A Better Reading Challenge

After several years grumbling about the lacklustre nature of the summer reading challenge in our local library(1), last year I decided to do something about it and make my own. It was a complete hit in the family, with my children asking for another this year, to which I duly obliged.

Naturally, once I started something like this, I couldn’t leave well alone, and after adding in categories, maps, medal challenges and secret envelopes to be opened at key waypoints, it became a centre-piece of the summer. People who’ve visited and seen it while it was in progress have generally been filled with questions about it, so now that it’s over I thought I’d share it here.

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It begins, as most reading challenges do, with a set of categories, in each of which the person must read a book. There are twenty categories in all, divided into three subsections, Bronze, Silver and Gold, in which the categories get typically harder. The categories can be read in any order, though one needs to complete all of Bronze to achieve Bronze, all of Bronze and Silver to achieve Silver and all twenty to achieve Gold, completion of each of the subsections potentially being marked by a sticker or badge.

Here are this year’s categories for eldest (aged 9):

And for youngest (aged 5).

Each book read can only count for one category, so if a book could fit more than one – for example, a funny book, borrowed from the library and set in a school – a decision must be made as to where to put it (typically in the category which the reader thinks will be hardest to fill). In addition, for Eldest, I had the rule that no author could be used more than once.

The categories can, of course, be tailored to an individual child’s interests and reading ability – I would not have put Lord of the Rings on Eldest’s had he not already been halfway through it! And of course, one can – and both did – read other books over the summer that do not fit within the unused categories.

So far, so good. So far, so good. Where I ended up taking things to the next level was by paring the categories with a map – so that each book read resulted in progress along a ‘journey’, shown by placing stickers upon the path on the map. This created a particularly fun effect: while the categories could be completed in any order, the map journey creates a clearly visible linear progression, each book moving the reader one step closer towards their goal.

This year both Eldest and Youngest are into Narnia (the former reading independently, the latter being read to), so the choice of map was simple.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be Narnia! Here are the two I did last year, first for The Hobbit (a very natural journey!):

And for the ‘Land of Nod’ (from the Ten Minutes to Bed Little [Fairy] series):

You may have noticed that there are asterisks, or stars, on many of the spaces. Upon reaching each of these, the reader is eligible to open an envelope which will have some form of additional information – usually good, such as the ability to stay up late for extra reading, or the chance to go to the library or choose that night’s dinner – but occasionally bad, such as requiring the reader to, for example, read a book to their sibling before proceeding.

Here are the ‘envelope contents’ for 2022:

And for 2023:

Again, these can of course be adapted to the child’s and family’s interests.

Altogether, the combination of the categories, the journey and the envelopes worked together to create a thoroughly enjoyable experience which completely drew my children in – and got them reading some books they might not have otherwise read. I chose to reward successful completion of the reading challenge with a book voucher (with successful completion at Bronze or Silver level receiving a voucher of a lower amount), because, to misquote C. S. Lewis, if you read one good book your reward is to read another and harder and better one.

It would clearly be utterly impracticle for any library, school or other institution to run something like this (though they could – and, indeed, my former school did! – do the categories, with three tiers of award), but at a family level, for us this proved great fun. In particular, the way it blended the ‘open world’ choice of which book to read next with the ‘linear’ progress along the map journey, along with plenty of intermediate goals, was a major element of success.

Borrowing or adapting the idea is, naturally, highly welcomed- and I’d love to know if anyone does.

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(1) Read any six books and get a sticker for each. I appreciate that for some children this is an achievement, and it’s great that it exists but would it kill them to do an ‘advanced’ version, where the books perhaps had to be from certain categories?

4 thoughts on “A Better Reading Challenge

  1. The second link goes to the correct place but you’ve embedded the first set of envelopes twice

  2. Cool maps!

    Does the book from 500 years ago have to be in the original language? I don’t think I’ve read anything that old for fun except in translation.

    (Also impracticle is a misspelling.)

    1. Definitely not! I’ve not read anything that old except in translation either.

      Last year it was Aesop’s Fables; this year the Gillian Cross version of the Odyssey (it is about 150 pages and has more or less the whole story, but is abridged a bit from a straight translation. More like the Michael Morpurgo Beowulf than the Seamus Heaney one).

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