader.

The 39 Clues by Rick Riordan.
Scholastic

The 39 Clues

Percy Jackson fans should give The 39 Clues series by Rick Riordan a try. Riordan never disappoints!

The Nerdy Dozen by Jeff Miller.
HarperCollins

The Nerdy Dozen: Close Encounters of the Nerd Kind by Jeff Miller

The Nerdy Dozen is featured on many library reading lists this summer.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library by Chris Grabenstein.
Yearling

Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein

Kids will laugh out loud and get lured into the suspense in Escape From Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein.

Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space by James Preller.
Feiwel & Friends

Jigsaw Jones: The Case from Outer Space by James Preller

James Preller’s novel is featured on this summer’s CSLP reading list.

A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck.
Puffin Modern Classics

A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck

A Long Way From Chicago and A Year Down Yonder are classics, and are wonderful books to read aloud to your child this summer.

Ungifted by Gordon Korman.
Balzer + Bray

Ungifted by Gordon Korman

Gordon Korman is one of those authors who can turn reluctant readers into readers.