The New York Times Book Review included 5 Under 35, our prize for emerging writers, in its round up of the season’s biggest book prizes, alongside the Nobel Prize, Man Booker Prize, and the National Book Awards.
We’re delighted to see 5 Under 35 in such esteemed company!
See the full story: “Reader’s Guide to This Fall’s Big Book Awards”
At the annual National Book Awards Teen Press Conference, middle and high school students from New York City’s public and private schools played the role of reporters as they directed questions to the five Finalists for the 2014 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature.
The day before the 65th National Book Awards, the highly anticipated 2014 Teen Press Conference took place at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York and was attended by 300 enthusiastic students. The conference featured that year’s Finalists for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literautre: Eliot Schrefer, Threatened (Scholastic Press); Steve Sheinkin, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights (Roaring Brook Press/ Macmillan Publishers); John Corey Whaley, Noggin (Atheneum Books for Young Readers/ Simon & Schuster); Deborah Wiles, Revolution: The Sixties Trilogy, Book Two (Scholastic Press); and Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books/ Penguin Group (USA)). It was hosted by Rachel Fershleiser.
Rachel Fershleiser is Director of Publisher Outreach at Tumblr. Previously she was the Community Manager at Bookish and the Director of Public Programs at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, where she now serves on the board of directors. She is also the co-creator of Six-Word Memoirs and co-editor of the New York Times Bestseller Not Quite What I Was Planning and three other books.
At the annual National Book Awards Teen Press Conference, middle and high school students from New York City’s public and private schools will play the role of reporters as they direct questions to the five Finalists for the 2015 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature.
The Teen Press Conference gives middle and high school students from New York City’s public and private schools who are interested in writing, reading, and journalism the opportunity to meet and interview the current five National Book Award Finalists in Young People’s Literature on a professional level. Students are encouraged to demonstrate the curiosity and ambition of a reporter who is granted an interview with an important public figure. At the event authors read from their honored work, respond to questions and comments from the students, and sign the students’ books. The event is moderated by a published author or a prominent figure in the book world.
To celebrate, expand, and enhance the cultural value of great writing, the National Book Foundation partnered with the 92nd Street Y for the 2015 Teen Press Conference to increase the number of students attending the event in New York City from 300 to 600. This year, for the first time, the Teen Press Conference will go on the road, its first stop in Miami, at the 2015 Miami Book Festival International and include authors Longlisted for the National Book Award. In Miami, over 200 students will attend the Teen Press Conference event.
Below is the live stream from the Teen Press Conference at the 92nd St Y.
At the annual National Book Awards Teen Press Conference, middle and high school students from New York City’s public and private schools will play the role of reporters as they direct questions to the five Finalists for the 2016 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature.
Tuesday, November 15
92nd Street Y, New York City
The Foundation is partnering with the 92nd Street Y for the second year in a row to invite over 600 students to the Teen Press Conference to meet and engage with the 2016 National Book Award Young People’s Finalists. In addition, the event will be live streamed to give students across the country the opportunity to view the event and “meet” the authors.
Hosted by Brendan Kiely.
Miami Book Festival International, Miami Florida
This year, the Teen Press Conference will return to the Miami Book Fair International. The winner, Finalists, and longlisted authors for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature are invited to meet with 200 students at one of the nation’s largest book fairs.
2018 Innovations in Reading Winner and Honorable Mentions – Academy of American Poets (winner). Honorable Mentions: Appalachian Prison Book Project, Friends of the Homer Library, Jewish Women International’s National Library Initiative, and Words Without Borders Campus
Each year the National Book Foundation, with support from the Levenger Foundation, awards the Innovations in Reading Prize, a $10,000 prize awarded to an individual or organization that has developed an innovative project which creates and sustains a lifelong love of reading in the community they serve.
The winner of the 2018 Innovations in Reading Prize is the Academy of American Poets and its Teach This Poem project, a weekly publication for K-12 educators that empowers teachers and students to make poetry an integral part of the educational experience. In addition to the winner, the Innovations in Reading Prize also identifies four honorable mentions each year. For the first year, these organizations will be awarded with $1,000 to recognize their meaningful work. The 2018 honorable mentions are the Appalachian Prison Book Project, Friends of the Homer Library, Jewish Women International’s National Library Initiative, and Words Without Borders Campus.
