Surrounded By Books


By Alia Hammerstone

One of the most vivid, tangible memories I have as a child is growing up surrounded by books. They were omnipresent- lining the bookshelves in my grandparent’s home, stacked on my desk as a child, crowding dressers in my parent’s bedroom. My grandparents loved nonfiction; scores of their books were political in nature and introduced me to the 1960s and the founding fathers. My mother loves fiction; historical fiction, fantasy, mystery- you name it. Book fairs were a treasured event as a student and were supported with enthusiasm by my parents. I remember book logs with fondness- they marked not only my voracious appetite for reading but a collection of conversations I had with my parents and teachers alike.

Growing up, my mother encouraged my siblings and me to read and lead by example. Despite our age difference, I remember curling up in our family room with my three younger siblings and her reading aloud to us. We sat, transfixed, as she read the series to us- I must have been almost a senior in high school sitting side-by-side with my younger siblings enamored with the story, and my mother’s love of literature. We spent hours together as a family, listening to the stories and building lifelong memories.

One of my favorite books is To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember being in sixth grade, and my mother recommended it to me- it was, after all, one of her favorites, too. I have that same book still; the corners are a bit bent and torn, and the name on the inside cover reflects my middle-school scrawl. The beginning of the novel drew me in from the first page- who was this rapscallion of a girl who romped around town with her brother and friend? What fountain of dignity did her father draw from? Who were these people with unique names and circumstances? Atticus inspired me with his unflappable conscious; he stood as a fictional figure who guided my thoughts on social justice. Scout inspired me with her courage and curiosity; she stood as a fictional figure who guided my thoughts on what family and friendship truly mean. Honestly, I think my passion for equality and a more just world stems from my early experiences with injustices solely brought to my attention through the lens of Harper Lee. To this day, I reread the novel from time to time, savoring in the storyline and learning something new each time. A favorite book is like an old, familiar friend- one you can reminisce with as well as grow with over time.

Flash forward to the present – where I have books lining the shelves of my home, stacked on my desk at work, and crowding dressers in my own bedroom. There are books I received as gifts, carefully inscribed, books I have inherited from family, books I have swapped with friends, and even books I have stored away for my own children someday. I know that my family’s love of literature has indelibly shaped my own passion, and inspires me to continue working with A to Z in spreading the joy of reading.

With Just Two Suitcases

By Mal Keenan


A few weeks back, I had the honor of talking with parents and students during conferences at my school just outside of Chicago, IL. Although the time went by way too quickly, families were able to hear a bit about the students’ current performance and academic aspirations for the school year. However, what impressed me the most were the families who have recently come to this country, leaving everything they are familiar with—friends, family, jobs, and homes. Why? Education. Yes, education. These families value education in such a way that they were willing to leave their countries and start anew in the United States.

A mother from Turkey shared with me that her family left everything behind so that their two young sons could attend American schools. With just two suitcases each, the family of four arrived in the states with little English knowledge, but loads of courage to brave this new place. Another mother explained to me that she and her husband had applied for their visas fifteen years ago—long before their 5th-grade son was born. They wanted a better life in the US and feel so grateful for the teachers at my school. Truly, I was amazed at how these mothers and fathers put their trust in American teachers and value the opportunities provided in the public schools.

As each conference came to a close, I made a simple request—to please continue speaking, reading, and writing in the home language—their first language. I explained that in order to build English literacy skills, the home language must also play a significant part of the student’s life. I encouraged parents to keep telling stories, to share and discuss parts of their day, and to read in the home language so that their first language is not only valued but kept alive for these children.



Students Giving Back to Other Students…

By Betty Trummel

Early in 2018, I spoke with members of the National Honor Society at Monomoy Regional High School (here in Harwich, Massachusetts) about A to Z Literacy Movement. Students listened carefully and learned about ways they might get involved and do some sort of service project for, or related to, A to Z Literacy.

I hadn’t heard back from them in a while, until months later I received an email from the sponsor, indicating that their project was ready for pickup. I was really excited to see what they had chosen to do as their service project.


The NHS students had worked in pairs to create 20 “books in a bag” for me to bring to students and teachers on my next trip to Zambia. Each book is accompanied by a stuffed animal that matches the theme of the book and has a CD with the NHS students reading the book aloud. 


How exciting and fun it will be for Zambian students to have the option of reading/listening to a special new story while holding a stuffed toy. And, listening to someone read a book out loud is always a great model for students. 


I love seeing ways students can reach out to other students. Everyone learns and benefits in this process.  Thanks Monomoy Regional High School NHS! Your contributions are much appreciated!!

Finding That Perfect New Book

By Betty Trummel

The excitement of finding a new book…that’s what I wish for all of you out there! Browsing through a library, bookstore, online, or anywhere you find your books can be super fun. When you see that special new selection that interests you, you can’t wait to get started.  


Today I found a perfect book for our 5-year old granddaughter. Of course it’s got a nature connection, since not only do children love animals, but so do I.  And, we have a special relationship with bears living near our cabin in Colorado. Ella will make that link when reading this story.


The pictures and story in “Bear Hug” are very welcoming, like a new surprise on each page. I can’t wait to read this book with Ella. 



Opening a new book brings a treasure to our eyes and mind. Remember, reading opens doors.  What new door will open for you soon when you select your next book?

A Child’s Perspective

By Mal Keenan

A few months back, many of you read about Betty’s community photo project in Zambia.  Students borrowed cameras, went out into the community to take pictures, and then wrote about their “snaps” later in the week.


