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Second Time Around

September 5, 2012
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​Too often, I fear, our children’s reading is being treated as some sort of a race. How many sight words do you have? Have you started chapter books? Are you past Magic Treehouse? Have you read Harry Potter yet? While benchmarks may be helpful in a broad sense, and while diagnostics are important in the classroom, I wonder if we are imposing a false metric on reading and I wonder what the effects will be. Who decided that Harry Potter was the standard of reading accomplishment? Who decided that laying aside picture books for the Boxcar Children is a badge of honor?

​I know parents who encourage their children to “read” the audiobooks of advanced books so they can say they’ve read the book. I know other parents who proudly escort their equally proud grade-schoolers into the young adult section even though they are not emotionally ready to read The Hunger Games. There’s nothing wrong with audiobooks–they are a great way to enjoy books as a family, for entertainment on a trip, or to fall in love with a story in a different way. And there is nothing wrong with letting your children read books from time to time that are a stretch for them. But treating reading as something linear with different milestones to check off undermines the broader goal of building strong readers who understand the material and who love reading.

​ Of course all children read books they don’t understand fully–either because they aren’t ready for them or because they simply miss things. We all do it. Who hasn’t gone back to a book read in high school or college and found new dimensions (Jane Eyre, I’m talking to you)? Or who hasn’t gone back to an old favorite, on the shelf for years, and fallen back in love?

​Maybe we should encourage our children to reread books they’ve read and enjoyed. They might see things they didn’t understand or catch the first time around. They might better understand the foreshadowing or the way the story unfolds once they know how it ends. Their comprehension may be different once they have already mastered the characters and plot.

​There is also much to be said for encouraging your child to check out “easier” books from time to time. Missed Mercy Watson or The A to Z Mysteries? Your child might enjoy tearing through them and might find some wonderful stories along the way. Maybe reading should be more about fun and not so much about which reading list you’re on. Otherwise, we’ll have 10 year olds who read Dostoyevsky but who somehow missed Ramona.

Build on a Book

June 25, 2012
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Summer is here, and with it are camps and family trips and adventures outside. Hopefully there are also trips to the library and many happy hours curled up with a book. Summer may be busy or it may be lazy, or it may be both. But no matter what kind of summer it is shaping up to be, summer is a time of opportunity to build or expand a love of reading.

Anything that sparks an interest probably has a good book to build with. Our small backyard has produced a wonderland of nature for us this year—hummingbirds, songbirds, caterpillars, fireflies, butterflies, and the occasional neighborhood cat. Our back windows host three different types of spiders, each building different kinds of webs and one who has produced not one but three egg sacks. Watching the baby spiders hatch has been a highlight for our kids. What magical things to see. And what magical things to read about. I gathered the books we had about these animals, and we are heading to the library to pick up more.

Family trips also are an opportunity for the whole family to check out books that relate to the place you’re going. Heading to New York? Why not check out some books on NY history, picture books about the subway or the city, or even From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler or When You Reach Me? Heading to the beach? How about books about shells and ocean life, or even Call it Courage, Treasure Island, or a book about early explorers?

Or build from a book—if your child loves Little House on the Prairie, why not check out some non-fiction books about early settlers, plan a visit to a historic farm, or plan a meal with some of the foods mentioned in the book? Or ask a librarian to recommend similar books, like Caddie Woodlawn?

There are so many opportunities to incorporate books into whatever your children are interested in. And you can foster a love of reading by finding books that fuel those interests. Once you are working books into the daily life of your family, you will see many ways that you can reference books throughout the day. Things you see or experiences you have may relate to things you’ve read about or experiences the characters in books have had. You may visit a zoo and see a sloth sleeping—just like in Slowly, Slowly, Slowly Said the Sloth. You may see the swan boats, just like in Trumpet of the Swan or Make Way for Ducklings. You might see stocks in a colonial village, just like in The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Don’t miss the chance to make the connection, to quote a line, to draw the analogy. Doing so makes the world of books come alive.

Summer Time

June 5, 2012

Summer for me was always in large part about books. Sure, the heady days of unstructured outdoor fun, trips to the beach or to visit family, camps, and impromptu playdates were a major part of the warm months, but I always looked forward to summer as a time when I could go to the library every one or two weeks and bring home a mountain of books to devour. I was so proud of working my way through the stacks of books, so giddy with the freedom to pull book after book off the shelf, not having to be too choosy because I was bringing so many home. The adventures I had in books were as much a part of my summer adventures as trips we took or camps I attended. To be able to curl up with a book whenever I wanted for as long as I wanted, to retreat to the cool shade after a day of play, was bliss.

