In 2012, the Youth Services team at Skokie Public Library decided to create a summer reading initiative for middle school youth. We all know that pleasure reading takes a nosedive when kids hit middle school — something about all those junior high reading assignments — and we wanted to see if we could help to change that.
The idea was this: if we could come up with a really exciting list of titles and booktalk them at schools just as school was winding down, we might be able to keep middle schoolers reading happily over the summer, when they have more leisure time. We formed a committee of four enthusiastic, YA-reading librarians, named the initiative Hot Summer Reads, and went to work.
The first step was to come up with the books. Our criteria were:
- mostly contemporary settings
- teen or tween protagonists
- fast-moving plots
- subjects that grab attention
- writing that hooks the reader within the first few pages
We had more fun than we could have imagined as we plowed through book after book, weeding out the ones that included teens engaging in behaviors like underage drinking. (As you know, there are plenty of those!) After a lot of reading, discussion and thought, we came up with our first list:
- Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher 
- Heist Society by Ally Carter 
- The Maze Runner by James Dashner 
- Along for the Ride by Sarah Dessen 
- The Runner by Carl Deuker 
- Project Sweet Life by Brent Hartinger 
- Girl, Stolen by April Henry 
- Pop by Gordon Korman 
- Legend by Marie Lu 
- Ruined by Paula Morris 
That first year, we visited each of our middle schools and booktalked the list starting in April. As an incentive, we encouraged kids to vote for their favorite titles and promised to ask the winning author to come to Skokie.
From the beginning, Hot Summer Reads was a huge success. There were waiting lists for each of the books on our list all summer long! And Jay Asher, the author of the most popular book that year, did indeed visit Skokie and delighted our middle schoolers with his presentation.
Interest in Hot Summer Reads has continued to grow each year. In fact, we recently launched a companion list for grades 3 through 5. We call it Cool Summer Reads, and it’s been very well received, too. Hot Summer Reads is just finishing its fourth year — we’ve hosted Gordon Korman, Natalie D. Richards, and James Klise over the last three years — and our ranks of selectors have swelled to seven YA-reading librarians from multiple departments.
We’re thrilled that we’ve found a way to make pleasure reading exciting for an age group that is often hard to reach. Our plans for the future include finding ways to engage kids in creating the list as well as in making and presenting the booktalks. After all, a book looks that much more interesting if it’s presented to you by a fellow tween rather than by the same librarian you had for storytime when you were little!
Mary Michell is a youth services librarian and chair of the Hot Summer Reads committee at Skokie Public Library.