Advocates, and Other Tools for Deeper Understanding 

You’ve probably never sat down, scratched your head, and said, “You know what I ought to do? Look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” If you have, you were probably pretty certain that you’re already checking off all five boxes, but you might be surprised. Because smack-dab in the middle of that color-coded pyramid, is the label Belongingness and Love Needs. According to Maslow, this includes things like connectedness, trust, and acceptance, all of which rely on one vital building block to get their footing: Understanding.  Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs with a heart over the central wedge, Belongingness and Love Needs

To be understood is to be known, flaws and all. It’s having your word-jumbles be translated in a second-flat by someone who’s taken the time to learn your language. It’s having someone see the full scope of your past, and be happy to walk with you toward the future. And more often than not, it’s having someone see you and be willing to speak up on your behalf, allowing others to bask in the wondrous whole of you, too.   

Let’s take a look at how A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold, Restart by Gordon Korman, and Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper employ the use of an advocate, and how such a figure is instrumental to changing the course of each narrative for the better.  

 * * * 

Really, with such earnestness and heart, it’s no surprise that A Boy Called Bat has become a Read to Them staple. Bixby Alexander Tam has a routine and likes to stick with it, but on a day full of surprises, his Mom (a veterinarian) brings home a baby skunk. Bat feels an immediate connection with the kit. It’s an easy creature to love, “so small that Bat couldn’t even tell he was in the towel except for the tiny face that peeked out.” However, Bat only has one month to prove to his Mom that he’s responsible enough to keep the baby skunk as a pet. But where, you may ask, does having an advocate come into play? 

Though Arnold never says as much in the text, Bat is on the autism spectrum. For instance, vanilla yogurt is one of his safe foods and he carries around a pair of earmuffs for when his senses get over-stimulated. Bat also has a far easier time interacting with animals, as their language is pretty straightforward. As for people,  “…it wasn’t worth it to try to explain… what he’d meant. [His sister Janie] usually misunderstood Bat. Most everyone did.”  

Bat’s mother is not everyone. 

Dr. Tam knows that her son sees the world differently, that the ways he interacts with others are different, too— and that’s perfectly okay. She defends Bat when Janie gets frustrated with him and she gently corrects Bat when he misses certain social cues. He’s often blunt, accidentally saying something hurtful without realizing the sharpness of his words. Dr. Tam frequently reminds Bat of the “unspoken rules… about things that people are supposed to know without having been told.” While this advice doesn’t always prevent awkward interaction, it’s a reminder Bat keeps at close hand and a tool he uses at school. 

Bat sits on the couch to braid Janie's hair (illustration by Charles Santoso)

Bat also has trouble dealing with emotions. The day his Mom brought the skunk kit home, she ran late. It inspired quite the surge of feeling in Bat and he “…felt a ball of anger rising up in his chest, hot and hard and loud, wanting to escape through his mouth in a yell.” But it doesn’t escalate any further, because Bat’s mom is there with her “soothing voice,” being patient, kneeling with Bat until he is calm enough to use his own voice. 

Most vital of all, Bat’s mother builds a sort of scaffolding to help Bat find his way with Janie. Like any pair of siblings, Bat and Janie have fights and disagreements. Bat even knows that “Janie thought he was weird” sometimes, “but he still didn’t like to hear her say it out loud.” Once the baby skunk is added to the equation, for instance, Bat takes one of Janie’s pajama tops and puts it in the kit’s enclosure. All Bat wanted to do is ensure the kit remained familiar with Janie’s scent, but Janie was furious. Bat isn’t sure where he went wrong, and while Janie fumes in her room, Dr. Tam offers to teach Bat how to do laundry so he can get the animal smell out of Janie’s pajama shirt. Bat then makes a suggestion of his own: “Maybe if we use extra fabric softener, and make the pajama top softer than it’s ever been, then maybe Janie won’t be so mad.” Such a beautiful yet understated moment could not have come to fruition without Dr. Tam meeting Bat at his level with an abundance of patience, or without Bat seizing the social tools his mother has gently introduced to him.  

* * *

In other instances, an advocate can arrive in your life from a place you’d least expect. Take Chase Ambrose from Restart. Before he suffered an accident that claimed his memories, he was a school bully, the kind of kid who’d send others fleeing in the opposite direction. In fact, Chase did send a student moving out of town to a different, out of state school. However, after head injury-induced amnesia, things are different now: Chase is quieter, more thoughtful. Kind, even – but none of the kids he’s hurt in the past believe he’s capable of such drastic change, and trying to make amends isn’t something that can be achieved with the snap of a finger. 

