read like a librarian scoreboard

Are you aware of the Hub Reading Challenge? Are you participating this year?
It’s quite the undertaking. Read as many of YALSA’s award-winning, honored, or selected titles from the past year as possible (or at least 25). You know, while reading everything else you want to read and doing your job and living your life outside of work. It’s both exciting and daunting. I signed up for it this year, though with other reading to do for booktalks, articles, and fun, I wasn’t sure if I could complete it (though I had already read many of the books on the list, you can only count the books if you read them during the challenge period). However, I was excited enough to think about inviting my library patrons to participate.

I’m lucky enough to work at a school where encouraging students to read for pleasure isn’t all that difficult. Castilleja is a school for girls in grades 6-12 in Palo Alto, California, and even with their incredibly demanding academic and extracurricular schedules, most of the girls find the time to read for fun, though this is more common with middle schoolers than upper schoolers. We also provide many of the adults on campus, both faculty and staff, with reading material for work and for fun. So when I set out to develop a reading challenge based on the Hub Reading Challenge, I wasn’t sure if it would be overkill or icing on the cake.

The scoreboard lives in a window near one of our study rooms.

The scoreboard lives in a window near one of our study rooms.

It turns out that people (especially middle schoolers and English teachers) will do just about anything if it means they can publicly declare how awesome they are in front of their peers.

Using photoshop and a large-scale color printer, I created a scoreboard with spaces for names and twenty smaller cels, encouraging people to read at least 20 books by the last day of school (June 6). Underneath the chart, I added images of each eligible book. Readers come to my desk any time they finish a book on the list and I give them a star sticker. It seems so simple and almost juvenile, and yet everyone likes looking at the chart and seeing if they’re beating their friend or their teacher (in addition to all three of us librarians signing up, two English teachers, a history teacher, and a math teacher have joined us). Though we officially kicked off on March 4, we’re allowing people to sign up at any time before the end of the school year.

I did make some major modifications from the original challenge to suit our school community’s needs (and my own taste). Since we started a month later than the Hub did, I made the requirement only 20 books, not 25. The Hub’s list of eligible titles is limited to YALSA awards and affiliates, whereas I went a bit more broad. I removed the audiobooks categories, because we don’t have any in our collection (though we don’t have every single print book eligible for the challenge, either), and I added in award winners and honors from each of the ALA’s ethnic caucuses or roundtables. I wanted to be sure there was as much diversity represented as possible, since this is a good way to promote literature that is often otherwise pigeonholed or labeled in such a way that it becomes undesirable. And, of course, I wanted to make sure all the members of the school community felt represented. That means that the books eligible for the reading challenge come from the Alex Awards, Printz Award, Nonfiction Award, Morris Award, Edwards Award, Schneider Family Award, Stonewall Award, Best Fiction for Young Adults, Great Graphic Novels, Popular Paperbacks, and Quick Picks, just like the Hub; plus the Coretta Scott King Awards, Pura Belpré Medal, American Indian Library Association Youth Literature Awards, and Asian Pacific American Librarians Association Book Awards. Titles were omitted if they were for very young readers. Finally – and this took a lot of considering – we decided that readers could count books that they read outside of the challenge period. This choice was made because we decided the point of having the reading challenge in our school community was to raise awareness of how great a world YA literature is, so people should be able to celebrate these books whether they read them now or last year. This, we hoped, would encourage people to join even if they felt 20 books in a less than a semester was too much.

To help participants find the books for the challenge, I created a spreadsheet with a list of all the available titles. They can download this list from our website. Whenever they were available, I added a note with the recommended grade level (from School Library Journal) and noted whether they were part of our collection or not. We also dedicated a display shelf in the library to holding all the eligible books. It’s usually close to empty, because books are always going out as soon as they are returned. On the internal side, I modified the books’ entries in our catalog so that whenever they are checked in, a notification pops up, reminding the person that it’s a reading challenge book so that it won’t be reshelved in the general collection.

A close-up of the scoreboard in action. Names are blacked out, except my own.

A close-up of the scoreboard in action. Names are blacked out, except my own.

A lot of good has come out of this experience, and it’s only just begun. For one, students get to see that their teachers like to read YA, and I hope that they are asking those teachers about their reading during lunch or after class. They also do a lot of advertising for the challenge themselves. If one student comes in and asks for a sticker, her friend might ask what it’s for, and by the end of the explanation, that student usually wants to sign up to play, too. One student asked if she could write a book review for the library website, and I hope more will follow suit. When we don’t have a book a student wants to read, we have a chance to tell them about how public library e-book lending works. Circulation is increasing, and students return books more quickly (partly because they know they are accountable to other students, and partly because they are reading so much and so quickly). We bought 15 new books we had not owned previously. In total, all of the eligible titles (we own 47 of them) had circulated 99 times as of March 26, only three weeks into the challenge.

I think we’re also helping students broaden their reading tastes without feeling like it’s medicine. Many students are reading March: Book 1 or Branded by the Pink Triangle, even those wouldn’t usually pick up nonfiction. Students who seem to be able to smell a grownup book from a mile away are reading novels originally published for adults and finding that they like them. Students I never could have gotten to read graphic novels are trying them out. And, of course, given that I added even more ethnic and gender diversity to the list, those books are flying off the shelves in a way they weren’t before the challenge, even when we put them on displays.

The display shelf of challenge books. Often, it's emptier than this!

The display shelf of challenge books. Often, it’s emptier than this!

There are, of course, some hiccups and things I would change were I to do it again. I’m not a fan of my original title, the Read Like a Librarian Challenge, and haven’t used it in any context since printing it on the scoreboard poster. I also have not come up with a sustainable method for keeping track of which books people are reading. I wanted to find a sort of tag cloud that could be crowd updated, making titles larger as more and more people read them. When I couldn’t find one, I created a Google Form that people could constantly update, and then I thought I would manually compile the results weekly and put them on our website. But no one wants to fill it out, so that has fallen by the wayside. Word of mouth and individual chats about books are what people seem to want most. I wish, too, that I had sent a message to our parent association inviting them to participate, or at least letting them know about what their kids are doing. I may yet; we still have time before the end of the school year.

If you’re looking for a way to engage both young people and adults (though this is probably easier to manage in a school community than a public library) and for a way to keep yourself more accountable in the Hub Reading Challenge, I heartily encourage you to try hosting the same (or similar) challenge in your library. While the setup can take awhile, the managing of the challenge is easy, and it can open the eyes of readers and nonreaders alike.

Have you ever run a reading challenge (other than summer reading) in your library? How did it go?

About Hannah Gómez

School librarian in Northern California. MA children's literature, MS library and information science (Simmons College). Sometime scholar, sometime reviewer, sometime creative writer, always media-obsessed.

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