For more details about this year’s winner, the honorable mentions, or the Innovations in Reading Prize, please contact Jordan Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org
ACADEMY OF AMERICAN POETS and its TEACH THIS POEM project
The Academy of American Poets launched Teach This Poem in 2015 as a free resource that helps teachers and students actively integrate poetry into their educational lives. With over 27,000 teachers subscribed, Teach This Poem digitally distributes a weekly poem accompanied by unique curriculum and related teaching materials such as artwork, maps, and photographs curated by the Academy staff and their Educator in Residence, Dr. Mady Holzer. Poems are selected to address timely topics, and classroom activities are designed to provide cross-disciplinary strategies for incorporating poetry into daily school work and encourage not only the appreciation of poetry, but also the development of creative and critical thinking skills.
Academy of American Poets: www.poets.org Teach This Poem: www.poets.org/poetsorg/teach-poem
APPALACHIAN PRISON BOOK PROJECT
The Appalachian Prison Book Project sends free books to incarcerated people in six states in the Appalachian region and facilitates books clubs and reading programs run with West Virginia University faculty and graduate students. aprisonbookproject.wordpress.com
JEWISH WOMEN INTERNATIONAL’S NATIONAL LIBRARY INITIATIVE
Jewish Women International’s National Library Initiative has opened 70 children’s libraries in domestic violence shelters throughout the country since 2005, providing safe and stable literary environments for mothers and families. www.jwi.org/nli
FRIENDS OF THE HOMER LIBRARY
Friends of the Homer Library, based in Homer, Alaska, reaches out to communities without easy access to the library’s resources, including outreach to Old Russian Believer families in remote villages outside the Homer area, whose schools do not have school libraries. friendshomerlibrary.org
WORDS WITHOUT BORDERS CAMPUS Words Without Borders Campus facilitates the building of cultural understanding through contemporary international literature with a free, online resource available to students and educators that features English translations of international texts. wwb-campus.org
Each year the National Book Foundation, with support from the Levenger Foundation, awards the Innovations in Reading Prize to an individual or organization who discovers new ways to empower communities through literature. In 2016, Traveling Stories received honorable mention.
Traveling Stories is dedicated to helping kids fall in love with reading by the fourth grade. We set up StoryTents at farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods and offer free reading support. At the StoryTent, children read with volunteers, their parents or other children. For every book read, they earn a book buck, which can be redeemed for prizes. Through this, children not only become better readers but they also develop basic money management skills.
Read our interview with Emily Moberly, Founder and Executive Director of Traveling Stories.
NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION: How did Traveling Stories get started?
EMILY MOBERLY: Right after college I moved to Honduras, where I taught high school, and I realized that my students had never had a chance to fall in love with reading. They didn’t have books. They didn’t have a library. They didn’t have a bookstore. The only reading they had done was textbooks for school. No one had ever suggested that they read for fun, and that was a very weird foreign concept to them. I was able to bring books to my students, and then I got to watch them fall in love with reading for the very first time. It just took finding a book that they loved to ignite that love for reading.
When I came back to California, I started getting messages from my students talking about how much they still love reading and what they were reading now. That inspired me to start Traveling Stories. I felt like it had changed my students’ lives in such a meaningful and ongoing way, and I realized that it hadn’t been that difficult. All I did was share my love for reading and put books into kids’ hands.
NBF: Why have you chosen to set up the StoryTents in places like farmer markets instead of someplace more permanent?
EM: Some people assume that we have to do the StoryTents that way, but we purposely choose to do pop-up programs at places like restaurants, rec centers, and farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods. We purposely look for places where families are already going. If we had a permanent facility, everyone would have to come to us. But because we go out into the community, we eliminate a lot of the barriers like transportation and time. It also lets us reach families who may be embarrassed about reading and would never come to a program, but they’ll come to the farmers market.
For us, the StoryTents are about more than just reading. They’re about creating an awareness of the fun side of reading. If you come on Saturday to our StoryTent, we’re at the front of the market with two tents, and we’ve usually got 40 or 50 kids. Anybody who walks by usually slows down to see what we’re doing, and they see kids reading. It’s really awesome because it’s making reading a very visible part of the community.
NBF: How do you make reading fun for kids who might not normally interact with books in a “fun” way?