But it can be achieved by joining a video club.  

It’s a mere chance that Chase ends up having a brief encounter with Brendan Espinoza on one of his first days back to school. Brendan, unbeknownst to Chase, is one of the kids who used to be bullied terribly by Chase and his buddies. When the rumors of Chase’s amnesia seem to be validated by Chase’s changed behavior, Brendan invites Chase to act as a cameraman, and it leads to quite the surprising realization: “The Chase Ambrose who worked on this video was not the same person… He was helpful. He had good ideas. He was even nice.” This testimony-slash-olive branch is what invites other students in the video club to smooth out their hackles and start an unlikely camaraderie with Chase.  

A pair of broken glass that feature on the cover of RestartEverything goes up in the air, though, when two of Chase’s old buddies start a fight that ends up nearly destroying the music room. Chase accidentally strikes a student with a fire extinguisher, and lets himself “get drawn back into the old life” to evade punishment. Just as quickly as he won his classmates over, opinions switched and once again, he’s seen as nothing more than a bully. Brendan is the only one to come to Chase’s defense: “I know what it looks like. But doesn’t Chase deserve the benefit of the doubt?” No one is convinced, nor takes the time to listen to Chase’s side of the story.  

Brendan discovers he caught the fight on film and it was an accident after all. He even assembles film club kids at his house to play the footage, to prove that Chase has been innocent this whole time. Having others understand you when you know yourself is hard enough, but having someone help the world see you when you’re little more than a blank slate is an entirely different beast. With Brendan at his side, though, it’s a beast that Chase manages to defeat.  

* * *

Melody, the eleven-year-old protagonist of Out of My Mind, is highly intelligent. She’s a great listener, and her narrative voice is so incredibly funny. In the beginning, though, only the reader knows these things. Melody has cerebral palsy, which means she can’t speak or write, she’s wheelchair-bound, and almost everyone around her underestimates just how smart she is. (“Nobody gets it. Nobody. Drives me crazy.”) Note, here: the keyword is almost everyone. Melody is supported by a small village of fierce advocates, all of whom help her voice be heard for the first time in her life.  

Like Bat, Melody’s earliest advocate is her mother who has this sort of “Mom sense” that is essential in helping with Melody’s needs. She observes that Melody laughs right at the punchline of a joke, knows which genres of music make Melody wiggle around with joy. When the time comes to consider enrolling Melody into school, Melody and her mother go to a doctor that is meant to gauge Melody’s intelligence. It results in Melody being treated in a way that’s incredibly cold and insensitive, unleashing an explosive reaction from Melody’s mother: “You’re not so intelligent, sir – you’re just lucky! All of us who have all our faculties intact are just plain blessed. Melody is able to figure out things, communicate, and manage in a world where nothing works right for her. She’s the one with the true intelligence!” This is the same sort of fury that’s unleashed when Mrs. Billups, one of Melody’s teachers in Room H-5, neglects Melody’s needs by refusing to read the careful records a previous teacher left behind. Both of these interactions, while uncomfortable to read, ultimately result in reinforcing the idea that Melody deserves to be treated fairly. She may have a disability, but “she is extremely intelligent! And you better learn to accept that!”  

A gold fish jumps from one small fish bowl toward a larger fish bowl

The first person outside of Melody’s family to see the potential in Melody is a colorful woman named Mrs. Violet Valencia, who lives next door. During the first meeting when Melody is barely two, she declares: “All kids are special. But this one has hidden superpowers. I’d love to help her find them.” And she does. Mrs. V gives Melody a priceless gift: literal piles of words, “making it her mission to give [Melody] language” to communicate with others.  

Ultimately, it’s the combined efforts of Mrs. V. and Catherine, a school aide,  that result in Melody receiving a Medi-Talker. This device is similar to the computer that Stephen Hawking used, something that contains “nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives – thousands of them – as well as a cool sentence-maker that is located on another level.” It allows Melody to prepare “hundreds of phrases and sentences and get to them with just a touch.” More than anything else, when Melody is folded into inclusion classes, the Medi-Talker allows her to communicate with her classmates. To joke with them. To defend herself in the face of bullying. Though it isn’t exactly smooth sailing, she’s able to show her peers the true Melody that’s been there all along, helping them to see that, “Maybe I’m not so different from everyone else after all.”   

