For Kerri Messler "Books and Ballin'" is all about fighting back against that dreaded "summer slide."
At Jerry Burrel Park in Schenectady, a good sized crowd watched a community basketball league game, and hip hop music played wafted through the playground Saturday. Messler, the K-12 English Language Arts and Library coordinator for the Schenectady City School District, sat on an inflatable chair amid a mobile book library, filled with colorful titles like "Children of Blood and Bone" and graphic novels about Marvel superhero Black Panther, all with library barcodes on them. She explained why reading teachers fear the summertime.
"When kids are not in school, from June until September, if they aren't reading as much, often times we see in the school system a slip in their reading levels," Messler said. "We generally see a level or two [decline]."
"It's significant enough that when you leave fourth grade and you enter fifth grade, you're reading at a level lower than when you left fourth grade," Messler said. "That is an issue for us."
"There's things that we know from the research about what makes a difference – they have to keep up with their reading over the summer," Messler said.
Tom Verret, a third year sixth-grade teacher at Mount Pleasant Middle School, said he often has to spend the first month and a half of every school year re-teaching material from the prior grade in order to get his pupils back to where they were before summer started.
"I would say [summer slide] affects well over half the students," Verret said. "It was a surprise to me. It's just a matter of them not having that exposure over the summer."
"It's kind of like working out in the gym," Verret continued. "If you don't use it, you're going to lose it."
Messler and Verrett, along with Mount Pleasant school librarian Kristina Graves and other school district employees, helped organize the "Books and Ballin'" event Saturday, a collaboration of the Schenectady City School District, the nonprofit group Boys Day Out and the Schenectady County Public Library. She said the event is the first of 12 scheduled book mobile events for this summer.
"When our schools close in June, so do our (school) libraries," Graves said. "We also partner with the public library, and we know that for some of our kids the libraries in the city are not as easily accessible.
"So, we bring the library to where we know the kids are going to be – it's about access," Graves said.
It's also about selection. Graves said part of her job as a school librarian is to help identify what books youngsters want to read, and to make sure she has enough of them to go around.
"Our kids right now really like graphic novels," Graves said. "But they also really like book clubs. So, we try to buy multiple copies of each title, because there's something about reading something at the same time with other people and talking about it, makes it more fun, and it makes it more cool."
More from the project's website: Schenectady Reads Book Mobile, Books and Ballin'
"I usually try to see what's popular in each of the grade bands," Graves said. "But I also want to make sure our kids can see themselves in the titles that we select."
Messler said books that focus on racial minority characters are an important factor in motivating the minority majority school population of the Schenectady City School system. She said they look for books that can act as "windows and mirrors."
"In the publishing industry, maybe 11 percent of books are published for minority children. Our kids want to pick up a book that has people that look like them. It's important that they be able to see themselves in the characters," Messler said. "They want to pick up Black Panther, because a superhero who is black matters, it engages them, and when they get engaged, they read like crazy."
To spend his time reading over summer vacation, sixth grade student Quajere Caldwell said he only really needs two things: a new book he's interested in and a place to read it.
He already has the place.
"I like to go in my room, and turn my light on and sit," Caldwell said. "I have like a min-desk in my room. I like to sit at my desk, and read my book."
Caldwell said he prefers books about sports, like basketball and football, and on Saturday he found a new one called "Last Shot: Mystery at the Final Four" by John Feinstein, a book novel that combines sports information within a mystery plot.
Feinstein's novel is also one of a series of mystery novels that take place in the world of sports. Messler said its good for the school system to find books that can help establish a "text lineage" in students, that will compel them to read all of an author's books.
"I think about for myself, what was the first book that I really fell in love with, it was by Judy Bloom, and I had to read everything by Judy Bloom," Messler said.
"That's what for me really connected me, and I would read her next book and her next book. The same thing happens for all kids," Messler said. "They read the "All American Boy" and they say, 'What else can I read by Jason Reynolds?'"
"Kids get super thirsty for the next title, and we have to be ready to go with the next one." Messler said. "We are super intentional with everything that we buy, so when a kid says: 'What can I read that's just like this?' We have two or three more for them to choose from."
Dennis Green, the chairman of Boys Day Out, said his organization, with the help of a $50,000 grant from the Schenectady Foundation, provided free food and drinks at the book mobile Saturday.
"If you build it, they will come. The idea was to get food out here, to have a great time. We make sure everybody is watered down and fed. You can come take a book, get a sandwich, a hotdog, a taco, whatever," Green said.
Green said Boys Day Out has a summer program called "Schools Out Challenge" that targets 10 middle school students that have may have struggled academically or socially. The program seeks to provide summer educational enrichment as well connect the students to high school staff, and the college experience, as incentives for them to remain in school.
Deandre Taylor, 13, who will be entering ninth grade in the fall, is a participant in Schools Out Challenge. He said the program recently taught him about how to write argumentative essays using classic topics, such as who would win in a fight between Superman and the Hulk, and who is a greater basketball player, Michael Jordan or LeBron James.
Taylor borrowed Black Panther: The Young Prince, a prose novel by Ronald L. Smith from the mobile library Saturday.
"I like novels, and I also like superheroes, so this combined two of the things that I like," Taylor said.
Messler said last year the mobile book library had 200 exchanges, but it only had books for middle school-aged children. She said this year the mobile library has expanded offerings for readers from kindergarten through grade 12, and the mobile library had 40 books borrowed on Saturday.
The next #Schenectadyreads event is set for July 13 at the MLK Elementary School.