EM: In the StoryTent, we try to make an experience that’s kid-friendly. For us, the StoryTent is purposely not associated with school. We try to take off any of the pressure that kids might have in terms of performance or obligation, and we focus on fun. So, if a child finds a book that they don’t like, we don’t tell them they have to finish it. We want them to find a book that they love. We also don’t talk about levels or grades because a child might be embarrassed of what their reading level is. At the StoryTent, the emphasis is on fun and practice instead of doing a good job. We also create a kid-friendly environment. We have comfortable carpets and chairs so kids can sit down, lie down, roll around. We have a lot of different books. It’s an environment designed with the kid in mind to make them feel comfortable. Last but not least, we pay kids to read with the book bucks.
NBF: What’s the motivation for that kind of reward?
EM: The book bucks make reading into a social activity. Normally one book is worth one book buck, but if a kid thinks a book is more difficult, they can negotiate for more bucks. Then, they can use their bucks to pay for prizes, which we pick based on the feedback we get from kids. We don’t give books as prizes for reading because that’s not going to work for a six-year-old who thinks reading is boring. He’s not going to come to our program and read books to buy more books. But he is going to see the basketball, read 20 books so he can get it, and then slowly but surely find books that he likes and fall in love with reading itself. Gradually, it becomes more about liking the reading and less about the prizes.
NBF: Your target group is kids younger than fourth grade. Why is it important to reach this group in particular?
EM: A lot of statistics talk about the importance of reading, especially for young children. They say if a child is not reading at grade level by the fourth grade, they’re going to be 15 times more likely to drop out of school, which could leave them unqualified for about 90 percent of jobs. But if children are reading before the fourth grade, they’re going to have much better chances of succeeding in high schools, in college, in work. We’re so passionate about reading because we see it as a tool to open up doors for all of us. So much of what I’ve done in my life has been possible because of reading. Plus, it’s a lot easier to create an experience reading Dr. Seuss or the Clifford books with a six or seven-year-old than it is with a teenager.
NBF: What was your experience with reading like as a kid?
EM: I have been a book nerd pretty much my entire life. As a child, before I could even talk, my grandma gave me a book club membership where I would get a book every month. Growing up, I think I was drawn to so many characters, strong women like Nancy Drew, and it made me want to do something big with my life and to have adventures. My favorite time of the day was bedtime because my parents would read to me every night, and a lot of kids today, especially in low-income neighborhoods, grow up without having that. So many things that I took for granted like going to the park and reading or going to the library every week to pick out new books— those are experiences that not all kids have. For a lot of kids that come to the StoryTent, the only reading experience they have is school, and I think that’s only half the experience of what reading can be.
NBF: What kind of books do you fill the StoryTents with?
EM: We try to have at least 400 books at each StoryTent all the time. We’re really fortunate to have a lot of books donated. We try to have multiple reading levels (from super easy all the way up to chapter books), and we try to have a lot of variety: animal books, space books, princess books, basically everything you can imagine. Then we also have different language books. On Saturdays, we have over 14 languages represented by the kids who visit. We don’t have books in all those languages, sadly, but we do have books in Vietnamese, Urdu, Arabic, Spanish, and French. We’re very attentive to our population. If kids or parents ask for something, we’ll put a post on Facebook or send an email to our donors to share our wish list. Basically, we have almost everything, and we rotate the boxes between programs so kids don’t get tired of them.
NBF: Do you see relationships develop in the StoryTents? Between the kids and volunteers and/or the kids and other kids?
EM: Our StoryTents happen every week, the same day, the same time. The reason we do that is because we want to build relationships. We believe that putting books in kids’ hands is only part of it. The other part is having that person that they know and they trust to encourage them, and say, “Great job!”
I remember a little boy named Edwin who started coming when he was five or six years old. He was from Mexico, he had a speech impediment, and he was very, very shy. He would not ever read out loud because he was too embarrassed. Then he met our volunteer Denise, who would come every week. She got to know Edwin, and they started reading together. At first she would read out loud to him every time, but because he became more comfortable with her, he started reading out loud to her. Now he’s been reading for five years, and he reads chapter books out loud to younger children. That’s completely because of the relationship he built with that volunteer. Things like that happen all the time.
NBF: Have you encountered any difficulties engaging kids in the StoryTents?
EM: Our main difficulty is a lack of volunteers. Our program emphasizes a lot of one-on-one reading instead of one adult reading out loud to a room of children (which is fun, but it’s not what we do). We want kids reading out loud to volunteers, which means we need volunteers to listen. Since we’re paying kids [in book bucks], we also need adults to make sure kids don’t lie about reading or exaggerate their level when they’re reading alone. We have to find that fine line between encouraging reading and holding kids accountable to their abilities. But engaging kids with reading is the easiest part. It’s just a matter of having enough people to do that.