 

In all three books, advocates go beyond just offering support— each work to ensure the protagonists feel validated, that Bat, Chase, and Melody have no doubt that they are more than the labels the world has thrust upon them. A kid with autism. A bully. A girl with cerebral palsy. The narratives become fuller once each kids gains a fuller sense of who they actually are. It’s no small feat. After all, kids are constantly changing, trying out new personalities and phrases, tics and traits, like they’re the latest fashion trends. It’s how we all come into ourselves. It’s how we learn and ultimately, it’s how we grow. 

But we don’t grow alone, and A Boy Called Bat, Restart, and Out of My Mind only reinforce this notion. 

Still, there are times that no matter how sure of ourselves we may be, others will misunderstand us. If all you hear is that you’re “weird” or a “bully” or “empty-headed” you may miss the chance to discover your true self: that you have a knack for working with animals, that you can be a real asset to a film club, or that you’re incredibly funny and clever. It’s why advocates are so vital in forging relationships with those around us. To serve as translators, as bridges, as a rock to lean against amid challenging times.  To remind us not to let our need for Belonging and Love be neglected. 

At Read to Them, we encourage you to read these books together, be it at home or across a whole school community. The lessons about understanding that Dr. Tam, Brendan, Melanie’s mother, Mrs. V., and Catherine teach are meant to guide advocates in the making— parents, teachers, and students, too. How lucky we are to have such important pieces of children’s literature to give us the tools to best understand those around us. How lucky we are to have those same guides so we, ourselves, can be understood, too.  

Who has been an advocate in your life? Share a few words about this significant person – or persons!- in the comments below this post. 


Four Years of OSOB With Booth Tarkington Elementary

Booth Tarkington Elementary in Wheeling, Illinois has been actively participating in One School, One Book for four years. As Ryann Rivers, the librarian at Booth Tarkington, looks back on their previous reading events, the growth between their first and most recent event is like an acorn to a tree. 

“The first year, I gave families too much time to read the book,” Rivers says. Booth Tarkington’s first OSOB title was The Lemonade War. “I wasn’t sure everyone was reading the book. We were able to have the author Jacqueline Davies at our school for an author visit so that was a great incentive for reading. I also had family engagement nights, but I still didn’t have the formative data on whether families were reading the book or how they felt about it.” 

Booth Tarkington students created their own wish tree during their school-wide read.

Booth Tarkington students created their own wish trees.

During their latest OSOB, however, Rivers and her school took advantage of the technological advances brought forth by COVID-19. Google Meet became instrumental in hosting bi-weekly lives for students and their families to engage with Wishtree by Katherine Applegate. Rivers even created her own self-paced Kahoots that families played in conjunction with the chapter readings. 

Rivers first heard about OSOB at AISLE (Association of Illinois School Library Educators), a state library conference which features presentations for tech, STEM, and library teachers. 

“I hoped OSOB would create a community of readers,” Rivers shares. “A presenter from a neighboring school district was talking about how they used OSOB in their school.  I liked the idea that everyone could have a common language (the book) we are all reading to connect them.” 

Rivers always puts a great deal of thought behind selecting her school’s OSOB title. Given that Booth Tarkington has bilingual programs, she starts with books that are available in Spanish before working on a presentation for her principal. 

“I tell him all the reasons we should use this book,” Rivers explains. “And my plan with how I would engage families and students. [My principal] usually asks me to select a couple of classroom teachers to read the book from the perspective of their students, typically K – 2, and get feedback.” 

As the school librarian, Rivers is also able to get feedback from families. She shares a survey at the end of each OSOB about family’s interest in potential titles for the next program, something that’s been increasingly valuable in narrowing down her book list. 

“For me, library programming is at the heart of the school,” Rivers says. “It brings the fun. It brings the party. OSOB is exactly that– an opportunity to bring the love of reading in a fun and engaging way.”

Though Rivers admits it’s hard to get 100% participation from families, she believes that if she can get one new family to participate in OSOB when they hadn’t previously, the program was a success. 

“Students look forward to participating in OSOB each year,” Rivers claims. “OSOB has definitely created a reading culture at my school.”

One family at Booth Tarkington created a massive hamster maze for Humphrey. A student watches Humphrey the hamster navigate the maze.

