Excited About Local Reading Outreach

We have been waiting. Patiently waiting. Sifting and sorting. Boxing and bagging. Thankfully, as COVID cases have dropped and vaccinations have become available, our A to Z team has finally been able to get out into the community to promote the love of reading and get books into kids’ hands this spring!

To be safe and socially distanced, we created A to Z Books in Bags. With several baby board books in one bag and intermediate boy books in another, we loaded up a variety of bags with children’s books to give away at a local food pantry and family health clinic. There were primary book bags, middle school book bags, and intermediate book bags. Sure, we wish kids could have self selected their books at these two events, but the books in bags were a hit!

We also had the opportunity to host a Ready For Summer Reading free book fair at a small school in Elgin. Each student was able to self select two books to jump start their summer reading. Watching kids browse the book selection brought me true joy, and even better, was to listen to the conversations among students as they made their decisions: I love that guy! He’s so funny…It’s so hard to choose…This was one of my favorites from my childhood (said by a 4th grader)…Did you see any books about cicadas?

As an organization, we believe in supporting the reading lives of kids, helping to build their at-home libraries, and promoting the love of reading with these small local outreach events. If you have like-new or gently-used children’s books that you would be willing to donate, please reach out to me (mal@atozliteracy.org). We are currently accepting preschool through middle school books for summer literacy events.

The Bond of Books

Over the past 12 months, I have spent time reflecting on relationship bonds–personal, professional, new, and old. While we have all felt the challenge of isolation to varying degrees throughout quarantine, I am sure we have also found new and unique ways to bond safely with others. Maybe it was Zoom, maybe prolonged FaceTime calls, or maybe even a socially distanced walk with a pal. Something I have enjoyed over the past year has been indulging in books and the bonds that different books have provided me with others. 

Some books have helped me bond with my son and my husband. Since having our son in July, my husband and I have spent almost every evening together reading Miles a bedtime story. It’s a ritual that we have fallen into which provides us quiet moments to bond together, just the three of us. Not only have we bonded during this time, but books have provided Miles an opportunity to bond with his extended family–everyone loves dropping off new books, sending them in the mail, or reading over a fun FaceTime call. 

Some books have helped me bond with my friends. This past year has been unlike any other–and passing along books and sharing recommendations has kept me attuned with my various friendships. Even if it was just to reach out and share a recommendation, or perhaps it was a surprise in the mail with a kind note, books have helped me to appreciate the things I already knew I loved about my friends–their passions, interests, etc. 

Some books have helped me bond with my colleagues. From the online professional development to graduate courses, books have guided my studies and allowed me to share ideas as an educator with my peers and fellow students. Not only have I gotten to know more about the content I teach (and how best to teach it), but these bonds have expanded into casual book clubs–exchanging books “just for fun” outside of our studies. 

Some books have helped me bond with online communities. This past year has been fraught with social unrest, and so many leaders and activists have recommended phenomenal books to learn (and unlearn) in order to improve myself and better contribute to improving my school, community, and country. I have found book clubs on Twitter, Instagram, etc., and been able to “connect” with other like-minded people. 

What all of these bonds have in common is that they’ve provided ways to ameliorate the challenges of the past year–whether it was indulging in a good book to transport me from the realities of Covid, or a book that enabled me to become a better person, or even the daily growth I watch my son making as my husband and I read to him.

By Alia Bluemlein

Take a Listen

Do you ever find it challenging to get into a book because you are unable to visualize the setting
and the characters and then you keep rereading the same paragraph over and over again? SAME!
I have found that listening to the audiobook while following along with the text version is a great
solution.


I had this epiphany while reading Becoming by Michelle Obama, thinking: “How great would it
be for Michelle Obama herself to be reading this to me?” Well, thank you, Audible. The audio
made reading so much more enjoyable because she was telling me her life story.
Another book I enjoyed listening to the audio with was The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead,
which A to Z members read while participating in the National African American Read-In last
month. The audiobook was read by JD Jackson who did an amazing job of bringing emotion and
life to each character and I felt as if I had an easier time with painting scenes while listening.
I highly recommend checking out an audiobook because you may be pleasantly surprised!

Tip: if you have a library card, there are multiple apps like OverDrive, Libby, and Hoopla where you can borrow the audiobook
version without having to go to your library or having to pay for Audible!

(Thanks to Taylor Crandall for writing this week’s blog for A to Z.)

School of Hope – Part I

This past year has highlighted so many challenges for so many, both at the micro and macro levels. Collectively, we have seen the tremendous difficulties that Covid has brought to our community here at home and the same can be said for our partners in Zambia. The School of Hope, which provides outstanding education for 660 students in grades K-12, has also been impacted by the pandemic. Over the next few weeks, we would like to highlight a few of their success stories and share more information about their important education work.