NBF: What is your most memorable moment in a StoryTent?
EM: One of the kids, Malika, is ten years old now. She’s from Pakistan, the youngest in her family with all brothers, and she started coming to our program when she was five. When I first met her five years ago, she hated reading. But then she found a book she loved—Madeline by Ludwig Bemelman—and now she’s reading a ton. About two years ago Malika was reclassified from a below average reader to an above average reader! The best part of it is that when she found out, she came running up to me tell me. She’s just a kid, and she already understood the importance of her reading skills. She was literally running around the market yelling her news to all the vendors because she’s so proud of it. Over the years, I keep seeing her grow and become a better reader.
NBF: Now you have libraries not just in StoryTents around the states but in countries around the world. Where do you see Traveling Stories going next?
EM: Our dream is to have StoryTents all over the U.S. Right now they say that 82 percent of low-income children can’t read at grade level by the fourth grade, and we would like to dramatically change that. We’d like every child to have a chance to discover a love of reading by the fourth grade. We’d like to start in the areas that have the lowest literacy levels. Currently we’re working with some larger companies, looking for partners that would allow us to expand nation-wide. My ideal dream is to partner with someone like National Geographic and have reading adventure tents in every community, where kids come in and are not only learning how to read, but also learning geography and exotic places. That’s what I would like. If anyone is interested in supporting, even if you can’t come to a StoryTent, it only costs $37 to provide reading support for one kid for a whole year. We all have something valuable to contribute.
Each year the National Book Foundation, with support from the Levenger Foundation, awards the Innovations in Reading Prize to an individual or organization who discovers new ways to empower communities through literature. In 2016, Limitless Libraries received honorable mention.
Through Limitless Libraries, Nashville’s public and school librarians work together to help students become strong readers, successful learners, and curious thinkers and creators.
Metro government and private donors have embraced the program, which gives students and teachers on-campus access to Nashville Public Library’s catalog through daily delivery to 125 public elementary, middle, and high schools across town.
A 2013 independent study tied student’s use of Limitless Libraries to higher academic test scores. Meanwhile, Limitless has infused $6 million into strengthening school library collections and another $4 million into transforming eight school libraries into dynamic spaces for reading, collaborative learning, and creation.
Read our interview with Limitless Libraries’ Sarah Allen.
NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION: How does Limitless Libraries work?
SARAH ALLEN: Limitless Libraries is a collaboration between the Nashville Public Library and Metro Nashville Public Schools. Our program has two parts: we deliver Nashville Public Library materials to students and teachers at their schools, and we provide collection development support by purchasing materials that are added to school library collections. At the beginning of each school year, educators and students in grades 3-12 automatically receive Nashville Public Library cards linked to their employee or school ID numbers. When a student or teacher requests an item through our catalog, our system routes the item to the correct school using the school delivery system. We sent out over 130,000 items this way during the 2015-2016 school year— a record breaking number!
NBF: In what ways does Limitless Libraries motivate students to read more?
SA: Limitless Libraries gives students more access to reading materials and more opportunities to find the books they love. Instead of being limited to their local school library collections, students are able to browse Nashville Public Library’s 1.5 million items and pull books that appeal to them for school work or for fun. Students explore more when the entire NPL collection is at their disposal, and wait times for popular items are cut significantly. From a collection development standpoint, we are able to refresh school libraries with new, high-quality materials throughout the school year. We do pre-publication ordering of blockbuster titles every month, which keeps students visiting their school libraries to see what’s new. These efforts have driven a huge increase in circulation at the school level since Limitless Libraries began. We also sponsor programming and contests several times a year to add a fun, competitive element and draw in reluctant readers.
NBF: Do you think that use of technology for young students enables young readers to expand their reading choices to materials?
SA: There are some books that are only e-published, so in these cases technology does allow students access to books they cannot find anywhere else. Nashville Public Library also offers digital content, such as eMagazines through Zinio, ebooks through Overdrive, and streaming music, movies, and audiobooks through Hoopla. Students have access to all of those resources, as well as the research databases offered by both Nashville Public Library and Metro Nashville Public Schools. One innovative way we have implemented e-content is through bundled Playaways and print books. If a child (especially an English language learner child) is struggling to comprehend a book, oftentimes reading along while listening to the book improves the experience. Additionally, by having access to e-resources 24/7 there is no excuse to not complete that weekend homework on Sunday evening!