“…one family even built a huge hamster maze!”

One of the fondest OSOB memories came from a library hamster Rivers obtained during her school’s reading of The World According to Humphrey by Betty G. Birney. The students (naturally) named the hamster Humphrey. Kids brought carrots from their lunches to drop off at Humphrey’s cage, and one family even built a huge hamster maze. Like Birney’s Humphrey, the Humphrey at Booth Tarkington couldn’t be contained to one room. 

“I have so many fond memories of her in her ball rolling around the school,” Rivers says. “She was even able to drive her hamster car in the Halloween Parade! She was easily the most popular thing at school.” 

When asked to advise first year OSOB participants, Rivers claims that crafting a plan and sticking to it is essential. Communication is essential in connecting with families and keeping them involved for the duration of the program.

“I used Parentsquare which our district uses to communicate with families,” Rivers says. “It was the most effective way to get information to families as reminders of upcoming events related to the book and ways to participate.” 

Several boxes filled with family resources are shown.

“Just a fraction of family packets Rivers put together for her school.”

However, biggest of all, Rivers says that it’s important – and encouraged– to ask for help from teachers and staff in launching the program. 

“I am really bad at this,” Rivers admits. “I usually enlist the help of other staff members and my own family members. Also, teachers will see me working on something (like stuffing envelopes with the books and other papers for 450 families) and will volunteer to help. I have even had custodians offer assistance!”

She feels very fortunate to have the support of her school administration and staff. With so many elements that go into planning a successful OSOB, and if you feel as though your ideas may be turned down at every turn, it can be defeating. 

“Did my principal love the hamster?” Rivers says. “No. [But] was he able to see that having her was an integral part of the book’s excitement? Yes.” 

Looking ahead, though, Rivers likes the seemingly endless possibilities of what she might do to engage families with different books in Read to Them’s catalog. She has a tendency to “brainstorm all the possible events and ways to hook readers” and proceed with the title best fit for her school community. 

“There are so many other books that I have ideas for,” Rivers shares. “And that will keep me – and OSOB– going for years to come.” 


Sharon M. Draper and Elana K. Arnold Meet Us at The Lamp-Post

Join us at The Lamp-Post as we discuss understanding with Elana K. Arnold (A Boy Called Bat) and Sharon M. Draper (Out of My Mind).

In this reflective and personal conversation, we learn how both authors approach their storytelling as a vehicle for readers to find their own meaning, rather than teaching a planned lesson. There are so many rich and lasting lessons to be learned from the wide array of books each of them has written. 

We discuss various types of understanding readers encounter when reading about complex, well-drawn, nuanced characters like Bixby Alexander Tam and Melody Brooks. Understanding people who are different from you. Understanding the world around you. Understanding yourself.  

 


6 Wonderful Books to Read on Father’s Day

Spend time with the awesome Dads in your life by sharing a story (or six!) this Father’s Day. Read to Them has culled a list of six titles featuring unforgettable dads. Click on our book quotes to read them at their full size!

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes – Navigating second grade is hard, and facing challenges with teachers and family members is even harder. Billy and his Papa both struggle with their current projects – Billy with a diorama, Papa with his art. When Billy’s sister spills glitter all over his bat cave, they figure out how to make the best of any mishap.

 

 

Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo – When Opal and her father move to a new town, neither of them expect to welcome a stray dog into their home. And neither expect Winn-Dixie to help them open up to each other and help them each understand how forgiveness is the first step to healing from the past.

 

 

 

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin – Minli and her parents live in the shadow of the Fruitless Mountain, barely scraping by. But even at their most fatigued, the stories Minli’s father shares each night at dinner fill her heart more than any amount of ricet. They’re also the spark that encourages Minli to set out and change her family’s fortune.

 

 

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks – Zoe’s birth father, Marcus, has been in prison since before Zoe was born. A chance opportunity to correspond with Marcus through letters leads Zoe to believe he may not have committed the crime he was accused of. Fueled by hope, Zoe forges a relationship with Marcus through food and music, and endeavors to prove his innocence to the rest of the world.

 

 

Booked by Kwame Alexander – In this stunning novel-in-verse, you’ll meet Nick Hall, the soccer star of his school. But everything comes crumbling down when Nick’s parents announce they’re separating. Nick remains with his linguist father, who has always been pretty distant. Guided by Alexander’s heartfelt prose, Nick manages to bridge this gap using the power of books and words.

