Most librarians realize that families are at the heart of providing support for developing lifelong readers. Involving families in reading fun, activities, and training is integral to creating a strong network of readers. Families (along with other significant adults in the reader’s life) can support and promote reading at home by making reading an everyday, even casual, activity. School librarians can play an important role in helping families in the school’s efforts to support and develop readers at home as well as at school. Free Book Night is a great way to offer a special event that focuses on reading.
School librarians can play a central role in communicating information on reading to families. They can let families know what’s new in reading, how to support and build a reader, and what social reading activities are available in the school or community. School librarians can also lead the effort to host special reading events like a Free Book Night for families. This event helps readers become interested, motivated, and efficient by developing a home support network and home reading habits. It is an opportunity to remind parents of the importance of being reading role models, providing reading time at home, maintaining a home bookshelf of reading materials, participating in reading conversations, and providing moral support for reading. It is also a way for the school to promote opportunities in the community for participation in reading-related activities with connections to the library.
Free Book Night
Pre-planning: Work with administrators to set a date on the school calendar for an evening family reading event. Once the date is set, establish a committee to help and to ensure there are others on the staff with a vested interest in the project. Begin by collaboratively developing a promotion plan in order to get the word out to the community and families. Create a plan for the evening. Consider spaces needed, supplies, donations, training, and entertainment. Plan for the important components, but also think outside the box. For example, would attendees enjoy having a local sports mascot or book character in costume to greet them as they enter?
Registration: In many communities, providing food is a key to successful attendance. In order to plan for the amount of food needed, pre-registration will, therefore, be important. Consider that some children do not come from a nuclear family, and other parents will not be able to attend unless the whole family can come, so create a registration that includes a spot to fill in “number attending” on the RSVP. Keep in mind that some who register will not attend and others who fail to register will make a surprise appearance. The “family” taking responsibility for the student’s reading well-being may be a step-parent, parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, cousin, older sibling, or other significant adult, which is sometimes even a school employee. Create an openness and flexibility in programming to accommodate and welcome participation from any and all significant adults in that student’s life.
Volunteers: Work with school staff to organize volunteers to help with the event. People are needed to help with the planning, event set-up, management during the event, and clean-up. Planners can help develop programming, locate donations, and create promotional material to advertise. Before the event, have volunteers help decorate and arrange seating and presentation materials. Volunteers will be needed at the event to serve the food, take photographs, supervise the younger sibling breakout room, participate in the student activities room, and as a special subgroup during the event to speak to the parents in an unintimidating and informative manner. The clean-up crew ensures everything is picked up, reorganized, and ready for the next school day.
Donations: Families are more likely to attend with a little incentive. Work with local restaurants to donate paper products and easy-to-serve snacks. Pizza, chicken nuggets, fruit, and other finger foods make serving easier. Work with book vendors, community groups, and philanthropic organizations to donate new books for students to take home. It is very powerful when a student has a book in his or her hands to take home for a personal book shelf. It is best to plan for one to three books for each attending student.
Public Library Involvement: Invite the public library staff to attend. While people are arriving and during the meal, participants can apply for public library cards and receive information about library events. During the evening’s presentation, give the public librarians a few minutes to share upcoming free programs for students and families and how to receive regular updates from the library about forthcoming family events and activities.
Once everyone is settled and has had a chance to eat, divide the group by age levels. Allow the parents to stay where they are, take the students to another area for their evening events, and provide a separate room for younger siblings. Families are busy, so ensure the simultaneous programs take no more than twenty to thirty minutes.
Parents: Prepare handouts with basic reading strategies and advice for parents. Make it easy to follow and simple to implement in a home. Present recommendations to parents in chunks with different teachers, school librarians, and administrators speaking for just a few minutes on a particular piece of advice. Include tips for developing a reader and supporting reading at home, selecting books for their child, and where to go to get books.
Students: After students are settled in their areas for the evening, make it fun as well as educational. Have tables set up with a simple bookmark craft and counters or other tables with the give-away books displayed. Send students in small groups to select their free book or books, getting through all students within fifteen to twenty minutes. While some students pick out books, the seated students can make their craft. Inexpensive craft supplies can be simple cardstock with a ribbon to tie to the end and markers and crayons for decoration or beads and three strings of embroidery thread to weave into a bookmark. Once all students have selected their book or books, use their new books to learn a few simple strategies for effective book selection. For example, guide them through looking at the cover, author, or title, reading the book’s blurb on the back or inside front, looking at the copyright page for the brief summary and subject headings, and reading the first page or two.
Younger Siblings: In order to attend, some families may need to bring younger siblings, but parents may not be comfortable receiving parenting advice with them present. Before programming begins, plan for the younger children to go to a separate wing or room. Coordinate this child care with a local Scout troop, 4H group, or other youth philanthropic organization. Prepare activities to keep them busy, like storytime and coloring of book-themed coloring pages available with a simple Internet search for free use. Use donated Halloween costume pieces and have the children act out a poem like Jane Yolen’s “Read to Me”.
Wrap-up the Family Book Night extravaganza with thank you notes to all volunteers and community contributors. Post messages on the school webpage and student newsletter thanking all families for participating and publicly thanking the volunteers and donors. Send a few of the best photos and a brief blurb to the principal, school district administrators, and local newspapers.
Leslie Preddy has served as school librarian at Perry Meridian Middle School in Indianapolis since 1992 and as an adjunct professor for Indiana University, Indiana State University, and IUPUI. She has presented webinars and is a frequent speaker and consultant at education conferences and events. She has published many articles in professional journals, co-created online resources for educators, and is the author of SSR with Intervention: A School Library Action Research Project, Social Readers: Promoting Reading in the 21st Century, and School Library Makerspaces. Preddy is a recipient of many awards including AASL’s Collaborative School Library Media Award and Perry Township Schools Teacher of the Year. She is Past-President of the American Association of School Librarians and the Association of Indiana School Library Educators. Preddy is a recent recipient of two grants for her school library makerspace from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, administered by the Indiana State Library.