On my virtual desk today (although it's from last week) was this article, in which a public librarian discouraged a 9-year-old from participating in the reading contest he's won for the past 5 years.
That's right, a librarian who tried to ban a child from reading.
Right, so how could this have been handled instead? As a former participant in similar reading programs (and, yeah, I have a competitive streak, although from what I remember we were only competing against ourselves) and as an MLIS-holder who will likely be in charge of a summer reading program someday, I think that I can see both sides of the situation.
I was the kid whose parents grounded her from reading (impressive because I cared so much about it, but also not particularly effective... because I cared so much about it). If someone had told me -- at 9, mind you! -- that my reading accomplishments wouldn't be recognized, and that winning the award several years in a row was "hogging" it and spoiling the fun for other kids, I would not have been sympathetic. And I'm not at all pleased now, as an adult, that the library director saw fit to say those things in public.
However, the purpose of a summer reading program is to get (and keep) children interested in reading and learning. Knowing ahead of time that one student will take home the prize isn't much of an incentive for anyone else. (Lacking a bitter gradeschool rivalry that might make an amusing children's book in itself...) I doubt that enthusiastic readers would be much discouraged, but those on the fence might need something to motivate them. So here are a few suggestions for anyone who finds herself in a similar situation:
ADD MORE PRIZES
There may be one grand winner over all, but others can be included and their efforts acknowledged with prizes divided by age or grade level, or by book level or genre. Maybe there are opportunities for "extra credit" through storytime attendance, book reports, or video submissions -- not to water down the achievement awards but to allow for more varied participation.
INSTATE A LIMIT... QUIETLY
Maybe a two-time winner is officially retired, with his or her name posted in the library along with a list of book recommendations. Maybe the previous year's winner isn't eligible this year, but can compete the next year. Make this decision before the contest begins, DON'T link it to a particular student, and be prepared to defend your reasoning gracefully. Offer some benefit to emeritus status, whether it's helping tally up the entries, listening to readers' synopses of books they've read, or being the one to choose or award the prize.
REWARD PERSONAL ACCOMPLISHMENT
My childhood library had each reader keep track of his titles during the summer program. I wasn't trying to beat anyone else (or at least no one in particular); I was proud to record my accomplishments for their own sake. I also enjoyed the actual reading and chose books based on interest, not with one eye on the scoreboard.
DEMONSTRATE VALUE OF READING
I see that the Hudson Library offers an end-of-summer party to all those who read 10 or more books, which is great! Could the kids who showed the most reading improvement be called out there? Maybe readers could post their favorite selections, or share something that they learned during the summer. Focus on the benefits of reading, not on the numbers.
These options would encourage youth to be involved with the library programming and resources, stimulate healthy competition, and open the spotlight to a wider range of participants. They would also acknowledge enthusiasm, hard work, and dedication to learning in the children who participate. I think that's striking a reasonable balance -- without shaming voracious readers.