Summer should be a time for books. But for too many children, summer means spending time in a book desert. If children do not have access to books over the summer, their reading skills decline, and they return to school several months behind where they were—this is known as the “summer slide.” Research shows that giving at-risk children books before the summer break can counteract the slide. Personal experience also shows that having books at your disposal over the summer can nourish your imagination. Yet 67% of at-risk children have no age appropriate books at home.

Last year, we set out to try to change this fact. We gave 12 books to 120 kids who were in need of books. This year, we are proud to have expanded our program. We worked with 3 schools and gave 12 books to more than 300 kids. In partnership with schools, we helped to raise more than 7000 books.

We also started this website, we have a Facebook page (BooksAreMagic) and are on Twitter (@Books_Are_Magic). We are proud to have followers around the world and to be sharing our message with the broader community of people who care about literacy and books.

We are so grateful to those who donated books to our efforts, especially the families and staff of Olds Elementary, Wiley Elementary, Poe Elementary, and Follow the Child Montessori; Books for Kids; Umstead Park United Church of Christ; and many neighbors and friends. We found enthusiastic volunteers along the way who shared our passion for books and saw the power in putting books in the hands of children who need them. And we found devoted principals, teachers, and school staff who believe that access to books can change the lives of the students they devote their own lives to educating.

Our work is far from over, and we are hoping to expand thoughtfully to more schools next year.

The joy that we see every time we give a child the beginning of their own library is indescribable. There is a thrill in knowing that if we start with a child in kindergarten, they will have 84 books by the time they leave elementary school. And for children with siblings, we know that they also will grow up in a house with books. My wish is that one day these children will be able to say “Books have been important to me.” To be part of that is a gift.

Choice of Words

May 23, 2012
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I have been thinking a lot this month about the ways that we choose to talk with children about their potential, about the things they are good at, and about the gifts we see in them. When we call out something to praise or to tell a child we believe they are capable of something, our faith in their abilities may open their eyes to something about themselves. This is a tremendous opportunity for us when we are conscious of the power our words have on even children we do not know well.

Of course, the words we use with children who are close to us are most important. Parents and teachers know that. But the words we choose with children we meet, even fleetingly, can have an impact.

One of our founders volunteers as a reading tutor. The child she was working with was behind his class and was in jeopardy of being the only child to not make the cut to go to a reading celebration. She was working closely to help get him enthusiastic about reading, and she was struggling to find a book that would spark his interest. After several attempts, she brought in a Tiki and Ronde Barber book, and it was magic. The boy lit up—this was a book he was excited about. Unfortunately, there was not enough time left in the session for them to read it together. She suggested that he keep the book until the next time and read it on his own. “I don’t think I can read it. It’s too hard,” he said. “You’re smart,” she replied. “I think you can do it.” That moment was a turning point for the child. Her faith in his ability, her statement that he was smart, gave him a confidence he had not had before. The next session, he asked to read a book to her. A few short weeks later, he earned enough reading points to go to the reading celebration.

Another child we met at a book distribution stands out in my mind. She told us that she couldn’t read chapter books yet. We found a few early readers, and then I suggested that she would probably be reading chapter books by the end of the summer, so maybe we should look at some. We read the backs of some books, and then she said, “Well, I think maybe I could read a chapter book. I’ve just never had one.” She left with a mix of chapter books and early readers and a couple of board books for siblings, and I saw her later in the hall, reading to herself quietly and thumbing through her new chapter books. She believed she would be able to read at a new level, and that opened a door.

Many teachers and parents give these boosts along the way regularly. But we should remember that we all hold the power to envision successes for children that they may be hesitant to see for themselves. Our encouragement, even of children we barely know, can make a difference in what they see as possible. And this is not isolated to children who are struggling or at-risk.

Someone came up to my daughter recently in a non-academic setting and commented on the large size of the book she was reading. This is not in and of itself unusual—she is an avid reader, and that plus the fact that she looks younger than she is often draws comment. The man said “You’re a really good reader.” My daughter shyly looked back at her book. This, too, is not unusual. But what happened next was different. He went on. “Are you proud of yourself for being such a good reader? Because you really should be. It’s a great thing.” She looked up and beamed.

It was the “are you proud of yourself—you should be” that was new, and it made an impact. Of course we have said similar things at home, but to have a stranger stake out her accomplishment as something to celebrate, the fact that he was celebrating with her, was different.