 

 

I Am Malala (Young Reader’s Edition) by Malala Yousafzai – Malala Yousafzai is known as being a Pakistani activist who stood up for girls’ rights to be educated. Through the entirety of her remarkable life, Malala has found wisdom and support from her father, who encouraged her to speak up when other forces in their village would have seen her silenced.

 

 

If you read any of these titles to celebrate Father’s Day, be sure to share your photos with Read to Them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Happy reading!


The Intimacy of Understanding 

“I see you.” 

A simple phrase, loaded with meaning. It can be used in the literal sense: “Your image has now entered my eye through the cornea and my pupil has adjusted it, and my lens has focused it, and now I can see that you are angry because the dishes are still in the sink.” Or figurative: “I understand you. I get who you are. What makes you tick. I see what makes you You.” 

Our need to understand and our desire to be understood are vital themes in children’s literature. When children read, they immerse themselves in the story and take on the role of a book’s character, creating opportunities to interact vicariously with that character’s world and those who are part of it. In this role-playing process, a child’s imagination can run alongside reality, giving them a chance to see different characters from different points of view, a classic case of “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.” Through each character’s thoughts, words, and actions, the reader can develop new insight that informs his or her own character and values. This kind of experience can alter a child’s behavior, mindset, even value structure. It can change how they see another person, or culture, or way of life. It can change how they see themselves. Reading a wide array of good literature allows our children to better understand the world in which we live and adjust how they see their own relationship to it. 

This month, At the Lamp-Post delves deeper into Understanding, focusing on three books on our list: Restart by Gordon Korman, A Boy Called Bat by Elana K. Arnold, and Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. Though very different at first glance, all three titles help us explore how understanding someone – really seeing them – allows us to better understand ourselves, understand others, and understand our world. Dive deeper with me, will you? 

 Understanding Ourselves: “What was so wrong about the old me that now I have to be somebody else?” 

In the aptly titled Restart, Chase Ambrose has a chance to restart his life. After a nasty fall, the middle school star quarterback develops amnesia and has to figure out who he is without any recollection of who he was. How can someone move forward in understanding themselves when they have no clue who they’ve been? 

Much of Chase’s story unfolds through the accounts of others. We read chapters from kids who knew Chase before his accident, and we start to get a picture of who he was and why his transformation is so hard for some of them to accept. Brendan Espinoza, a kid who has always steered clear of Chase, can’t believe what he’s seeing: “I thought it was just a rumor… but what other explanation could there be for why he’s sitting here with me instead of with his football friends? And acting like a human being, no less?” Chase may not remember who he was. But others do, and this new Chase is as big a mystery to him as it is to everyone else. 

Chase’s struggle to understand himself is sometimes hard to witness, as it encourages us to reflect on our own behaviors and actions. Gordon Korman gives us a character in Chase through whom readers will see pieces of themselves, even if at first they don’t want to. We may not be the school bully or the town football hero, but Chase’s struggles are ones each of us have experienced. Who hasn’t looked in a mirror and thought, “A stranger stares back at me”? Who hasn’t felt like Chase when he realizes, “I’ll never be able to get away from myself”? Our own journey to self-discovery may not involve a fall on our head and a bout of amnesia, but the need to understand who we were, who we are, and who we are willing to work hard to become is pretty universal. As Chase’s principal reminds him, “This is an awful thing that’s happened to you, but it’s also presenting you with a rare opportunity. You have the chance to rebuild yourself from the ground up, to make a completely fresh start. Don’t squander it!” This advice should resonate with readers long after Restart is tucked back on the shelf. 

 Understanding Others: “If I want to know something about a person, I ask.” 

Younger readers have a chance to experience a different kind of understanding when they are introduced to A Boy Called Bat. Unlike Chase, Bat seems to know himself quite well. From the opening page we learn that Bat doesn’t like “to eat leftovers, or cheese that had to be sliced, or any of the yogurt flavors in the fridge.” Bat hates when people rumple his hair, break the rules by bouncing balls in the school hallway, or try to make him look them in the eyes. Bat likes his teacher’s bright orange tennis shoes and animal facts and Babycakes (the class rabbit). He seems like a guy who understands himself. 

