Kids' reading program starts off in high gear

The Baltimore Sun

When it came time to put together the newest promotional tool for the Baltimore County Public Library's annual summer reading program, Carl Birkmeyer ran into a challenge: getting a person in a 7-foot-tall cat costume to drive a car.

Reading club mascot Sneaks could work the brake, but the costume's feet (and red tennis shoes) were too big for the gas pedal.

"So I had to sneak in, throw the car into drive, and then shout stop when she needed to stop the car," said Birkmeyer, who produced a video promoting the reading program -- taping in a quiet parking lot, not on public streets.

"Reading Road Trip" is the theme for the county library's summer reading program, which kicked off this week. In more than two decades, the club, largely through morning announcements and fliers in schools, has grown to the point that 33,000 young readers participated last year.

Now it is being promoted in a video that can be found on the Web site YouTube.

"Kids enjoy YouTube, and it's simple to put a video on the site," Birkmeyer said.

The club was started more than 30 years ago. Previous themes include outer space, the Old West and prehistoric times, said Valerie Rebbert, a librarian at the Essex branch.

"When I began working in a library 30 years ago, kids did not come into the library during the summer at all," Rebbert said. "The summer reading program has changed that."

Children can sign up in any library branch, for one of three programs: Read to Me Club for children to kindergarten-age, Reading Road Trip for elementary-age children and N2BKS for teens.

Upon registering, children receive a plastic bag that contains a book list, a pencil, coupons, and a game board, said Elizabeth Rafferty, the youth services specialist for the library system.

The game board instructs children what to do to advance to the next spot on the game board. Activities include reading a magazine or poem, reading outdoors and reading books about places they might visit on a road trip, Rafferty said. The activities are age-appropriate, she said.

After completing the game board, participants receive prizes such as pens, balls or small stuffed animals, she said.

"All the prizes are red, white and blue, the colors of America," Rafferty said. "The prizes coincide with the United States road trip theme."

The libraries also have activities planned throughout the summer, including a magic show and an interactive music program. The school with the highest number of readers gets a trophy.

The 1 minute, 25 second YouTube video includes an invitation from Sneaks to children to come and take a virtual road trip.

Sneaks is shown packing items -- including kitty litter -- for the trip. He is then appears in front of a map of the United States, with red dots showing the places visited. Sneaks is seen reading a book about Native Americans with the Grand Canyon behind him, then he reads a book about California with San Francisco in the background.

Sneaks takes off on his journey in a vehicle with sufficient headroom: a convertible. The character is shown behind the wheel for only a few brief seconds -- taped, Birkmeyer said, behind a library loading dock.

"Somehow, somewhere there is a traffic law that says it's not safe to drive in a cat costume," he said.

The promotional video can be found at


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