Blogger Chelsey Roos

Summer Reading Prizes and Accessibility

It’s February, and for many libraries that means planning for Summer Reading is in full swing. Summer Reading is a linchpin event in a lot of communities, and a fantastic free program that brings a lot of families a lot of joy. But for some families, even a free program like Summer Reading may be difficult to fully access.

Not All Families Can Use All Summer Reading Prizes

Here’s the story of my personal Summer Reading heartbreak. I was eight years old, and it was the only year in my childhood that I had a reliable grown-up able to bring me to the library to both pick up my Summer Reading log and hand it in at the end of the summer. As a huge reader, I was absolutely over the moon that I was able to show off my reading to a librarian. I cannot describe to you my immense excitement when I got my little prize pack. And then my crushing disappointment, when I found I wasn’t able to use any of my prizes. While many of my peers had loving grown-ups who could take them to use the free museum passes in the packet, I did not. While many of the families in my area could use the coupons for money off ice cream and pizza, I could not.

And I was not alone. For many families, prizes from a Summer Reading program can be an amazing gift. For others, they fall short. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but we can ask good questions to better understand how accessible our prizes are.

A wall filled with summer reading prize books.
The Great Wall O’ Summer Reading Prize Books, 2019. Books can be wonderful prizes, but they’re also too expensive for many libraries

Is “Free” Really Free for All Families?

Of course, not all libraries use prizes for their Summer Reading programs. Some simply don’t have the budget for prizes. Others have chosen not to offer prizes in light of research showing that prizes may diminish a child’s motivation to read. But for those that do offer prizes, books, coupons, and free or reduced-price tickets are popular items.

Items like coupons and tickets have pros and cons to them. Do the prizes require any additional purchase to be used, such as a buy-one get-one offer, or a free child’s ticket with purchase of an adult’s? Or are they completely free? For some families, discounted passes to a baseball game or coupons for restaurants are the only way they are able to afford to have these experiences at all. That’s huge! The library could be providing a very rare opportunity for family fun or a cultural experience. For other families, any additional cost can make the tickets or coupons unusable. Even spending just a few extra dollars can be out of reach for many families.

Even a completely “free” ticket isn’t completely free to all families. A ticket to a baseball game is only usable if you can also afford to get to the stadium. The money saved on the ticket is incredible to some families, but for others, that simply isn’t free.

There is no definitive right or wrong answer here. Many libraries are doing the best they can with what they can. Donations from local businesses can help a Summer Reading program thrive. At the same time, we don’t want to overlook the downsides.

Does your library offer prizes for Summer Reading? What prizes do you think have been accessible to the most patrons?

Librarian Chelsey Roos laughs while holding a book titled MOO.

Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is a Children’s Librarian for Santa Clara County Library.

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group, III. Programming Skills, V. Outreach and Advocacy


  1. Lina Crowell

    You make a good point about coupons for ice cream, pizza, etc. not being a prize appreciated by some families. Those who can’t afford to purchase an ice cream treat for their other children are put on the spot. They can’t very well take only the child who received the coupon so it may go unused. Summer reading prizes have been a bit of a hot topic in my library for a few years. We have always provided small incentives weekly in the form of cheap tchotchkes. The kids liked them, but I know of some parents who didn’t allow their kids to take them because they felt them wasteful. To be honest, most probably ended up in the trash by summer’s end. When the pandemic came along we switched to an online program that awards virtual badges. I’m not sure this has the same effect for the kids who like to receive something tangible. We are just at the beginning of summer planning but we’re thinking of going with brag tags this year as weekly incentives. It’s still something that kids can collect and can possibly become a keepsake rather than being thrown away. For the end of the program in the past we always had drawing prize baskets with the goodies purchased with funds from the Friends of the Library, but the past two years these have been replaced with gift cards, which people seem to appreciate as everyone can use them. Last year we gave a signup prize of a book, which was also appreciated. The books were purchased with funds from the Friends.

  2. Sarah H.

    This brings up a really good point. I also don’t like giving away a bunch of plastic trinkets because of the environmental impact. I like ideas like earning beads on a bracelet, or pins, badges, etc. — although I haven’t tried that approach at my library yet.

  3. Linda Wessels

    Thinking about prizes has certainly evolved since current librarians were kids. My library (city pop. 88,000) has a generous foundation as well as a generous friends group that have allowed us to give books as prizes. And when we solicit businesses for coupon donations to use as additional summer reading prizes, we request and only accept those that are truly free and explain our rationale, which aligns with Chelsey’s points in this blog post. Most businesses understand and are happy to provide a truly free coupon–they comprehend the many benefits of supporting summer reading.

  4. Janice Bot

    Fortunately and unfortunately, the Accelerated Reader program is an incentive based program in the school where I serve as the librarian for PreK-8th grade. I totally agree with the idea that “free” doesn’t always mean that it is usable. Some alternatives that have been popular are free books, even letting a child go through the Scholastic flyer and pick out a $5 book of their choice. The summer librar theme t-shirt were popular with my children and one of the easiest is the “Wall of Fame”. For AR it’s based on points but for the summer programs it could be tweeked to be number of books read or some other predetermined goal. Just an idea for kids to see their name and picture on the “Wall of Fame” might be a fun way to congratulate them. Using your summer theme for making it a little more fun/interesting could also be done. Just some thoughts and ideas that may help others.

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