School of Hope has been a pillar of success in the Zambian community for the past 12 years. In fact, School of Hope came out #1 on the 2019 Grade 12 results out of 283 secondary schools in Central Province. (Grade 12 students finished the 2020 exams in December, and are waiting for the results.) The School has been generous with scholarships and financial assistance, and through this generosity, students who would otherwise not be able to attend receive an excellent education. Often, their #1 graduates have been those students receiving such assistance. Additionally, School of Hope has created a Pre-Vocational Program for those at the secondary level who struggle academically. Right now, students in this program have a period of English, a period of Consumer Math, and 2 periods of woodworking (learning how to build things in the school’s workshop). Each term, students will be working in different vocational areas. Unfortunately, school expenditures sometimes exceed the income due to the desire and generosity in making a difference in the lives of youth and young adults in Zambia. 

While A to Z Literacy Movement hasn’t been able to host our traditional silent auction fundraiser, we would love to pass along opportunities for our local community of supporters to directly help our friends at School of Hope in Zambia. Please consider checking out their website, Facebook page, and Instagram site for more details and we hope you would consider making a donation to support their amazing nonprofit charity. We will share more information next week!

A to Z Joins African American Read-In

The A to Z Literacy board consists of a passionate group of people who congregate regularly to fulfill the mission of the organization: to improve the lives of children through literacy development. Currently, our activities are primarily focused in Zambia, Africa and McHenry County, Illinois.  

Because our mission is to improve lives through literacy development, we are also committed to improving our own lives through literacy development.  Striving to learn and grow from each other, we end every board meeting sharing what we are currently reading. We are a team of readers. 

In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to take an opportunity to learn and grow in new ways. This year, we decided to  join the National Council of the Teachers of English in their Annual African American Read-In. As a team, we made the commitment to read and discuss literature written by an African American author. 

Our first task in joining this Read-In was to choose which author and which book.  This was not an easy task! In the end, we generated a list and voted.  After selecting a book, we set our meeting dates and reading goals.

The first February weekend in Illinois was as expected: frigid. Wrapped in a down blanket with a freshly brewed cup of coffee clutched in one hand and the book in the other, I realized quickly that we made a great choice.

Colson Whitehead’s ability to draw in the reader is unparalleled. In the first chapter, Elwood Curtis stole my heart: competing in a dish-drying contest for a set of encyclopedias.  There’s no need to worry about meeting the reading goal before our first meeting date.  I’ve finished the book.  Now I have time to digest and think about what we really need to discuss. Can’t wait for the conversations to begin!

What Our Team is Reading

As an organization that promotes the love of reading for children, we are also a group of adults who love to read. In fact, each month, we close out our board meeting with team members sharing titles of their current reading selection. Here’s how our February meeting wrapped up:

  • Stasia – Chlorine Sky by Mahogany L. Brown
  • Pat – Things I Want My Daughter to Know by Alexandra Stoddard
  • Alia – The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
  • Kate – The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
  • Dave – The Practice by Seth Godin
  • Betty – Sky Time in Gray’s River by Robert Michael Pyle
  • Mal – Dearly by Margaret Atwood
  • Wendy – The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Two Sisters in Two States Promoting the Love of Reading

How can a conversation over Zoom about remote learning between sisters during a pandemic turn into helping kids gain access to books in another country? How can that happen when one sister lives in Illinois and the other lives in Texas? It happens over several months. 

In the beginning, my sister Mary, a children’s librarian, contacted me about how she could reach the kids in her small town in Texas. We began the discussion by using the local school’s platform–Seesaw. I taught my sister to use that platform and then more conversations occurred. She wanted to know more about how she could reach kids with even more books. As the children’s librarian, she does a great job reading books online in English and Spanish. The kids in town love it! And I learned my sister was fluent in Spanish. 

But as the pandemic continued, summer came, and she knew she needed to add to the program. What else could she use to reach kids who really just wanted to read? The library had a book pick up service but Mary wanted to make contact with these kiddos. More conversations ensued and I showed my sister how I teach reading online with an online reading program. She began using that program after completing grant paperwork in order to purchase the program for the library. Success with the kids! 

Mary and I continued to talk and she mentioned an orphanage across the border that people in town often helped.  One student and parent in particular loved the program Mary was doing. This parent was also in the curriculum department at the local university. At a department meeting, another professor mentioned the orphanage across the border. The parent of the student mentioned that his child was involved in a local reading online reading program and should contact Mary. Another conversation between sisters. Could this work? Could a pandemic bring online reading to a small orphanage across the border from a small Texas town. Could something good come out of something awful?

(Special thanks to Kate Hatfield for this week’s blog post.)

Feeding the Mind and Soul

There’s something about living through a pandemic that brings about reflection–especially about places we frequent (or used to be able to frequent more often).  Book stores are one of those places. They are the places we routinely frequent to feed the mind and the soul–they hold memories in our hearts.