NBF: According to the a study you conducted, over 60 percent of students eligible for free/reduced school lunches in your service area are registered and/or active Limitless Libraries users. Why do so many students from lower-income families utilize Limitless Libraries?
SA: In general, Limitless Libraries users reflect the demographics of the broader Metro Nashville Public Schools community. Our delivery service removes the transportation barrier that prevents some students from checking out materials at Nashville Public Library branches, however, which might make the program especially attractive to lower-income families.
NBF: How does Limitless Libraries encourage students to check out their local libraries and their reading programs?
SA: Limitless Libraries is able to distribute information about programs happening at our Nashville Public Library branch locations through our school delivery system, and we promote NPL programming via a weekly e-blast to Metro Nashville Public Schools librarians. Our collaboration facilitates communication between the school librarians and their local branch librarians, as well. We host an in-service session at the beginning of each school year where school librarians are introduced to their local NPL branch librarians and encouraged to collaborate with one another. The strength of these relationships has led to more public librarian visits to school libraries for book talks and program sign ups.
NBF: Do school and local librarians collaborate to find recommended reading for students?
SA: Yes! Limitless Libraries works with Nashville’s school and public librarians to give Metro Nashville Public Schools students the best possible library experience. We achieve this goal through collaborative programing, collection development support, readers’ advisory, and resource sharing. Limitless Libraries would not exist if we didn’t have hard-working school librarians on our side.
NBF: Do you have a favorite story of a student’s experience with Limitless Libraries?
SA: There are two anecdotes that we love to share. We had a group of Burundi girls at one of our high schools who came to the library every day to get movies. When the school librarian asked how they were watching so many movies and keeping up with their school work, they told her that their entire family was learning English together by watching the movies. We also had a little boy who was getting more books than he could carry home and many of them were clearly not of his interest or reading level. He told his librarian that he had become a “librarian” and was getting cookbooks, car repair manuals, and picture books for the rest of his family. We love stories like these because they highlight the unexpected ways that Limitless Libraries impacts students and their entire families.
NBF: What’s next for Limitless Libraries now that it has been established in all 128 Nashville Public schools?
SA: The next step for Limitless Libraries is a huge one. We already have a combined catalog where students can see what is in their local school collection and what is available for delivery through Nashville Public Library. Next, we are going to be combining our Integrated Library Systems. This way, teachers can see what students have out, there will be just one place for librarians and students to manage their accounts, and we will be able to track usage and materials more closely. This combination will save both Nashville Public Library and Metro Nashville Public Schools money, and the extra savings will allow us to buy more books for Nashvillians!
Each year the National Book Foundation, with support from the Levenger Foundation, awards the Innovations in Reading Prize to an individual or organization who discovers new ways to empower communities through literature. In 2016, LGBT Books to Prisoners received honorable mention.
LGBT Books to Prisoners sends books and educational material to LGBTQ-identified people in prisons across the country. This work seeks to affirm the dignity of all individuals – particularly the over-incarcerated populations of people of color, poor people, queer and gender nonconforming people, and people with mental illnesses – by providing access to free literature of their choosing.
Operating as a donation-funded, all-volunteer collective, LGBT Books to Prisoners has sent books to over 5,500 people since its founding, and mailed over 3,000 packages of books in 2015. The individually selected reading materials offer information of each person’s choosing and provide a means for LGBTQ incarcerated people to explore and develop their self-identities without fear of judgment. Though other organizations send prisoners much-needed resources, LGBT Books to Prisoners is uniquely equipped to respond to requests from LGBTQ people.
This population is highly marginalized. A 2015 study reports that 70 percent of the LGBT prisoners experienced discrimination or verbal harassment from prison staff; that a large number lacked gender-affirming information and services; and that 71 percent entered prison without completing high school. While our work only fights against aspects of these problems, it has served as a lifeline for individuals across the country. As Don, a prisoner in California who received a package from LGBT Books to Prisoners, wrote, “There are a fair amount of GLBTQ people in prison… We’re the lowest on the social totem pole. No one has an easy experience in prison. Being different, queer, means that your journey will be much harder… Books are, for a lot of us, the only friends we have.”
Read our interview with LGBT Books to Prisoners’ Melissa Charenko.
NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION: What was the inspiration to establish LGBT Books to Prisoners?
