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Taking the Teen Summer Reading Challenge to Virtual Heights

Taking the Teen Summer Reading Challenge to Virtual Heights

Teen Summer Challenge began in 2012 when dedicated Pierce County Library System (PCLS, Washington) staff identified the need for an approach to summer reading that moved beyond a traditional one-size-fits-all model to reach and engage diverse teens across the county. Low participation numbers and low engagement prompted staff to think outside the box to provide a meaningful summer reading experience for teens.

I joined the project this year as a new librarian, and am thrilled to work on a summer reading program that effectively provides a pathway through which teens encounter new ideas, share their creativity, skills, and opinions, and engage with the library in new ways. Since much has been written about the more technical aspects of Teen Summer Challenge, including its implementation of gamification, I will focus on how the move to an online program presents unique opportunities for a  library, spread across many miles, to provide a way for teens to discover, share, and engage regardless of where they live and how physically mobile they are.

Inspired by the Search Institute’s research on Sparks and Thriving, trends in gamification, and the examples of online summer reading programs created by Ann Arbor and New York Public Library, PCLS decided to move Teen Summer Reading  online. With no budget and very little time, Youth Services and the Virtual Services departments formed a necessary partnership. We used WordPress plugins to build game design elements into an online platform for teens to discover new interests, try new experiences, and share their opinions and creations with a community of teens from all over Pierce County by completing challenges to earn points and digital badges.


Teen Summer Challenge still has all the essential elements of a traditional summer reading program—players track their reading throughout the summer, earn points for every hour they read, find and recommend books to other players, and respond to their favorite fandoms.  But online, we have been able to add so much more.

In line with this year’s Collaborative Summer Library Program’s theme “Spark a Reaction,” we explored the ways in which science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) spark change in our communities and shape our world. Youth service librarians gathered and curated STEAM-related content, resources, and challenge activities organized around three modes of engagement: play, discover, and learn. Play badges highlighted STEAM activities related to popular fandoms. Discover badges explored the intersections of STEAM on topics of interest to teens, such as our Video Game badge. Learn badges focused on skill-building in specific STEAM areas, such as our Graphic Design or Build a Website badges.

In curating online content, our goal was to create a portal through which teens encounter and explore the intersections of pop-culture, science, technology, and art from multiple perspectives, so that a digital badge on the topic of Music, for example, not only challenges teens to learn about instrumental basics, but also invites them to engage with music from scientific, technical, and cultural perspectives. To develop digital badges like this one, we took advantage of engaging, interactive, and educational web content. Supported by research on teen media use, we looked to videos, tutorials, and games to introduce ideas, explain concepts, and spark discussion and critical thinking by inviting teens to submit their reactions and ideas in activity streams and comment threads.

We scoured the Internet and consulted YALSA’s STEM Programming Toolkit and STEM Resources Wiki for content. We relied heavily on material produced by PBS LearningMedia and PBS DigitalStudios: using YouTube channels like Off Book, Idea Channel, It’s Okay to Be Smart, and VSauce, for example. We highlighted the Maker movement by pointing teens to Make Magazine and Instructables. We were also inspired by initiatives like Code.org and its affiliates, Mozilla Webmaker, and Google’s Made With Code to introduce coding, programming, re-mixing, and web development.

This program allowed our librarians to provide a way for teens to discover awesome and meaningful content on the web in a variety of mediums to support STEAM-related knowledge and skill-building relevant to their interests. 


Traditional summer reading programs require teens to work independently, tracking individual time spent reading. By moving the program online, we incorporated elements of social media to give teens more opportunities to share what they were learning, doing, and creating. This year, we added a mechanism by which we released new badges throughout the summer. Teens were able to suggest activities for us to incorporate into the challenge and affect the actual program. By celebrating and showcasing their submissions, and giving participants ownership of their own program, Teen Summer Challenge gave the library the important opportunity to recognize and honor teen voice, creativity, and talent. View a few of my favorite submissions.

As a social platform, Community Agreements guided players’ submissions, status updates, and comments. We encouraged teens to work together to complete challenges; players enjoy working on activities with friends and family, so this year we created an entire badge with a series of activities to be completed by a group. This balance of online and in-person social activity increased excitement about the program.


Finally, Teen Summer Challenge promotes online engagement with the library in new ways. One badge encouraged teens to become familiar with the library website and e-sources. Another set of badges highlighted pictures of Spike, our teen services mascot, at each of our 18 branches.  To earn points, teens had to identify his location. Teen librarians interacted with players through our online profiles, and built relationships with teens spread out across the county.  Some of these teens are youth we may not be able to reach or meet in any other way.

Still, online engagement can be a challenge. In the first two years, a number of interested teens did not have internet at home and struggled to participate.  This year we reintroduced traditional reading logs to cross over and promote the online program. Branches and even some community partners held meet-ups for teens to gather to work together, complete activities, and hang out. Some librarians incorporated activities into regular programs. One of our stated goals each summer is to connect teens to the resources and services the library has to offer so they will become year-round users.

Future Directions

While the move to an online program has opened up opportunities for PCLS to more effectively reach and engage our teen communities, this kind of summer reading program might not be an appropriate fit for your library, community, or budget. Teen Summer Challenge is only three years old, and we still have plenty to learn, but we will continue to share our strategies and lessons learned in trying to create discovery and engagement opportunities for teens at the library and online.

To learn more, check out these links:

First year of PCL’s Teen Summer Challenge

Current year of Teen Summer Challenge 

New PCL Adult Program launched this year

(Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in School Library Journal)

About Elise Doney

Elise Doney (MLIS 2013) is a Teen Services Librarian at Pierce County Library.

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