Jo Umans is the wonderful executive director of Behind the Book, a literary arts nonprofit that promotes literacy and a reading culture among low-income students in New York City public schools. Their mission is to excite children and young adults about reading. She was gracious enough to let me pepper her with questions.
How do you excite people about reading? And concurrently, how do you think you can kill a love of reading?
Most of the kids with whom we work don’t read for pleasure. I think you have to find books that are of interest to the kids as well as authors who reflect the experiences of their readers. The book also has to leave a lot of room for discussion. One of the most successful books we work with in high school is called, Like Sisters on the Homefront by Rita Williams-Garcia. The story is about an urban teenager who has a child at 14 years old. Her mother sends her down south to live with relatives in a stricter environment where she learns a lot and grows up. I am NOT doing justice to the plot. But we had one group of students disagree with the ending so we had them rewrite it. We have had other groups reenact sections of the book, and the art projects in relation to the story have been fantastic. The book is now part of the 9th grade curriculum at one of our schools.
Another book that’s great for some high school classes is called Tyrell, by Coe Booth. The story is about and told by a 16 year old boy who is living in a homeless shelter and taking care of his mother and little brother. Kids have a lot to say about Tyrell and his experiences. Both of these books are written beautifully, I might add.
It’s much easier with the elementary school kids because they haven’t had as many bad experiences with reading and books. They’re also more open to new experiences than teenagers.
Also, for any age group, knowing that they will meet the author and be able to ask questions is a huge motivation.
Kill a love of reading…hmmmm…. choose books that are too difficult or too easy might do it. If you give a 10th grade student a book that is at 3rd grade level, even if he or she is reading at that level, it’s humiliating. That would definitely kill it. Another way is to have a teacher who is not enthusiastic about the book teaching it…Kids are smart and if their teacher doesn’t like it, they probably won’t. That’s why the teacher makes the final decision on the books we work with. The teacher has to live with the book for a few months so we ask that they read the book before deciding.
You bring authors' and their books into classrooms, which is a superlative idea. Are there certain books and authors that work better than others? Do the kids have a choice? How do you fit the book into the teacher’s curriculum?
I think I answered that above…but I love to look around the classrooms and ask teachers which books are the most popular. We also ask the teachers to get input from the kids. As we all know, a good book isn’t all it takes for a successful exchange. The author has to be interesting to kids. Some of the best we’ve worked with include Doreen Rappaport, Andrea and Brian Pinkney, Brian Selznick, Mo Willems, Rita Williams-Garcia, Gail Carson Levine, and Tony Medina. We’ve had kids sing with authors and even meditate. We worked with a special ed class of 4th and 5th graders and the author, Katherine Leiner, wanted to take the kids through her process of preparation before writing. The teacher was skeptical, as were the staff, but when it came down to it, the kids LOVED it. Katherine brought the bell, pillows, incense and the poetry that came out of these kids blew us all away. When we walked in for the second visit, the kids were begging to meditate …pretty cool.
3 . What has the feedback been like from kids? Does this go from kindergarten to high school? Is it more successful in certain grades than others?
We work with K-12th grade and some special ed. I am a rock star in elementary school. Whenever I am having a day, I walk into one of our elementary cafeterias and kids scream at me…where’s Tony, where’s Colin, where’s Marc Tauss…
It’s equally successful, I’d say, with all grades…in different ways. Middle school teachers associate Chris with books and when she goes into a classroom the kids who’ve worked with us are most cooperative, excited, and ready to work. Word of mouth is powerful so we’re mostly well received. In a few of our schools kids will tell authors that their book is the first one they’ve ever completed. It’s sad but gratifying to hear. Did I mention that for some kids, the books we give them, are the first they’ve ever owned? And they always get autographs…which they love.
W What can the average person do to help your organization?
We have a waiting list of 14 schools right now and can’t possibly get to them all in the next year. What makes our programs work is the individualized attention our staff gives to each teacher and to the authors. Authors don’t generally do their pre-produced presentations but have to tailor them to the needs of the students. It takes a lot of time to put together each program. We create new programs to go with the skills of the author as well as the needs of the teachers and students. We go to all visits and act as stage managers at each one. Therefore we only do about 100 visits a year. All that being said, we need more money to insure the effectiveness of our programs.
But…we do a lot of events…and I’d like to invite your readers to come and learn more about us. Today we have a rooftop networking party for young professionals at the Roosevelt Hotel and in July we’re holding a dog party in Central Park with Bill Berloni, the dog trainer who trains animals for theatre, film, and television. He will bring some of his dogs and show us how he works. We’ll also have Frosty Paws for the dogs and the Humane Society will be there will adoptable dogs. Sign up for our facebook page or email us to get involved at www.BehindtheBook.org.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
I think you’ve covered it but I hope your readers will check out our website at www.BehindtheBook.org