MELISSA CHARENKO: In 2006, Dennis Bergren, who described himself as a “lover of books and education,” began volunteering with Wisconsin Books to Prisoners in the hopes of combating prison injustice. The group received a number of requests for gay books, and Dennis saw an opportunity to meet the needs of LGBT people in prison, many of whom were special targets of unjust treatment by correctional institutions and their fellow prisoners. He began sending LGBT titles under the umbrella of Wisconsin Books to Prisoners. Within a year, interest in the LGBT Project grew, and LGBT Books to Prisoners was formed to meet the unique reading needs of LGBT people in prison.
While there has been some improvement in the conditions faced by people in prison since our organization’s founding, recent reports continue to show that time in prison, particularly for LGBT people, can be very bleak. A 2015 study from Black and Pink reports that 70 percent of LGBT prisoners surveyed experienced discrimination or verbal harassment from prison staff; that a large number lacked gender-affirming information and services; and that 71 percent entered prison without completing high school. These statistics continue to inspire our desire to send resources to members of our community, while incarcerated members themselves also remind us how important this work is.
NBF: How do you match books to a reader’s interests and requests?
MC: Each week, we receive hundreds of letters from LGBT people in prison. Our volunteers read these letters and respond directly to requests from the selection of books that we have on hand. The vast majority of these books are donated by members of the LGBT community and allies across the country, and volunteers do their best trying to match books to prisoners’ requests. We hope that if we don’t find exactly what a person is looking for that the replacement book will become a new favorite or at least open up readers to new authors or books.
NBF: Can you tell me more about restrictions on materials sent to prisons and how your organization handles them?
MC: Different prisons have different restrictions. Some may not allow sexual content or images. Some are very strict about LGBT content. We have a list of all the prisons that we send to and a list of their restrictions. We’re constantly updating this list by reading prison guidelines, asking people in prison if they know of any restrictions, and from previous rejections.
Sometimes we’ll be surprised that a book is rejected. We had an art book from the Louvre rejected because it contained nudity. Once Pride and Prejudice was rejected for its sexual themes. While this censorship is frustrating, time-consuming, and costly, some of the other rejections are heartbreaking: a Missouri prison recently rejected a copy of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves. We appealed this rejection, but they stood by their decision and destroyed the book. We’re working to fight restrictions and policies like these, which seem to be particularly prohibitive of LGBT content and themes, but we also have to work within an oppressive system in order to continue to be able to send any books.
NBF: In what ways is LGBT literature, specifically, vital for these prisoners?
MC: People in prison often lack information. Few have access to the internet, and many prison libraries are inadequate. LGBT people in prison may have specific questions: How do you come out? What does it mean to transition? What are some safer sex practices? Is it normal to be gay? Some of the books that we send answer these questions. Even LGBT erotica can be important.
More than just practical information, LGBT literature also affirms the identities of LGBT people by portraying characters and themes that more closely match their experiences, asserting that LGBT identities are legitimate, varied, and valued.
NBF: How do you see prisoners develop through the books they request in their letters?
MC: We’ve seen the vocabularies and reading levels improve through the books that we’ve sent. We’ve also seen reluctant readers turn into bibliophiles, eager to request another package of books. We’ve also seen people become more comfortable with their gender identities, especially when we’ve sent them materials that directly relate to their [personal] experience— as an African American trans woman, for example. We’ve been corresponding with some prisoners for nearly 10 years so we’ve certainly developed relationships with many of them.
NBF: The letter writing system seems invaluable to prisoners. Being able to have their voices heard and to know a community cares about them must mean so much. How does that relationship impact your volunteers?
MC: Most volunteer opportunities allow volunteers to interact directly with the people they serve, but this isn’t possible for our volunteers. Letters help volunteers understand the conditions faced by those in prison and the impact of receiving books and a note from their community. We often share these letters (in the newsletter) because they show the importance of programs like ours. More importantly, they help to show that people in prison are human.
NBF: Does LGBT Books for Prisoners provide resources for prisoners post-incarceration?
MC: 97 percent of people in prison will be re-released into our communities. Many will not have received resources for life outside prison. With longer and longer prison sentences, people in prison are likely to encounter a changed world when they are released, and many are subject to restrictive rules that govern their movement, housing, and job opportunities. It’s no wonder that so many people end up back in prison.
While we are angered by this reality, our primary goal is not to provide resources for post-incarceration (in part because a lot of this information is specific to the region that a person will move to once they are released, and as a national organization, it is hard to keep this information up to date). However, many of the materials we provide indirectly help people transition out of the system. We send many books to people interested in learning a skill or trade, such as computer books, plumbing and electrical books, writing books, etc. We’ve also sent a number of GED books which have helped people complete their high school degrees while they are incarcerated. We do send a shorter resource list to people who ask for a variety of services, whether it be re-entry, legal help, or pen pals.