One of our goals in giving books to kids in need is to open worlds of opportunity. Both in and out of the context of books, our words and praise can make a difference. The things we choose to focus on and celebrate also can make a difference. By noticing and seeing the value or potential in a child, we open the way for them to find it in themselves.

Getting to Zero

May 8, 2012

Something powerful happened this month in two schools in Raleigh, NC. There are going to be some numbers in this post, but I will tell you right now that the most important of them all is Zero. Because as of right now, that is how many students at Olds Elementary and Wiley Elementary have fewer than 12 books at home.

For many of us, it is almost impossible to fathom that a child could live in a house that truly has no books for them. But for 67% of low-income children, this is reality. Children who have no books at home perform worse in school. Their literacy rates are low, and it is tremendously difficult for them to catch up. Children with no books at home fare far worse over the summer, losing as much as half of a year’s learning. There is a lot of talk about third grade literacy rates in some states right now, with debates about social promotion or reading interventions in third grade. Some states project the number of prison beds they will need based on fourth grade literacy rates. Third and fourth grade is simply too long to wait to start addressing literacy rates for at-risk children. And access to books, being able to lay your hands on a book all the time, at home and at school, is a critical—and often missing—part of the discussion.

Without books at home to read, how can a child practice? How are books and print a part of their lives outside of school? How can they indulge in the pleasure of sinking into a book and reading it over and over? How can they know the deep gratification of being a book owner, of having a library to call their own?

What might be possible if a school banded together and made sure that every single child in the school had access to books all the time?

At Olds and Wiley, that is what just happened. We worked with a group of amazing volunteers and deeply devoted staff to gather book donations and distribute them to children at the school who did not have books. Each school collected donations of more than 2,000 books. We set up a book store at the school and invited teachers to select 6 books for each child. On different days, each child was brought in to shop at the store and pick another 6 books for themselves—any books they wanted. Each child was also invited to take home additional board books for younger siblings. At the end of the day, each child took home a library of 12 books. Each book was stamped with “From the Library Of,” so that these readers could mark their names and claim their very own books. Since each child gets 12 books, they can select a variety of topics or even pick a book that is above their reading level. Our hope is that these 12 books will help them through the summer months and that at least one book in their new library will spark a love of reading. We also hope that siblings at home will benefit by having books in the house and by seeing a sister or brother reading.

Both schools are setting up a borrowing bookshelf that will be open to all kids all the time, not just on library day. It works on the honor system, and there are no due dates or late fees. It’s open to everyone, and you can’t lose your privileges.

Getting to Zero is an amazing thing to be part of. And we’re just getting started. We’ve helped build home libraries for more than 150 students this month. Next month, we will return to Poe Elementary and distribute books to 145 students. Next year, we plan to be back at the same schools and hope to add other schools to our list.

Books can change lives, and putting books in the hands of kids who need them is our passion and driving mission. If you’d like to help or to do something like this in your town, please contact us at

Each at Their Own Pace

April 25, 2012
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As a child, I lived and breathed books. I read while I walked the dog, I read in every spare moment I had, I feigned fear of the dark so I could keep a nightlight to read by well into the night. I can remember learning to read and the moment when I was able to read on my own like my older brother. Books are fundamentally a part of who I am, and reading brings a special joy to my life.

So it is no surprise that I started reading with my first child soon after she was born, propped up in a bouncy seat. I read to myself while she nursed, and we spent many happy hours with books. She could turn the pages in a book before she could sit up, she memorized the words of favorite books, she pulled books from the shelf and urged me to read, all before she was one and a half. Now in school, she is a voracious reader, who takes as much pleasure in books as I ever did. I felt like I had found a great method for instilling my love of books.

And then came my second child. Same book-crazed mama, same book-filled house. Totally different person. Sure, she enjoyed sitting on a lap, sure she enjoyed the brightly colored images. But she shredded books, peeling board book pages open to see what was in there. Those books with textures and soft puffy fur sticking out? All annihilated as she pulled them apart to get at the stuff inside. And she would not sit still for stories. Three pages in, she was squirming, heading off my lap in search of something new.

This was a huge blow to me. Was it possible that my daughter was not going to be a great reader who loved and adored books? Had I somehow let her down by not reading to her as much as I had her older sister? I knew the studies about the importance of reading skills and academic success. Had I failed her in some way?

Thankfully, Mommy wisdom took over. As with so many other things when working with children, you have to remember the long game. Being patient and letting a child develop and explore at her own pace is almost always the better way to go.

