They knew that solving mysteries would be the theme of this year's summer reading program for children, but county library officials discovered that they had real-life mystery on their hands: The Case of the Missing Totes and Backpacks.
The bags are presented to children who sign up for the popular program, which began about 25 years ago.
Although the bags were ordered in January, a random inspection led to them getting hung up en route to Harford.
"We found out the bags are stuck in New York City in customs," said Margaret Polischeck, a children's librarian at the Abingdon branch and the chairwoman of this year's program.
No worries, Polischeck said. The turn of events was woven into this year's theme.
"We've been jokingly telling [children], 'What a mystery - where are the bags?' and they think it's fun," Polischeck said.
Lines formed at several of the county's 11 branches last week as children showed up to register for the program, called "Clue into Reading," which started Monday and continues through Aug. 26.
Since it began, the program has flourished beyond expectations, said library system Director Audra Caplan.
"Children are learning a love of reading for pleasure," Caplan said. "And reading helps them to succeed in school and as learners."
Last year the program reached a record 16,027 participants to age 18, Caplan said. This year, 4,007 children enrolled on opening day, including 1,160 at the Bel Air branch and 918 at Abingdon.
Caplan attributes the popularity of the program to the growth of the county, as well as research on the benefit of summer reading. Numerous studies show that children have difficulty retaining what they learned during the school year if they don't read during the summer, Caplan said.
"So we have to do things to promote reading that will make kids want to pick up a book and read," Caplan said. "Especially when school is out."
Although library systems throughout Maryland use the same theme, each creates its own variation of the program.
"We interpreted it as a mystery theme," Polischeck said.
The program includes three age groups. The first is the "Read to Me Please" program for preschoolers. To complete the program, parents read 25 books to their child.
The mascot for this group is a mouse with a cookie, inspired by the character in the book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff. The mascot will make appearances at county library branches throughout the summer.
Children in elementary school sign up for "Clue into Reading." They must read 10 books, and receive a packet containing reading activities and coupons from sponsors.
When the children sign up, they are asked to come up with a detective's name, Polischeck said. Upon finishing the books, they fill out a "reader's license" that includes a picture and fingerprint. The card is displayed in the Hall of Famous Detectives.
Also, throughout the duration of the program, participants engage in activities during their visits to the library, such as "Riddle Me a Mystery."
"We hide clue pieces and the children have to find them and come back and tell us where the clue was hidden," Polischeck said. "They really have a great time doing this, and it helps them get to know that librarians are approachable and that we are there for more than just helping with research."
The third program - called "Say What?" - is for middle- and high-school students and calls upon participants to read three books.
However, children who read three additional books can get an extra entry in a drawing for a "Mystery Bag," a tote full of goodies from area sponsors.
While some children were signing up for the first time last week, others - such as the Warricks of Jarrettsville - are veterans of the program.
Curtis Warrick, 11, and his sister, Courtney, 9, registered for their eighth year. Courtney said the program nurtures a love of reading.
"Reading increases your knowledge of what you know," said Courtney. "I like learning new things.
In some cases, previous participants become volunteers in the program. Emily Cunningham, who will be a seventh-grader at North Harford Middle School in the fall, is one of several young volunteers helping with registration at the Jarrettsville branch, which opened in May.
Emily started with the program six years ago and is now sharing her knowledge and love for reading with other youngsters.
"I like helping the little kids. They get so excited when they sign up for the program," the 12-year-old said. "When registration is done, I get to help them find books that they like."
And that is what the program is all about, said Polischeck.
"It's all about fostering a sense of community," she said.