NBF: How has the organization changed or grown over the last 10 years?
MC: When Dennis started sending books to LGBT people, he had a list of about 40 people who wrote to him regularly. Today, we have over 5,200 people in our database, and we have new people writing for books each week. With more visibility on social media and in our community, we have received many more books recently and have had other groups in different parts of the country run book drives on our behalf. Unfortunately, certain genres of books are nearly as hard to find [now as they were] 10 years ago: we never have enough transgender-themed books, gay fiction and erotica, LGBTQ books featuring African and Native Americans, LGBTQ books in Spanish, or dictionaries.
We’re also excited by a number of new initiatives. Last year, we received a small grant to start a Trans Reading Group. The group sought to reduce the isolation experienced by incarcerated trans people using literature to foster discussion. Trans people in prison and trans people on the outside read the same set of books and wrote responses to these books, which authors Julia Serano, Imogen Binnie, and Casey Plett then responded to. We weren’t sure how the project would work, but it was a roaring success!
Each year the National Book Foundation, with support from the Levenger Foundation, awards the Innovations in Reading Prize to an individual or organization who discovers new ways to empower communities through literature. In 2016, the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) received honorable mention.
The HPA is a non-profit organization that uses the power of story to turn fans into heroes. Using inspiration from stories like Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and more, they strive to make the world better through activism and community engagement. Through HPA campaigns, young people have donated 250,000 books to libraries and literacy organizations worldwide, organized over 20,000 YouTube video creators and fans to advocate for net neutrality, made over 3,000 phone calls for marriage equality, and convinced Warner Bros. to switch their Harry Potter chocolates to Fair Trade or UTZ-certified sources. There are over 200 chapters in 22 countries on six continents. There are over 200 chapters in 22 countries on 6 continents, and anyone who wants to be a wizard activist can learn more at thehpalliance.org.
Read our interview with Katie Bowers, Campaigns Director for the Harry Potter Alliance.
NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION: You use literature, particularly the Harry Potter series, to inspire activism. Why connect activism with stories, especially these stories?
KATIE BOWERS: Firstly, fans are powerful. When a new Harry Potter book comes out, or a big shake up happens on Game of Thrones, the world knows about it— not because of the power of creators or companies, but because of the enthusiasm and dedication of fans. When directed at social change, that energy and enthusiasm can draw people in and accomplish some big things!
That draw is the second reason it’s so powerful. Everyone is a fan of something. We’ve all imagined ourselves fighting monsters alongside our heroes. Fan activism allows people to take those traits and skills—bravery, loyalty, dedication, problem-solving, etc.—and use them to fight the real world dark arts like oppression, bigotry, and injustice.
Finally, sometimes there is a barrier to enter activism. People think, “Oh, I don’t know enough about that issue,” or “I’m the wrong age,” or “I don’t know how to organize a charity drive, call Congress, recruit volunteers.” Activism isn’t hard, but it can be intimidating. Using pop culture can help break down complex issues into familiar, understandable ideas. It frames activism as an adventure!
NBF: You fight for all kinds of different causes, from net neutrality to marriage equality. Is there a reason the Harry Potter Alliance has remained so flexible in its advocacy goals?
KB: In truth, we care deeply about so many different issues, it’d be hard to pick just one or two. Our community is full of passionate, big-hearted fans who want to help make the world a better place. When a major issue arises— from helping Haiti after the earthquake, to protecting net neutrality, to fighting the anti-trans bathroom bills— wizard activists want to help. Remaining flexible in our goals allows us to achieve our main goal: helping fans channel their awesome energy into positive social change!
NBF: How do you choose the causes you fight for?
KB: There’s no one way that we select the causes we work on. Sometimes they are issues that our staff feels passionately about. Sometimes they are issues that are prevalent in the news or that partner organizations have brought to our attention. Our favorite campaigns are often those that come from our community. Wizard activists will approach us with an idea at a convention or a wizard rock show saying, “You should do a campaign that gets everyone to donate books!” or “Let’s try and make Harry Potter chocolate fair trade!” Those ideas often turn into our favorite campaigns.
NBF: What is the role of social media in this kind of fan activism?
