Thursday, July 3, 2008

Reader To Reader Profiled in "The Read-Aloud Handbook"

A couple of days ago famed literacy advocate and bestselling author Jim Trelease dropped by to donate hundreds of children’s books. Jim is the author of The Read-Aloud Handbook.

This outstanding book (published by Penguin Books) has sold more than two million copies over the years and is an essential tool for parents as they struggle to raise strong readers in this age of television and videogames. It is divided into two parts: the first half contains the "ways" and "whys" of raising readers; and the last half consists of an annotated bibliography of more than 1,000 children's books. His capsule reviews of children’s books are an invaluable tool for selecting books for your children, grandchildren or classroom.

The sixth and most recent edition included a wonderful profile on the origin of Reader To Reader and Jim Trelease has kindly allowed us to reprint an excerpt from the book.

So, if you ever wondered how it all began…

…we drive east to North Adams, Massachusetts, where one day in 2000, David Mazor was visiting his daughter at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Mazor had been an independent film distributor for twenty years and now resided in Amherst, the town he grew up in. He’d also been doing some writing on the subject of futurism and now, finished with the subject, he looked around for someone who might be able to use one of the brand new books he’d used in his research. He wondered if the college’s library could use them.

“Absolutely,” declared the librarian. “We haven’t been able to buy a new book in two years because of budget cuts. All the money goes for online periodicals.” And thus was sparked an idea that became a consuming fire in Mazor’s mind.

“If you want books, I’ll get you books,” Mazor to him. And he meant it. “I was living in Amherst, surrounded by all these professors from five colleges--Amherst, Smith, UMass, Hampshire, and Mount Holyoke--people who have more books than they know what to do with,” he explained to me one day. He ended up collecting so many books the college had to send a truck to collect them.

And then one night Mazor thought, if a state college in a state like Massachusetts is short of books, what about elementary and high schools? He “Googled” “poorest county in the poorest state” and came up with Durant, Mississippi (population 3,000, average income $19,600). “I was so excited about the idea, I could barely sleep. In the morning, I call Durant High School and asked if they needed books. The librarian told me they hadn’t been able to buy a book in forty years. All their funds went to repair the building. So when they built the new school in 1960, if they brought over the books from the old school, most are still there and not much has been added. She told me if a kid wanted to read a book on the Apollo mission, it would be impossible in that library.

“Books aren’t like basketball backboards,” Mazor explains. “If the backboard breaks, the school runs out and fixes it because they’ve got a game scheduled in the gym for Friday night. But when a book is lost or damaged, it doesn’t get replaced because there’s nothing coming Friday night that requires it.”

At this point Mazor’s mind was doing something he learned to do back in high school. He grew up in a family of readers, his father a law professor and his mother a social worker, and there were books everywhere. But one book stood out then and still does. It was a little paperback-- Go Up for Glory, the autobiography of basketball great Bill Russell. It transported Mazor from his privileged circumstances in Amherst to Russell’s segregated Louisiana and left an indelible impression. And there was another point in the book, a section in which Russell described his psychological breakthrough--where he started to “visualize” game situations before they happened and then how he would respond in the game. By the 1990’s, this concept would be a staple of sports psychologists.

“Even as a kid, I got the point immediately and it shaped my life,” he recalls. “All these years later, I’m thinking, if that book could make that big an impression on me as a kid, what about the book that’s supposed to bring some kid to the far reaches of the world, the book he’s never going to see because it’s not in his school library. Somewhere there’s a kid who has never seen a Van Gogh or a Michelangelo, but if he reads a biography there’s a chance his life could change. The right book…the right kid.” And all this time, Mazor is doing his Bill Russell thing, visualizing the possibilities.

“I live in this community where we have all these books that no one’s read since junior was in fourth grade. So out to the yard sale go the books on a weekend. If nobody buys them, they get thrown out. It’s like having all these oil wells in your backyard. ‘What a nuisance! How are we going to get rid of all this excess oil?’ Books in affluent homes don’t get reread or worn-out.” Mazor began to network in an area that had as many educators and books per square mile as any place in America. Soon he no longer had to hit the yard sales; cartons were being dropped off at his house and his garage was overflowing.

He now had boxes of books for Durant and was “Googling” through the south, Indian reservations, colleges, high schools and elementaries. Here was a roadmap for his dream. Talking with librarians at various sites, he began to tailor the shipments: “What kinds of books do you need most? Listen, if you find a kid who is interested in a particular subject and you haven’t got a book on it, e-mail me and I’ll get it.” One school asked for books in English and Bengali--he got them!

He was soon supplying ten to fifteen schools around the country, and not just with single shipments. “I realized this was becoming too important to be a hobby. So I sold my business, formed a nonprofit called Reader to Reader, Inc., and Amherst College donated space in the religious life center.” By 2005, he was supplying 160 schools in twenty-seven states from Maine to Mississippi, and he had more than a dozen volunteers cleaning, sorting, and packing--including a retired college admissions officer. A grant from Daimler-Chrysler paid for all his shipping costs, special purchases and wish list for one year. Cash and check donations began to pour in along with books. The local Barnes & Noble asked customers to donate a book when they bought one at Christmastime and it brought in 1,500 books. As of 2006, Reader to Reader had shipped 200,000 books to some of the book-neediest places in America.

Danny Brassell, Robin and Brandon Keefe, Brigid Hubberman, David Mazor--four people who saw things as they were and asked why, four people who dreamed things that never were and asked why not? Forget the debates about cloning dogs and sheep- clone these people and you could change America.

(Copyright 2006 Jim Trelease)

We have grown substantially since this aritice was written, expanding our reach and developing our new mentoring programs. Over two million books later we are still hard at work.

Please note that Danny Brassell, Robin and Brandon Keefe, and Brigid Hubberman mentioned above have all made outstanding contributions in the fight for literacy. Please pick up a copy of The Read-Aloud Handbook to read their inspiring stories.

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