But, as Elana K. Arnold so delicately shows us, even though Bat knows the things that make him tick, he doesn’t know what makes others tick. In one tender scene, Bat is braiding his sister’s hair and comes to his own revelation: “Getting along with people was hard for Bat. Figuring out what they meant when they said something, or when they made certain faces at him… People were complicated. But braiding was easy.” He – like Chase – must go through the hard part of figuring out how to interact with those around him. Is it by learning more about himself? Or putting in the tedious work of learning about others? These are heavy questions disguised in a sweet story that subtly encourages us to ask the same things of ourselves. 

When Bat’s new friend, Israel, wants to hold the baby skunk that Bat has been raising and loving and caring for, Bat is nervous and unsure – feelings most of us have experienced, and certainly don’t like. He tries to take a social cue from his mom and look into Israel’s eyes to see if he can “see something … that would let him know it would be okay to trust Israel.” But Bat realizes that “all he saw were eyes.” So he tries a different tactic. He looks at Israel’s hands. He sees how they are “cupped together to form a safe little nest.” He notices how Israel has “overlapped his palms so that there was no way Thor could slip between them.” By seeing these physical cues, Bat sees Israel’s intent to keep Thor safe. And he realizes that this is how he, Bat, can understand that Israel is trustworthy. Eyes weren’t going to do it for him. Cupped nest hands were. 

What a moment to reflect and celebrate how we each need to see different things in order to understand what someone is trying to tell us. Through Bat’s experiences, we learn that we are not all created the same. What works for him may not work for me. And that’s okay. As long as we get to the end goal – to understand each other. And be understood. 

 Understanding Our World: “We all have disabilities. What’s yours?” 

Sharon Draper’s Out of My Mind is a perfect example of how children’s literature can help us understand our world through characters who don’t always look like us. From the first pages when eleven-year-old Melody tells us, “I can’t talk. I can’t walk. I can’t feed myself or take myself to the bathroom,” we see that this character is different. But she quickly shows us how similar she is, too. 

“Big bummer,” she concludes. (You think?) 

All through Out of My Mind, Draper gives Melody a voice that makes readers not only like her, sympathize with her and root for her, but also wish for a relationship with her… one that might last beyond the final pages. (If you feel that way, Sharon Draper has just published a sequel: Out of My Heart.) Melody’s a great listener, the smartest person on the quiz team, loves Coke, and hates jazz. She wants to hang at the mall and gossip with friends. She’s “got snaps,” as her teammate Conner points out after she tells Claire (the girl who likes to make fun of her) that, “TV makes lots of people look funny. Maybe even you.” Melody has the snark and yearnings of any tween girl. Do we forget she has cerebral palsy, drools a lot, and lives her life in a wheelchair? Often, yes. 

“Fifth grade is probably pretty rocky for lots of kids. Homework. Never being quite sure if you’re cool enough. Clothes. Parents. Wanting to play with toys and wanting to be grown up all at the same time. Underarm odor.” 

Draper has generously sprinkled these observations throughout Out of My Mind. Like A Boy Called Bat, the story is not about a girl who is different. It’s about a kid learning to understand her differences and how to move through the world with them. Just as Bat must learn to read people’s social cues, Melody has to learn to be patient with people and understand how to help them understand her. 

“One day I pointed to music and bad and stinky, then I started laughing. Rose didn’t get it at first. So I pointed to the words again, then pointed to Mrs. Lovelace, who was playing some kind of jazz music on the CD player… Rose finally figured it out and said, ‘Oh! You don’t like jazz? Me either!’ We both laughed so hard, Mrs. Lovelace had to put her finger to her lips to tell us to hush. Never in my life have I had a teacher tell me to be quiet because I was talking to somebody  in class!” Scenes like these allow us to see parts of ourselves in Melody and to start to understand where our own challenges may be. Melody gives us an opportunity to not just learn what it’s like to navigate life with a disability, but how to live our best life no matter what. Her voice may be that of a girl who has never played hopscotch, danced, gone to a sleepover, or sang in the choir, but it is also that of a girl who gets annoyed at her parents, loves warm chocolate chip cookies, and knows when she’s being left out. Melody reflects parts of all of us and ponders the same questions that Bat, Chase, and the rest of us do. Who am I? Where do I fit in? What is my place in the world? And though she never claims to have the answers, she does come to understand this: “Maybe I’m not so different from everyone else after all.” 