KB: The HPA’s community spans the world. While our senior staff is based in the U.S., we have volunteers, chapters, and individual wizard activists in 25 countries on six continents! Social media keeps us all connected. It helps individuals take action in our campaigns. It draws new people into the work of wizard activism. Social media makes it possible for a worldwide community of wizard activists to come together to effect positive social change on many different levels in countless communities. When our community comes together for real life conventions like our hero-training conference, the Granger Leadership Academy, it feels incredibly powerful and exciting. But that community connection stays strong all year long thanks to the numerous magical online spaces that nearly twenty years of fandom have built.
NBF: Out of all the campaigns you’ve done, what is your proudest accomplishment?
KB: The HPA has had some incredible accomplishments. Through the power of fan activism, we’ve compelled Warner Bros to ethically source all of their Harry Potter-brand chocolates, we’ve rallied over 20,000 fans and creators for net neutrality, and we’ve sent five cargo planes full of medical supplies to Haiti. This year, we’ve continued to accomplish huge things. During our annual Accio Books campaign, wizard activists and librarians joined forces to advocate for library funding, with over 3,000 calls and letters to Congress on National Library Legislative Day. Wizard activists also smashed all previous records this year when they collected and donated over 100,000 books to schools, libraries, and literacy programs all around the world! A portion of those books are headed to Good Shepherd School in Masaka, Uganda. This school was built by community leaders and Masaka’s local HPA chapter. Thanks to the work of Masaka HPA and their Chapter Organizer John Ssentamu, Out of Print, Books for Africa, and wizard activists around the world, the new school will open a library with 10,000 books and 23 new computers later this year! It’s hard to say what our proudest accomplishment is, but helping this incredible chapter found a brand new library ranks right near the top!
NBF: It seems like the Harry Potter Alliance is comprised of more young people than you see in a typical advocacy group like this. How does the involvement of younger activists affect the causes you fight for?
KB: Younger wizard activists bring an incredible energy, honesty, and drive to the work. We believe in intergenerational leadership at the HPA, and our young leaders are just as inspiring and creative as our adult leaders. Everyone can learn from one another, regardless of age. We don’t see age as something that should hold anyone back from engaging in politics and civic imagination. There are numerous things young people do to effect change, from volunteering, to contacting decision makers, to educating their communities, and much more. So often the focus is on turning 18 and voting, but casting a ballot is one small part of being an engaged activist and changemaker. Civic engagement does not begin and end with the ability to vote, especially for an organization that is dedicated to radical youth empowerment.
NBF: Do you think the Harry Potter Alliance has changed how fan activism is seen more broadly?
KB: We do. When the HPA began, fan activism was not a widely known term or practice. Now, more and more activism organizations are utilizing the power of pop culture to inspire people to take action! Our work has been replicated by other activists and studied by scholars, and we are honored to be helping to make activism more accessible, understandable, and joyful!
NBF: What is your favorite moment from the Harry Potter books?
KB: When Harry first visits the Burrow and sees the Weasley family in action together.To watch Harry find a home and a family that loves him so much, after so many years of abuse, is absolutely heartwarming to read every time.
NBF: Now that the Harry Potter books are finished, how do you see the Harry Potter Alliance moving forward in the future? Both in terms of connecting causes to stories and the kinds of causes you might seek.
KB: Well, it’s an exciting year for Harry Potter because the story is continuing to develop through the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The story continues, and Harry Potter will be a part of the cultural consciousness far into the future. This resurgence of stories is because fans have been excited for Harry Potter for the decade since the stories have ended. However, we also recognize the importance of incorporating new fandoms. We’ve run campaigns like Odds in Our Favor (using The Hunger Games to engage with economic injustice work) and Superman is an Immigrant (promoting immigration reform and fighting to change the negative portrayal of immigrants) for exactly that reason. We also have our Fandom Forward initiative, which provides fans with toolkits for using different fandoms (like Marvel, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and Welcome to Nightvale) to create fan activist campaigns in their communities. Harry Potter is here to stay, but people will always be fans, regardless of the media. Fans will always be inspired by stories of heroes, and at the HPA, we will always be ready to help fans become heroes.
NBF: Has JK Rowling responded to any of your campaigns?
KB: In Time’s 2007 Person of the Year profile, JK Rowling was asked about HPA, to which she replied, “It’s incredible, it’s humbling, and it’s uplifting to see people going out there and doing that in the name of your character.” We continue to be inspired by her stories, and we will forever be hugely honored by her kind words!