Kathy Richardson, the youth services manager at Thomas Jefferson Library, crouched down to retrieve a book on the floor of the children’s section.
Roberto Rojas watched her for a few seconds before his eyes lit up with recognition.
“I know you!” the 7-year-old piped up. “You came to my school! Westlawn!”
The librarian smiled at the recognition. She, as well as youth services staff from library branches across Fairfax County, have toured schools in the past month to encourage students to participate in the library’s Summer Reading Program.
Richardson visited four schools, including Westlawn Elementary. Seeing Roberto at the Falls Church library on Monday meant she had succeeded--at least for one student.
Librarians hold book talks in schools not only to attract participants to the county’s popular Summer Reading Program but also to ward off the dreaded “summer slide,” an academic regress as children lose the skills they learned in the school year.
Children can lose months worth of learning in empty summer months, according to the National Summer Learning Association. Low-income children especially are in danger of falling behind peers with greater enrichment opportunities.
Fairfax County public libraries offer a possible remedy.
“Kids who don’t read over the summer go backwards,” said Ted Kavich, the library system’s program and educational services manager. “Our method is to make it fun. And we really believe that reading is fun, so it’s not hard for us to sell it.”
The Summer Reading Program attracted more than 51,000 children and teenagers from preschool through 12th grade last year.
Children in preschool through sixth grade read 15 books - or have the books read to them. Children and teenagers in seventh through 12th grade read eight books.
Participants record their books on a log. If they return their completed log to a library by Aug. 30, they receive a prize booklet filled with coupons redeemable for ice cream, amusement park admission discounts and more.
“We want kids and teens to read things they like,” Kavich said. “I don’t want this to be homework. It’s a challenge, not an assignment.”
Last year, 24,000 of registered participants completed the challenge and earned their prize. Signups started June 20 and are open through Aug. 30, the program’s final day.
The Summer Reading Program also includes events held across all library branches throughout the summer. All events and activities are free, but many require prior registration due to popularity.
“We often max out the capacity in our meeting rooms,” Kavich said. “The numbers are generally very strong.”
Roberto and his family were at Thomas Jefferson Library to attend one such event, “Paws to Read,” which allows children to practice reading aloud to a trained therapy dog. Though this event is an ongoing fixture at the library, it dovetails perfectly with the theme for this year’s Summer Reading Program, also “Paws to Read.”
Roberto and his younger sister, Grace Rojas, were enthusiastic participants. Each took multiple turns reading to the dog Jam-Jam.
After the event, Roberto struck up his conversation with Richardson. His mother Maritza Lopez looked on as the two continued an animated discussion about the book “Gus the Dinosaur Bus.”
Lopez had a stack of books at her side. She also had the forms for the Summer Reading Program, which the family signed up for on their way into the library that afternoon.
“They’ll be done fast,” Lopez said, as 5-year-old Grace, who will start kindergarten in the fall, ran up with another book for the growing pile. “But we keep coming back all summer. And when school starts, they’ll be ready.”