Readers like to see themselves in each book’s characters. But something glorious happens when we see ourselves in a character who seems different from us at first glance. When a character on the cover doesn’t look like me but begins to feel like me as I read, not only do I learn something valuable about them, but also myself. Whether we have a similar sense of humor or divorced parents or we both like hot sauce – I begin to identify with that person. At some point it dawns on me that I am relating to a girl in a wheelchair, or a boy with autism, or the school bully. That is the understanding these types of books show us. 

Good kidlit can have a significant impact on a child’s mind because it allows them to use the full power of their imaginations to incorporate the experiences of characters from books. “I see you” no longer just assumes my cornea, pupil and lens are doing a good job focusing. It means something deeper, more heartfelt, more cerebral. It means, “I get you.” Whether we are reading about a kid trying to figure out who he was and who he is now, a young boy struggling to understand people so they will understand him, or a girl learning how to show the world she is so much more than her wheelchair, each of these characters give us the chance to use our hearts and not just our eyes – and thus see the world a little more clearly. 

 


Delve into Resource Creation at Read to Them

As long time Read to Them participants know, there are three keys to a successful reading event.  A great book, school-wide enthusiasm, and an inspiring, constructive set of resources.  Read to Them’s distinct book packets provide opportunities to explore the rich material in each book and the inspiration that gets schools and families wanting to read even more.

One of our long-time packet makers and Midwest Regional Representative, Mary Jo Warwick.

Read to Them’s standard resources, tailored for each book, include kick-off assemblies, trivia and discussion questions, and even vocabulary. Every time we add a book to Read to Them’s catalog, the resource creation process begins anew. As we look ahead to the new titles that are set to be announced in August, we reached out to one of our long-time packet makers and Midwest Regional Representative, Mary Jo Warwick, who shared her wisdom and delved into the intricacies of her creative process.

One thing that’s essential about creating resources is keeping each packet book-specific, allowing the materials to properly highlight each individual title’s themes and to examine those themes from a variety of perspectives.

“It’s important that I let the book tell me what needs to happen,” Warwick claims. “I have to listen to the plot, the characters, and the author’s voice. More than once, I have thought of an activity that would be a good fit for a book, and after reading the book, realized that it didn’t fit.”

When the language in a book is noteworthy, Warwick always aims to highlight the phrasing either through trivia questions, writing activities, games, or discussion questions. Digging beyond the surface is essential, especially when showcasing secondary characters alongside the novel’s primary protagonist.

“Often students may identify more with the protagonist’s friend than with the protagonist,” Warwick says. “I need to give that character a platform as well. It’s always fun when I can have a secondary character introduce a main character in a kick-off assembly monologue. It immediately gives the reader a glimpse into the secondary character so they aren’t overlooked.”

To Warwick, it’s always important to include activities for each school subject across the curriculum, including Art and Music and P.E.,  though she admits that some books lend themselves more to one subject than others.

“…I try to honor the tone and emotion of the book,” Warwick claims. “I want to provide something for everyone. While some students will really look forward to the discussions and trivia, others will be geeked about competitions and creating something with their hands.”

Still, Warwick endeavors to make her packets appeal to a wide-range of experiences. This is best done by connecting the packet content not only to school life, but also families, hobbies, extra-curricular activities, culture, and current events.

“I realize that some elements may be foreign to some students,” Warwick concedes, “but very familiar to others, so I like to provide ways to tweak the activities to match the experiences of the students [as best I can.]”

When crafting packet resources for Read to Them, however, Warwick says that, “Foremost is a positive shared reading experience. I want [schools] to realize that a book can be a powerful vehicle for building community.”

The hope is that the resources will prompt interactions between students and staff that they might not otherwise have. To be both serious and silly together. Instances of this include discussion questions with the verbiage to dip into awkward discussions (such as when a character encounters a moral dilemma) or when families read about characters and themes that may not be part of their lives. Or – on the lighter side of things – to have their jaws drop when students see a talent in one of their peers that no one else knew about: be it writing poetry, playing an instrument, or “killing it on the dance floor.” Warwick wants to prompt a “jaw-dropping moment” if possible.

Warwick, ideally, would like for families to use the resources as an opportunity to build strong-at-home literacy habits, too.

“Their OSOB event shouldn’t be a one-and-done event,” Warwick says. “But a starting point to continue reading together. I hope they take advantage of scheduling non-screen time to read together.”