What I love and appreciate about this project are the student’s perspectives – children taking the pictures – what they see – what they feel is worthy – what moments they want to capture. As a teacher and parent, I feel that a child’s perspective is so important and valuable.

And in looking at these photographs, I realize how kids construct themselves within the images. They noticed details . . . some simple and small . . . others more complex . . . details that an adult may have missed. With cameras in hand, the kids had the power to tell their own stories of community and the people around them.  What a gift for the adults who love and care for these children and what an opportunity for us to see their world so clearly!


Lasting Impressions

By Alia Hammerstone

Returning from our two week trip to Zambia, I had a little over a day to reflect, recuperate, and reenergize prior to beginning the school year here in the States. However, not a day goes by where I don’t take a moment to reminisce about my travels. Through my conversations with friends, family, and colleagues I am often asked what my takeaways were from my time in Zambia. While I am sure that this list of takeaways will continue to morph and change as the days go on, here are some of the main lessons I learned-


  • The importance of building a classroom community.


What struck me most about each classroom I was warmly welcomed into was the sense of belonging and community. So much of what makes a successful classroom is the ability of an educator to connect with students, and the ability for students to have ownership of their learning, their classroom, and their community. This is a lesson I re-learned abroad, and something I have made a conscious effort to address at home. While the amount of content and curriculum grows each year, so do the needs of our students. So periodically, I ask myself, “what’s more important?” And then I give myself permission to slow down and focus on what is always more important- the students.


  • Taking time each day to enjoy the moment.


There were so many of these “moments” in Zambia; the morning walk to school, the songs which began each day, afternoons on the porch sipping coffee, and evenings spent reminiscing and journaling. Here in the States, things move more quickly- and without consciously slowing down and living in the moment, I am apt to miss out. I try to take time to spend intentionally- truly being present in the moment. From savoring a dinner (sans conversation at times- very Zambian!) to putting school work to the side and enjoying an evening with family, I am more intentional with my time.


  • Being thankful, for everything.


In Zambia, nearly 77% live “extreme poverty”, earning less than $1.25 a day. Despite lacking crucial resources, the people in Zambia consistently demonstrate appreciation for everything. I was struck by how many times people would mention being thankful, and reflect on the idea that it could always be worse. Back in the states, there are moments when I feel frustrated. My iPhone broke. We were without air conditioning at school for a day. I forgot my coffee on the kitchen counter. When I have these moments, I am more quick to reflect on the privileges I do possess. I have so many things to be thankful for and having spent time in a culture of gratitude, I am more apt to adopt a mentality of appreciation over one of frustration.


  • Spending time with loved ones.


This one seems rather self-explanatory, and something I have always done “well”. Now, however, I spend my time with a renewed purpose- I know that time is fleeting and these moments with loved ones ought to be cherished. Zambians are faced with death on a near-daily basis- shortly after we left a student from the School of Hope passed away. Life has taught me that time is fleeting, and Zambia was the trip that reiterated this lesson.


  • Committing to doing the work, and making a difference.


I have always known that volunteering and serving the community is my calling- it is a large part of why I chose to go into teaching, and how I ended up with A to Z. Now, more than ever, I have a renewed focus to do the work. I once heard someone rephrase, “I don’t have the time” to “It just isn’t a priority” and it has reframed how I approach so many things. What are my priorities? Serving. Making a difference. Living intentionally. And having had the opportunity to do so in Zambia only renews my focusing for continuing to work with A to Z in promoting literacy.

A Favorite Author…Robert Michael Pyle

By Betty Trummel


I love knowing more about authors of the books I read…their background, where they get their ideas for books, how they approach the writing process, and just discovering the personality of an author.

Throughout my years as an educator, I’ve had opportunities to meet quite a few authors… school assemblies, at National Geographic “Live” lectures, teacher workshops or conventions, and even randomly in bookshops.


Any book takes on a whole new meaning when you can hear the author read their own words aloud.  I love hearing an author’s unique interpretation and expression…the inflection of their voice, and what is chosen to share in a reading.

Today was a wonderful opportunity to listen to author Robert “Bob” Michael Pyle read from his first fiction novel, “Magdalena Mountain.” Let me explain that this is not the first book written by Bob, in fact twenty-one nonfiction books have come before this one, but Magdalena Mountain is the first fiction novel Bob has ever published and it’s taken 44 years to  bring this project to fruition.


He began writing Magdalena Mountain while a grad student at Yale, and much of the novel was written and revised right here on the balcony of the Meeker Park Lodge! In fact, Bob calls Mount Meeker “Magdalena Mountain,” after the Magdalena alpine butterfly found on the talus slopes of the mountain, and it’s where this novel gets its name.


It’s inspirational to know that Bob never gave up on telling this story. Many drafts and revisions took place as Magdalena Mountain wound its way to being published. This is a good reminder to all writers out there…never give up!


It was an absolute delight to be in Bob’s company, and even more so because we’ve been friends for about 30 years! His amazing skills as a naturalist and writer have long had a profound impact on me as an educator, naturalist, and writer. His vivid details about the natural world inspire and entertain readers of all ages. I’ve often quoted Bob when leading nature rambles, and as always I’m proud to call this incredible man my friend.


What author would you most like to meet? Is it someone in the past or a person still with us? Actually, authors are always with us because they leave their mark with words…an indelible impression in our minds and hearts. Enjoy whatever book you’re currently reading…as for me, I’ve got a new one to read…