FORT BELVOIR, Va. - Defense Department libraries have embarked on their first department-wide summer reading program to encourage military children to keep their reading skills sharp during the summer.

More than 250 base libraries are swimming in the throes of "Voyage to Book Island," an activity-packed reading program in which children are asked to read books over the summer, said Nilya Carrato, program assistant for the Navy General Library Program.

While service and installation libraries have sponsored their own programs in the past, "Voyage to Book Island" marks the first department-wide summer reading program, Carrato noted. This consistency pools resources and enables military children who move over the summer to pick up the program where they left off at their new installation, she added.

At Fort Belvoir's Van Noy Library, the program has two hearty advocates. Roben Closs is the library's director for youth services and Katie Buxbaum is the circulation desk manager.

Closs said the library christened the program with a puppet show three weeks ago.

The two have distributed more than 285 reading logs for the program at the library, another 400 at Fort Belvoir Elementary School and another 40 to teen readers. Closs said there's no limit on how many readers can participate in "Voyage to Book Island."

Buxbaum said most children who finish the program are typically in kindergarten and first grade. "However, last year, children from every age participated in the library's summer reading program," she said.

The program is for youth from birth, where the parents read to them, all the way up to high school seniors.

"It's so rewarding to see them getting excited about a book or finishing one on their own," Buxbaum said. "Reading just opens doors for them. To see them enjoy reading is really rewarding for me."

"There's so much competition for kids' reading time. It's important that kids read, too, in addition to other things that take up time in their summers. Please read, too, after part-time jobs, family vacations, computers and games," Closs encouraged.

She said reading during the summer break from school is exceptionally important. "If they don't read at all during the summer, then they typically spend the first four weeks of school catching up," Closs said. "Then, they spend the rest of the school year catching up from that, too.

Reading during the summer helps keep their minds sharp for school." Closs and Buxbaum lauded the benefits of a DoD-wide summer reading program. "Last year, we created our own program," Closs said. "This is good because it provides us some books and the materials, including logs, prizes and stickers."

Prizes at Belvoir include T-shirts and a goodie bag of beach items, Closs said.

As of late last week, she said 17 readers had already finished the required number of books in only two weeks since the program began.

Those 17 readers already have filled out a treasure-chest jewel or coin label with their name and posted it on a nautically decorated wall, in keeping with the program's theme. "We expect the wall to be covered by the end of the summer," Buxbaum said. "We've had a mom come in and take pictures when her children posted their names, to send reading and participation proof to their deployed father. Also, we have some deployed parents reading to their children via Skype."

For the older children, they have a bingo card calendar to fill out with a variety of reading projects, such as 'read a magazine,' 'read anything' and 'read to a dog.'

"As you get older, using the library is more than just reading," Buxbaum said. "It's the computer, databases, meetings and e-books. The library is the place for all of that."

"Don't freak out," Closs advised the young readers. "The goal is to read over the summer. It doesn't have to be really structured."

Carrato said book choice is left to the readers, noting they can read a variety of fiction and nonfiction or even the same book several times if they'd like.

Elaine Wilson of American Forces Press Service contributed to this story.