When I began teaching twenty years ago, I was fortunate to become a member of the  Illinois Reading Council. Through the support of my principal and the curriculum department, I was able to attend the yearly conference in Springfield, IL.  It was there that I developed a love of book talks.  Becky Anderson, from Anderson’s Bookshop, continues to deliver book talks at the annual conference.  She also hauls a plethora of books to the conference hall for us all to indulge. Over the years, I have collected several of my favorite books and had them signed by the authors at the conference. They were the gifts I brought back to my children, my students, and my colleagues. They were gifts that opened us up to the world and brought a dialogue into our homes and community. The authors were also the ones we invited to visit the schools to talk to the children: Ben Mikaelsen, Neal Shusterman, and Jordan Sonnenblick were a few of my favorites.  

Upon returning from Springfield the first year, I started my long treks to Anderson’s Bookshop in Naperville.  My love of the store and all it has to offer began. The events they offer are off the charts: from small author talks to full day conferences.  I’ve attended several over the years with my children and my friends. One of my favorite memories is Emma meeting Suzanne Collins during her middle school years: she was infatuated with the Hunger Games.  Because of these experiences, you can imagine my excitement when Anderson’s opened in LaGrange, just a few miles from my mother’s home.

While I truly love Anderson’s Bookshop, the time it takes to do the round trip is difficult to fit into my schedule. During my early years of teaching, independent book stores in McHenry County were hard to find.  It was a true celebration when Read Between the Lynes opened on the Woodstock Square. It became my new favorite place to routinely stop.  Arlene, the owner,  has been a wonderful support to our schools: helping us arrange author talks, offering author visits at the store, giving educator discounts, and ordering books for our students.  

Bookstores aren’t just part of my routine at home. My home away from home is our family cabin in Northern Wisconsin: a place I have frequented since birth. The closest town to our cabin for shopping is Minocqua. Growing up, Book World filled our summer reading lives.  Of course, the tradition of the trips to the cabin continued, and I brought my children to Book World. You can imagine my devastation when Book World closed in 2018. 

Our traditions of traveling to the cabin as adults has changed a bit. We began a new tradition of traveling to the cabin for Thanksgiving with our children. To kick off the holiday season, we attend the Boulder Junction Christmas Walk on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The walk through The Shade Tree is always my favorite. You can imagine the joy I felt when The Shade Tree moved to Minocqua to fill the void of Book World. With that, the selection of books has changed (and my spending budget increased!). 

I’ve come to realize that book stores are part of my reading life. I’m drawn to them wherever I go.  On my last vacation to Key West, FL, I wasn’t disappointed. After a stop at Hemmingway’s, Mike and I headed to Books & Books @ The Studios of Key West.  I purchased Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm, the sequel to the book my dear friend, Terry, gifted me to read as I traveled to Key West.  After reading it while lounging in the ocean, I found myself in need of another book the next day.  And so my routine of heading to the bookstore every morning while on vacation began . . .

As I reflect on the independent bookstores I have frequented, memories with my family and friends flood my mind. Each bookstore is curated by a local expert, and each one offers us an opportunity to indulge in books that offer us windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors into the world around us. Each independent bookstore opens a dialogue and experience to fill our minds and our hearts.  

Special thanks to Dr. A. Gruper for this week’s blog post.

Dear Local Library

Dear Crystal Lake Public Library,

Growing up, I lived only a block away from you and one of my favorite summer activities was walking over and participating in your summer reading program. My siblings and I would check out bags of books, put blankets down on our porch, grab some snacks, and read. As I grew older, my visits became less and less frequent, and then, I no longer had a library card. 

When the pandemic started, like most people, I found myself with extra time on my hands. I was using all this extra spare time to browse social media and binge watch Netflix shows (yes, like “Tiger King”). After too much screen time, I decided to shut down all of my social media and use my free time to start reading again. So I went to your website to see how I might access some of the books I had been hearing rave reviews about. I have to say, YOU have done a WONDERFUL job at helping the community gain access to reading material using your curbside pick-up. I browsed your catalog on the library website, placed holds for the books I wanted to read, and when they were ready, one of your helpful librarians called me to set up a pick-up time.

On pick-up day, I pulled into a designated parking spot, gave my name, and one of your kind circulation clerks put the bag of books in my trunk. What’s more, inside my bag of books was a summer reading program pamphlet so that I could mark off my reading minutes! You brought me back to a time when I was 8 years old again participating in the summer reading program! What a gift. The process was so simple and I found my love for reading again. So, THANK YOU Crystal Lake Public Library for coming up with a way to give community members access to resources in an organized and safe way. 

Thanks to Taylor Crandall for this week’s blog post.

What We’re Reading

At the end of our board meeting last night (via Zoom), A to Z team members shared a book (or two) that they are currently reading or have just recently finished. It was a fun way to wrap up our monthly gathering and sparked a great blog post.

  • Wendy is reading The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall.
  • Kate just completed American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins and is currently reading The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.
  • Alia is reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.
  • Pat is just finished Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens and is currently reading Chris Cleave’s Little Bee.
  • Betty just finished Kristin Harmel’s The Book of Lost Name and is currently reading The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson.
  • Anastasia is reading Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson.
  • Mal is reading Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai and James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life.
  • Dave is currently reading Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh.

If you’re looking for a title (or two), our team hopes this quick list guides you to the right book. ~Mal Keenan