Forest, a brilliant green and red parrot, was having a birthday on June 17, Julie Cardoza of the exotic bird performing act Happy Birds told children of the Pacific Grove Public Library’s Summer Reading program via Zoom. The children sang “Happy Birthday” to Forest, and then a few minutes later one boy, Levi, told Cardoza he had something to share with the birthday bird.
“I know how to play ‘Happy Birthday’ on my violin!” Levi said off-camera to the rest of the audience but visible to Cardoza. He carefully played each note as Piper the cockatoo danced on Cardoza’s finger to the beat of the music. “That was good! It takes a lot of practice to get good at something,” Cardoza told Levi.
It’s the kind of spontaneous interaction that never would have happened during a normal Summer Reading performance at the library, says P.G. Children’s Librarian Mary Weyant. Performances like the Happy Birds are stock in trade for library summer programs, which encourage literacy and bolster children’s reading skills through the summer months when schools are not in session. Bringing in musicians, animal and magic acts brings families to the library and drives home the reading message with performers recommending books.
Shortly after librarians around Monterey County were finalizing plans for performers and ordering prizes for reading challenges, the Covid-19 pandemic threw everything into question. The 16-branch Monterey County Free Libraries canceled all of its performers, says Alison Day, programs outreach and youth services manager. She rebooked them after the performers began offering virtual events.
It’s been a big shift for all the libraries to go virtual in summer. The number of participants is much lower this year – last year MCFL had 2,000 registered participants from children to adults, and this year it’s 400 – but summer reading programs are back virtually.
In some cases, families don’t have internet access, Day adds. “It’s been a real challenge,” she says, noting many families rely on libraries for Wi-Fi. (Access is available in branch parking lots.)
Interest in summer reading programs picked up as some libraries were able to reopen with curbside pickup. At MCFL, they used money set aside for summer reading to create activity bags to give to children coming for pickups or for the system’s summer lunch program.
Like other libraries that reward reading with prizes, Carmel Library’s program includes asking kids to read at least 15 minutes a day in order to win a book. The library is using a program through the state called Beanstack, where readers record their progress. Teens have other challenges included: listening to audio books, watching movies or taking walks. For adults activities include crafts or completing jigsaw puzzles, among others.
It was a recent Carmel Library program about STEM that got Amelia Forstell, 9, of Marina, interested in reading more science books. Her family could be called super-fans of summer reading programs in general – they’re enrolled in every library’s program in the county.
“I like that when you’ve been reading a lot of hours and you finally get a prize it feels good,” Forstell says. For fiction she enjoys mysteries, including the Nancy Drew series.
Forstell’s mom, Suzanna, says it was summer reading programs that inspired 6-year-old son Jeremiah to learn to read.
MCFL’s Day says they’ve found a real hunger from the public for library services in general beyond summer reading programs, which are still taking sign-ups. “Every time we introduce something new it seems to be gobbled up by the public,” she says.