Passion for reading gets deeper with Summer Reading Challenge

Sally Bawtinheimer lifted her daughter’s backpack early one February morning. She noticed it was heavier than usual. 

“She said, ‘I have six books in there,’” Sally recalled 8-year-old Lucy saying. “’We’re going to be in the car driving around today, I need something to keep me occupied.’” 

Sally and Calvin Bawtinheimer

Building a love of reading in children lays the foundation for a lifetime of success in school and work. Sally is one of many families whose children have discovered a genuine passion for reading.  

The Summer Reading Challenge at Elkhart Public Library helps build those strong readers. 

Families participating in the Summer Reading Challenge for five or more consecutive years say their kids are excited about reading, read more on their own, and love the fun and independence that comes with it. 

<< Start the Summer Reading Challenge right here >>

Skills for a lifetime 

Reniti Burns and her husband have made weekly trips to the library with their son since he was 1. Harold is now 6. 

“We started bringing him to the Baby and Me class when he was a little fella,” says Reniti. “It was important to us. My husband and I are avid readers and we wanted to take full advantage of the resources that the community has.” 

Reniti says they’ve visited Storytimes at every location. Harold recently completed the Growing Readers program downtown. It’s all part of making sure their son has a solid foundation of reading skills. 

“It’s one of those skills that you’re going to use for a lifetime. You’re never not going to have to read,” she says. “Whether it’s a recipe, directions or scrolling Facebook, it’s a necessary life skill.” 

Jerome and Harold Barker with Reniti Burns inside their family’s home.

Reading from a young age makes children more interested and avid readers, parents say. 

Says Sally Bawtinheimer, “Reading is foundational to education. And as you get older, you learn by reading.” 

Her son, 12-year-old Calvin, says it’s a huge learning tool for him. 

“It’s the most important subject that you need because you use it for every other subject. It can bring your grades up if you’re a good reader,” Calvin says. 

Staying fresh through summer 

The Summer Reading Challenge plays a significant part in building that foundation, parents say. 

“It fills that gap (between school), it can be just for fun,” says Shari Wolfgang, a mom of five. “Everybody wants stuff for their kids to do in the summer, and the Summer Reading Challenge has a dual purpose. It gives us something to look forward to and to come and get their prize check-in every week. … It gives us a routine.” 

Reniti also sees the difference Harold’s summer reading makes in him. 

“As an educator myself, a lot of times kids lose the information (from) the school year. I always want to keep him fresh and on (reading) level,” she says. “He is on the autism spectrum, and we didn’t want him to use that as a crutch. That was a motivating factor for keeping him involved in the summer.” 

Shari, Joel and Aili Wolfgang

Combating summer learning loss is also something Shari says she thinks about. 

“We don’t have the summer slide (when reading) is something we keep doing,” she says. “It’s made reading a habit of their life.” 

The place to be 

For these families, the library is the destination for their family entertainment. Regular weekly trips keep them reading and having fun. 

“At the branches, the people are what makes them such a community. They’re so intentional in connecting with our kids. That’s what makes it such an important part of our life. I know they’re coming to a safe place that is going to be educational and healthy for them,” Shari says. 

She says their family bounces around to different library branches, visiting all of them at various times.  

“After school for an hour, we’ll hang out over (at Cleveland) and do homework,” she says. 

Closer to their home, Shari says, Osolo Branch staff are great at knowing what her kids are interested in to suggest books. 

“We get some place that they want to come back to,” says Shari.  

“Miss Janell gets me new books,” says Nixie, Shari’s 9-year-old.  

Library staff make sure the shelves are stocked with books kids want. They also can find books through interlibrary loan.  

“I can say, ‘Hey, try this book,’ but if someone else gives them a recommendation, it’s way cooler,” Shari says. “I could not purchase all the wealth of information that (the library) gives them for free. Everything EPL makes accessible for us is a huge win.” 

“The library is an important part of our life. … It’s a part of our lifestyle,” Sally says. 

<< Start the Summer Reading Challenge right here >>

‘Pulse of the family’ 

Reniti says Harold’s love for the library is just as passionate. 

“Even if we’re just driving past the library, on our way to another errand, he’ll see it and ask if we can go to the library,” she says. 

The change in how he uses the library is different, too, she adds. 

“It’s gone from me holding his hand and leading him to the books to, now, I follow him to the sections that he likes. He picks out the books. He can get his card out and use the self-checkout. It’s wonderful to see,” she says. 

For Sally’s family, the library’s selection makes the difference. 

“(The library) is a pulse of the family,” says Sally. “We follow (the kids’) interests. The library always has an answer for that.” 

With reading always the first option in their home, it turns library visits into a necessity. 

“My goal is always to make reading one of the most exciting things to do in our house. Keeping fresh books in the house – we do that by coming to the library and going to a bookstore once a week,” she says. 

Janell Maust helps Nixie Wolfgang and father Joel pick out a book.

Freedom to read 

Building that love of reading makes the Summer Reading Challenge engaging for kids and keeps them excited and motived to read, says Shari. 

“They love to read now, it’s not a chore. During the school year, their teachers give them reading assignments. But in the summer, it can just be for fun,” she says.  

Shari’s oldest, 11-year-old Kyland, agrees. 

“They had to buy me a lamp because I kept turning on the light in my room,” he says. 

Shari adds that sometimes she and her husband, Joel, need to cut the kids’ reading time short after bedtime. 

“(My oldest kids) read every night, usually like an hour. And we have to be like, ‘OK, go to sleep,’” she says. 

Sally’s son, Calvin, says he’ll read anything. 

“I read a car repair manual once,” he says. “As long as I can read it, I will.” 

How families approach summer reading varies, but all find the options and flexibility part of the appeal. 

“I let him use the Beanstack app to track everything,” says Harold’s mom, Reniti. “At bedtime, (we) open the app and check off our reading. It’s something he looks forward to.” 

Shari also loves the ease of using the app.  

“Being a mom, you’re super busy. So keeping track of one more piece of paper is not easy. Having the app to log it makes it easy and we can track it for them,” she says. “I make sure I scan the barcode and I can log it for all five of them.” 

Her older kids now read to the younger siblings, she says. That way, they make sure they can get credit for all the reading. 

“It’s fun to see it go full circle,” she says. 

Unlocking summer reading badges and earning incentives like experiences and snacks keeps the kids motivated and competitive among each other.  

“It becomes a big family date where everyone gets to go and pick out their popcorn. We (always have people) say, ‘You earned this, great job,’ Shari says. “That affirmation is a great motivator to keep going, too.” 

Calvin Bawtinheimer says the free books are his favorite reward, but he has also saved the Ox Bow County Park pass to go sledding in winter. The family likes keeping track of reading on the paper gameboard.  

“We like to keep it on our refrigerator. It keeps it in front of their face, we’re not having to remind them,” mom Sally says. Calvin adds, “I feel like it’s a reminder to read every day, I can see that I’m getting one step closer to a reward.” 

The 2024 Summer Reading Challenge is going on now through July 18. Learn more right here.