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Building Heroes: Program Ideas for Summer Reading 2015

by Molly Wetta

*This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Kids & Books.*

Many children's and teen librarians are likely still recovering from summer, which is often the busiest season in libraries with programming offered during the day in addition to evenings and weekends. While everyone may still be compiling their statistics, reflecting on successes and areas to improve upon, and catching their breath, it's not too early to start thinking about programs for next year!

Many libraries around the country utilize the Collaborative Summer Library Program, which provides resources and programming ideas tied to a theme as well as promotional materials. The 2015 theme for children is a "Every Hero Has a Story" and for teens is "Unmask!"

Summer reading looks different in every library. In some, it may involve a packed schedule of programs throughout the summer, and in other communities, a kick-off and closing event may be the big feature, with more passive or smaller programs during the weeks. Whether or not you utilize the theme and no matter many resources you have, hopefully you'll find some ideas that may get you excited about planning your own summer reading programs.

Programs that mix movement, art, and open-ended storytelling are an exciting way to offer child-centered activities, rather than more regimented programming where adults are directing the action. Take inspiration from Playbods, an interactive program, discussed at Library as Incubator Project. Provide recycled materials, art supplies, and inspiration on the "every hero has a story" theme, and watch the stories come to life.

Another way to bring together a community to celebrate heroes and stories is to take an outside space, and turn it into an interactive story, as Cleveland has done with its Literary Lots. With the help of artists and community volunteers, vacant lots have been transformed into interactive art exhibits where stories come to life.

If a program on that scale isn't feasible for your community, take the concept and use cardboard and paint to create a world inspired by the heroes of mythology, the heroes of history, the heroes in your community, or superheroes. With basic craft supplies, paper, and cardboard meant for the recycle bin, children can create their own city or landscape in order to create a world where children can explore the stories of heroes.


Libraries can help students retain and build upon their classroom studies during the summer, which is why many libraries offer summer-long science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) enrichment activities. An excellent way to get kids excited about learning is to frame the activities around superheroes. The Science of Superheroes from Popular Science provides great inspiration. These could be part of a long series, or stations for an afternoon program.

  • Superman: Flight

Explore the concepts associated with flight  with paper airplanes, balloons, kites, parachutes, or animals capable of flight.

  • Storm: Lightning

Invite the local weatherman to talk about lightning and safety in storms, and do fun experiments to recreate lightning with static electricity.

  • Magneto: Magnetization

Explore electricity by creating magnets. Or, make some magnetic silly putty. The possibility for simple experiments is endless, and librarians can customize to the age group their program targeting. For an art activity, try painting with magnets.

  • Batman: Gravity

With his gadgets and gizmos, Batman is always making death-defying leaps off buildings. Explore gravity, space, and time as demonstrated in this video by How Stuff Works. You can play some fun gravity games or try gravity painting.

  • MegaMan: Robotics

Many superheroes battle robots or have robotic parts. To learn more about how circuits work, you can make Bristlebots using the kits or DIY directions. You can also have endless amounts of fun with squishy circuits. Kids will enjoy designing their own tin can robot. In Lawrence, we're lucky to have the resources of the University of Kansas in town, and have had members of the KU Robotics club come and give a talk and demonstration with more advanced robots. If your community has a similar expert or other resources, invite them to present. The kids will love it! 

Graphic novels, comics, and even the funny pages from the newspaper can all be recycled into  a variety of crafts: magnets, wallets, coasters, and many more.

Invite your local comic artist for a workshop on creating comics. At Lawrence Public Library, we've partnered with the local comic shop, whose owner happens to be quite the artist, to put on a program teaching kids how to draw their own characters.

Explore onomatopoeia by adapting this lesson or create a matching game, where children can pair the sounds represented with the action or object that creates them.

Design a superhero with these worksheets, or use it for inspiration and create your own. Kids will also enjoy making aspects of a superhero costume, whether that is designing their own logo and making t-shirts, a superhero controller, or masks. And once they're all dressed up with their props, it's fun to take pictures in a photo booth. Create one out of cardboard, paper, or paint on a shower curtain.

Books and reading are libraries' bread and butter, but that doesn't mean kids can't get active. A superhero obstacle and training course is a fun way to encourage kids to get active. This list of games is a great place to gather ideas for designing your own superhero training program.

Superheroes are fun and exciting, but there are many other types of heroes with their own story to tell. Celebrating everyday heroes from your community -- like firefighters, police, doctors, and veterans -- through a storytime series where children have a chance to meet everyday heroes would be a way to raise awareness about these careers and thank those who contribute in important ways to our communities.

The summer reading theme also provides an interesting platform to introduce children to classic mythology heroes, with the added bonus of exploring other cultures. In addition to Greek and Roman myths, explore Norse and Egyptian mythology, or those from Latin American, African, and Indigenous cultures.

History is another rich source for stories of heroes. From the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement, there are great historical figures to feature in storytimes.

Many of the previous activities could be adapted for teens (hey, everyone loves crafts). But some programs  are best suited to a young adult audience.

Identity masks are an intriguing way to play on the theme of "unmask." Creating one reveals more than it hides. This workshop from the Girls Action Network would work well for all teens and could be easily adapted for use in the library.

Teens should get in on the superhero action, too! Make like the Avengers and have teens create a green screen movie.

The teens at my library have loved participating in scavenger hunts that get them out in the community. This summer, they did a Where's Waldo-themed hunt, and for last year's Teen Read Week, we did a "Choose Your Own Apocalypse" themed hunt. No matter the theme, the basic idea is to write clues that direct participants to various spots and have them take pictures, solve riddles, or collect objects. You can devise a point system to determine the winner, or have the hunt end with a pizza or ice cream party. For the summer reading theme, you could easily make a superhero or mythology-themed hunt. These programs are a lot of work to put together, but in Lawrence, our community loves participating in them and they have been some of our most well-attended events.

The list of activities for teens wouldn't be complete without something fandom-related, and with a theme like "Unmask", a cosplay workshop where teens make or sew their own costumes so they can dress up as their favorite character is a perfect choice for a program. Consider putting on a fashion show or throwing a costume party. Wouldn't Heroes and Villains be a fun theme?

These are just some jumping off points and inspiration for youth services librarians who are beginning to think and plan their summer reading activities. Hopefully libraries of all sizes and budgets can find ideas for summer reading programs, whether or not they use the Collaborative Summer Library program.

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Molly Wetta is the YA and Media Selector at Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, KS, where she wrangles a teen book club and manages the library's Tumblr. She also contributes to YALSA's young adult literature blog, The Hub