Sneaks the Cat and his three-mouse rhythm section will make appearances at libraries throughout Maryland and the District of Columbia this summer as part of an expanded reading program created by the Baltimore County public library.
For the first time since 1985, when Baltimore County introduced Sneaks, all 25 jurisdictions in the state -- up from 12 counties last year -- will offer the summer reading promotion program, complete with purple T-shirts, slick stickers and fake tattoos.
"We're bringing Sneaks over the bay," said Kathleen Reif, director of the Wicomico County Free Library. "Baltimore County has pulled together a wonderful, organized summer reading structure that we could just list and adapt here."
Reif, a librarian who used to work for Baltimore County's library system, hopes Sneaks will quadruple the number of children who visit Wicomico's library during the summer.
"Last summer we got 500 kids," she said. "But we have about 15,000 children ages birth to 14 in the county. Our target is to eventually reach 10,000 kids."
Sneaks' expansion to libraries in the District of Columbia and the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped was an added coup for Baltimore County librarians, who are proud of the reading program they have built over the years.
"We have a programming committee here that works to create a worthwhile experience for the kids, and it is kind of a proven entity at this point," said Kathy Coster, manager of marketing and programming for Baltimore County's public libraries.
The Sneaks program provides a promotional framework that library systems use to customize local summer reading programs, setting book lists and requirements for children who participate. Baltimore County came up with the promotional material and handles the ordering of T-shirts, stickers and the game boards children use to chart their summer reading activities.
This summer's theme is "Reading Rhythms," and it has Sneaks dressed like a rock 'n' roll singer with a leather jacket, sunglasses and an electric guitar.
"He looks super," said Coster, who hopes a statewide approach will make it easier to market the reading program and win a corporate sponsor. "I'd love to see Sneaks on the back of a bunch of delivery trucks."
This year, library employees in Baltimore County celebrated receipt of the John Cotton Dana Award for the best summer reading program in the nation from the American Library Association -- a prestigious prize, said Coster.
The library system earned praise from judges for a 20 percent, one-year increase in participation in the summer program.
The state recently sent $18,000 in grant money to Baltimore County for expenses, said Coster.
"The bottom line is that we just want kids to read during the summer, especially for pleasure," she said. "They have a lot of forced reading during the school year, but we want them to enjoy it during the summer."
There are other benefits, too. Children who read during the summer break are less likely to lose reading skills, which can drop as much as two grade levels without practice, said Coster.
In Anne Arundel County, where the Sneaks program was introduced last summer, reading participation increased by 16 percent, from about 15,000 children in 1998 to 17,935 in 1999, said spokeswoman Andrea Lewis.
Though Anne Arundel County had a summer reading program, adoption of the Baltimore County model has enabled librarians to save time and money, said Lewis.
"It removes the pressure of making all the graphics decisions and figuring out all the pieces," she said. "We certainly know that by sharing Sneaks and sharing materials and sharing resources that it's a big help to our budget."
The big pull for kids is Sneaks, a cool cat who comes with a new theme and fun pals every summer.
"I think the kids enjoy seeing something that is attractive to them and somethng they can identify with," said Lewis. "Each year, Sneaks has a new outfit and new friends, and they like that. They like the fact that they get to see Sneaks summer after summer."