With reading, it is critical that children enjoy reading time and have a positive association. So what if my little one wasn’t able to last through a whole story? We kept integrating fun reading time when we were doing things, for as long as her interest lasted. We spent a lot of time laughing with books and playing other games when we were waiting in the pickup line for her sister’s school, and I just kept offering reading time and keeping it light. I learned to choose different books for her—she loved photographs of machines and animals much more than artistic renderings of characters and action. She preferred books without stories or only with simple rhymes. So we spent more time with the pictures and less time with plot lines or rhythmic language stories. Sometimes we departed from the story entirely and just talked about what was on the page.

I made sure she saw me reading, and I stopped reading on a tablet and went back to paper books. I made sure she saw her sister reading and that books were always available in the rooms we spent most of our time in.

Over time, her attention span lengthened considerably, and she became more interested in stories and rhymes. She now loves books and being read to, and she can spend an hour at quiet time looking at books on her own. Seeing her big sister reading certainly helped, but I think that keeping reading fun and letting it develop at the rate she was ready for is what really did it. I look back at my worry and laugh a bit. Fostering a love of reading is a long-term project that may require patience and creativity. When we force something that a child is not ready for, we make the experience unpleasant for everyone.

What I have learned is that every child comes to reading in his own way and at his own pace. As guides and parents and teachers, we need to do what we can to make books a fundamental and natural part of children’s daily lives, to make books readily available, to pick books that interest them, to model an enjoyment of reading, and to foster the joy of reading by making it fun.

If you want to help with our efforts in Wake County, please contact us at

From the Library Of

April 17, 2012
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“Today, you’re going to get to take home not 1, not 2, not 3, but 11 books.” This is what we told every group of students that came to the mini-store of donated books that we set up at a high-poverty elementary school, and without fail, the announcement was greeted with cheers and children jumping up and down. It was like everyone’s birthday was happening at once.

I will never forget the faces of the children as they picked out their books. They carefully combed shelves and read back covers, they helped each other choose, they recommended books, and they ferreted out books on subjects their friends were looking for. They carefully picked books for younger siblings from the board book selections. Some cried when they realized that these books were theirs to keep, forever. Others became almost giddy when they went from shelf to shelf to choose not one, but a whole bag full of books.

By giving more than a couple books, we hope that they will have enough to take them through the summer. But as important, we found that because we were giving lots of books, children were able to pick a wide variety of types of books at different reading levels and about different subjects. While if limited to one choice, a student might have picked a bestseller or Disney character book, because they were picking a lot of books, they would choose that book and then maybe a science book or a collection of folk tales, or even a reference book.

We want to build libraries in the homes of children who do not have books. We want books to be accessible to all children, all the time.

The kids who received books met two criteria: they were behind in reading, and they had a financial need. Research shows that having a stack of books over the summer mitigates the summer slide and can improve graduation rates and academic performance. Having books can open worlds to a child, and finding joy in reading can provide deep fulfillment for a lifetime. Books have the power to change lives and can empower struggling students to attain their own academic successes, even if adults at home are unwilling or unable to read with them.

We gave 11 books to 120 students last year and set up a borrowing bookshelf so that books would be available to all students all the time. This year, we are hoping to help put 12 books in the hands of 300 students. At times, it seems a daunting goal, but the payoff is immeasurable. We are so inspired by the children we have met through this program, and we are inspired by the children and adults who have volunteered to help us.

And while raising thousands of books may seem a big mountain to climb, putting a book into a child’s hands is something anyone can do. If books are important in your life, or if you see the potential for books to change lives, we urge you to help a child become a book owner and a reader for life.

And we also urge you to get your children involved in sharing books with others. Our own children became deeply involved in our book drive, and it has changed the way they think about books—they are much more active in thinking about the kinds of books others would like, and they often ask to donate books that they are finished with. It allowed us to open up a much broader conversation about books, literacy, and giving.

If you live in Wake County, we are always collecting donations of used or new books that we will get into the hands of children who need them. If you live elsewhere, or if you want to spearhead a project on your own, here are some ideas to consider:

    * If you’re in a book club or other social organization, why not each bring 5 books at the same reading level to your next meeting, call a local school, and “adopt” a class?

    * At your next neighborhood gathering or potluck, ask everyone to bring a few books, and then take them to a school in your town.

    * Have a Face-Book challenge and see how many books you and your Facebook friends can raise for a school or organization in your area.

    * Ask your child’s school if they would sponsor a book drive.

    * Domestic violence shelters, The Boys and Girls Club of America, and SmartStart programs are often grateful recipients of children’s book donations. Reach Out and Read is another great organization that focuses on giving books to children from birth to kindergarten.

Having books matters, and having the ability to build your very own library at home can be transformative.