Columns > Published on June 1st, 2020

What Libraries Get Wrong About Summer Reading

This year I’ll be involved in my 16th summer reading at the library. There’s your bona fides.

The library and summer reading go together like John Carpenter and synthesizers. Wait, that’s too cool. Not that I think summer reading is uncool, but c’mon, there's a limit. 

The library and summer reading go together like glasses and retainers. There, that feels about right.

From time to time, a library loses its way. Does some weird things with summer reading that don’t quite add up. I’m here to tell you about a couple. 

It's especially critical because a lot of libraries might not be able to give you a summer reading this year, and you might be on your own. Whether you use your library or like to do some kind of summer reading thing on your own, this’ll help.


I’ve pissed off library Twitter and some other corners of the library internet in the past, so:

I recognize and appreciate the hard work that goes into summer reading.

These ideas are probably going to look A LOT like what some of you are doing, have been doing, and will do in the future. I speak from experience, having made almost all of these mistakes myself, and these are my personal opinions on how it all went. My intent isn’t to crap on summer reading. It’s to throw some ideas out there, ideas that will help people trying to create their own summer reading, and ideas some people sitting in your meetings had and may not have spoken up about.

If you hate these ideas, that’s totally fine. Good things often come out of bad ideas. Sometimes we never get to the really good stuff because people are afraid to put out an unrefined, unvarnished version of something.

Realistically, the opinions and ideas of one person aren’t going to change the face of summer reading. Youths don’t read my columns and say, “Yeah, he’s cool. I’ma do what he says.” So don't give me any nonsense about these ideas causing the collapse of the institution of summer reading in libraries.

Put bluntly: Don’t shoot the messenger on this one.


Many a library meeting goes silent when someone asks, “How do we use summer reading to turn non-readers into readers?”

I recognize and appreciate the hard work that goes into summer reading.

This question is asked by and of library folks. People who read well over a hundred novels in a year. People who take vacations based on literary landmarks. People wearing clothing patterned with books.

These are great people and the completely wrong people to try and figure out how to get non-readers more interested in books.

I’d call myself mostly a non-reader as a youth. I thought books were boring. There were very few instances where I’d pick reading over ANY OTHER OPTION. 

What turned it around for me?

Reading caught my interest when the books were taboo. I liked reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when I was WAY too young. It was like a small, victimless crime, a little act of rebellion or something. Drugs, sex, crime, swearing, grisly murder, all the things that’d never fly on a screen, I could read about them. Now, obviously I’m not saying that you should hand your 5 year-old The Baby Jesus Butt Plug, but maybe your young kid...could read a book with a couple swears in it? Maybe some middle schoolers are ready for a Stephen King? Maybe you, as an adult, could read something that you were always curious about but embarrassed or afraid of? Maybe that Chuck Tingle book you've been eyeballing.

Encouraging some risky reading behavior isn't for everyone, but fortune favors the bold.

School Part II

Many a library gets involved in Lexile scores and shit like that. This is not only the incorrect way to do summer reading, it’s de-motivational. You want folks to continue thinking reading is boring? Make the summer into School Part 2: The Revenge.

It’s fine for a library to support a curriculum or help out a school that desperately needs it, but if you can, leave the STEM and the quizzes and requirements and all that stuff to the schools.

A quick rule of thumb: if your summer reading has anything that could be described as a “curriculum,” you’re doing it wrong.

Telling People What To Read

Don’t make a list of required reading. Required reading is shit. The only people who like required reading are English majors, which admittedly, lots of librarians are. So it’s not hard to imagine how required reading sneaks its way into summer reading. But c’mon, if marching people through “great” books made readers out of people, wouldn’t everyone who graduated high school be in love with reading?

If someone wants to read nothing but Fangoria all summer, why deny them that?

Even required categories are pushing it. If someone wants to read nothing but Fangoria all summer, why deny them that?

Figure out the difference between pushing someone into something they “should” read and giving them the tiniest little nudge towards something they WANT to read and just don’t know about.

For you DIY’ers, don’t read anything that feels like an obligation. If you’re not feeling it, read something else. Summer isn’t the time to plow through that stuff that you’ve always been meaning to get to. It’s a time to have fun reading again.


I do these reading tasks, then I get to this level, and there are badges, and then if I get enough badges, plus the required Reading Bucks, then I can hop over to this rubric and—STOP! Stop it, okay? 

Joe Bob Briggs said it best, sometimes movies have too much plot getting in the way of the story. When you have to keep track of a bunch of who’s where and doing what why, you can’t just enjoy seeing someone get decapitated.

Make the idea simple, and make the path simple. Simpler is better. 

Reading Is The Star

When you watch cooking shows, if the task is cooking a steak dish, there’s nothing the judges hate more than a dish with a bunch of shit covering up the flavor of a steak. The steak should be the star, the hero of the dish.

Library summer reading loses this thread here and there. There are a lot of activities and other add-ons that aren’t about reading. Some of this is fine, even necessary, but damn, reading should be the star of the library’s summer. That’s why people come to you. They go to the rec center for swimming lessons, they go to the state parks for outdoorsy shit. When they come to you, it’s fine to serve them sides, just make sure those sides enhance the reading. Make reading the star of summer.


If you’re putting a reading program together, is there room for people to make their own decisions? Is there room to let them set their own goals? Can you prompt kids and parents to sit down and say, “Okay, if you read this much this summer, what would be a reasonable reward?” Maybe for some kids it’s that Xbox or whatever. Maybe for others it’s a pizza night. Leave room to customize where you can. It strengthens the connection to books, and it strengthens a connection between two people as well.

Leaving wiggle room, rather than implementing rules and structure, gives people control over their summer reading. Control is something that's in short supply this year, so let's enhance it. 

It’s Not Just About The Kids

Summer reading at the library can’t be about kids and kids alone. Yes, that’s your primary audience and yes, don’t sacrifice appealing to kids to appeal to adults. But if you can, make some things that are targeted towards adults. Give them a way to participate without coloring in a picture of a hot air balloon. Because seeing adults they respect read gives kids a reason to read, too. Seeing their older, teenage brother reading a book and doing summer reading, how cool is that?

The question is often “How do we get kids to read?” An alternate version should be, “How can the people kids look up to, in their real lives, get kids to read?” Because they’re going to be a lot more effective than we are.

If you’re not a parent, high-five, and if can read conspicuously, you’ll motivate others to read, too.

Dropping off in July

We do a great job getting people reading in June, getting people signed up, and then we get people dropping off. By mid-July, it starts to feel like summer’s over already.

Save something in the tank for July. Even August. If you can get people reading in mid-July, you have them for life.

If you’re doing your own thing at home, remember, summer reading is like a New Year’s resolution. You’ll start out hyped, and after a few weeks you’ll barely remember when you could remember when you read something. Save something great to read in July.


Whatever you do, ask two questions:

Is it about reading?

Is it fun?

That’s as complicated as it needs to be.

If there’s anything and it’s not about reading and fun, then it really doesn’t belong in summer reading.

Buy The Baby Jesus Butt Plug by Carlton Mellick III at Bookshop or Amazon

Buy Scary Stories To Tingle Your Butt: 7 Tales Of Gay Terror Vol. 3 by Chuck Tingle at Bookshop or Amazon

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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