Interview with Amanda Nowlin-O’Banion, Writer, Educator, and BookUP Texas Instructor

Started in 2011 in Huntsville, TX, BookUpTexas is one of our longest running BookUp sites, facilitated by writer and educator Amanda Nowlin-O’Banion. Amanda took the time to chat with BookUp about how the program has helped the community, the books her students loved, and the success they’ve had as readers.

BookUp: What drew you to the BookUp program?

Amanda Nowlin-O’Banion: I had a difficult time reading in middle school. A program like BookUp would have introduced me to a wider variety of books, and maybe I would have fallen in love with one. The fastest way to turn a struggling reader into a fluent reader is to give that person a book s/he can’t put down, even when the process of moving from sentence to sentence is excruciatingly slow.


[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Amanda Nowlin-O’Banion” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]We know reading improves literacy and stories take us away from our problems, but they can also show us new, different, hopeful versions of the world.[/pullquote]

BookUp: Huntsville is a town that seats the Texas Criminal Justice Department, including five prisons within the city limits and two more in the county. How has BookUpTexas been able to help this unique community?

ANO: It’s also the town where I grew up. Many, many of us in this community know someone who is locally incarcerated. To make visitations easier, families often move here to be closer to loved ones who are locked up. BookUp can be especially useful for these kids. We know reading improves literacy and stories take us away from our problems, but they can also show us new, different, hopeful versions of the world. I’ve taught in most of the prisons in Huntsville, and I can tell you, books provide the same service to the men inside.

BookUp: Diversity plays a huge role in how BookUp can reach students. Can you talk about the diverse titles that BookUpTexas students have responded to?

ANO: Last year’s BookUp group picked [National Book Award winner] Brown Girl Dreaming as their favorite book. That group was made up mostly of Hispanic and African American girls. Regardless of their backgrounds, each saw her reflection in Jacqueline Woodson’s images. In January, we’re headed to Houston on a field trip to see Ms. Woodson read. The students are beside themselves. Other beloved books are Confetti Girl, One Crazy Summer, and The Skin I’m In.

Photo of BookUp Instagram projectBookUp: A unique part of BookUp is making reading interactive. What have been some ways BookUpTexas has made reading interactive for their students?

ANO: Lately, we’ve been using readers’ theatre, art projects, and cork board Instagram and Snapchat posts. In the latter, bulletin boards represent social media portals, but kids have to use paper and markers to draw what they want to post. Sometimes they take on the persona of the author or a character. Other times, they post as the fantastically curious readers they really are.

BookUp: The blog Disability in Kidlit recently published a piece about how we need more disabled heroes in stories. You mentioned your students loving El Deafoby Cece Bell for featuring a special needs character. What was the experience of reading that like?

ANO: This semester we’ve read three books about kids with special needs. El Deafo was one of them. Adults sometimes focus on the defining vulnerabilities of special needs children. Average-needs kids, I’m finding, don’t recognize these vulnerabilities because they aren’t socialized to see and interact with children who have special needs. El Deafo, Wonder, and Out of My Mind have created personal connections between characters and readers, which help BookUp kids recognize that the emotional vulnerabilities of a special needs child are very much like all kids’ emotional vulnerabilities, only amplified in some cases. After El Deafo, BookUp students could say, “Hey, me and Cece, we are the same. We have the same fears about being accepted and liked.” Kids bond when they can be vulnerable together in a safe space, and there is no safer place to process insecurities than with a book.

BookUp: Is there a BookUp experience that stands out to you?

ANO: One BookUp student’s teacher recently wrote to me about the great strides the student is making in Language Arts. He asked this teacher to email me a picture of him holding a reading assessment with a red 100 circled at the top. He is so happy in the picture, the kind of stunned happiness you see in the faces of people who’ve won the lottery. But this kid earned it, and he directly connected the achievement to his new interest in reading fun books. This assessment, he told me later, was one of the few he had passed and his first A.

BookUp: How has working with BookUp affected you?

ANO: BookUp is a reliable source of joy. I’m tapped into something good, something pure and helpful. It’s taught me how to be a better parent. How to be a better teacher and a better writer. It’s made me hopeful about the future of the human race. These kids are damn smart.

Students Share BookUp with Reading Rainbow


“In BookUp, we get free books to keep. These books have influenced me to read more than I ever did before. Most of the books that we get are interesting and enjoyable. Now that I’ve found an interest in reading, doing my homework like completing my reading log is much easier. I read almost every day. On the train, instead of turning to my phone for entertainment, I’m now reading.”

In a guest post for Reading Rainbow, Eisa Ulen Richardson, author of the novel Crystelle Mourning and a BookUp instructor, ask her students to share how BookUp has changed their lives.  Read more.

Video interview with Sofia Quintero, author and BookUp instructor

Longtime BookUp instructor Sofia Quintero published her second young adult novel, Show and Prove, last month. Show and Prove follows two friends, Smiles and Nike, as they try to keep their friendship together while attending separate schools.

Below, Quintero shares her thoughts on growing up in the 80s, not writing in proper English, and the influence that young adult novelists had on her authentic writing voice.

National Book Foundation: What drew you to teaching for BookUp? What about the program’s philosophy resonated with you?

Sofia Quintero: One of the reasons why I love being a teaching artist for BookUp New York City is because of the age group that it targets. We work with tweens. Middle school grades. That’s a key time in a young person’s literary history. That’s the time when they’re still open to reading, but there are other things that are starting to interest them that can pull them out of their reading habits. It’s a critical time to make the reading habits stick, but at the same time it’s not pulling teeth to try to get them to read in the first place.

I particularly love where I work because I was born, raised, and still live in the Bronx. I work in a Bronx location, so it’s very fulfilling to me to be working in my home borough, and working with kids that are a lot like me and who can see themselves in me. My own teaching philosophy is to expose them to books that they might not otherwise read, particularly authors of color, authors whose stories are based in New York City. That’s not all that we read, because I really do take into account what might interest them. But I find that there are a lot of authors, stories, and books that they would really relate to and that would really resonate with them that will keep them reading, but that they have never heard of. So I really make it a point not to expose them to things that they’re going to read already in school.


A lot of times, people say that people read to escape. But I think if you come from any community that is underrepresented, in any kind of media, whether that’s around race, around class, or sexual orientation, religion, whatever it may be, sometimes you read to be affirmed. To have your humanity rendered complexly. And sometimes seeing yourself on the page is affirming. And we know that for some young people, that can also be life-saving.

NBF: What has been your most memorable experience with BookUp so far, if you could name one?

SQ: I can’t name just one. There have been many. I’ve been a teaching artist for BookUp for seven years now, and every year, there are always a couple of memorable stories.

One really exciting thing happened this past year—a young woman [came to my site] who was in the program a couple years ago, one of my first students. She was someone who never wanted to read in the group. She was someone that I discovered was maybe a couple of grades behind her reading level and was very, very self-conscious about that. But she was always there. She comes back to visit me, which was awesome. At one point, I was having a rough moment with the kids. It’s springtime, it’s getting to the end of the school year, they’re a little restless. She was like, “Hey! Sofia’s here doing something for you and y’all need to respect and appreciate it!” [Laughs.] It just goes to show you that, in the moment, you may not realize the impact that you’re actually having. Because she was always really quiet – she never wanted to read out loud in the group for the reasons I’ve explained. So for her to want to come back and spend an afternoon with us as a high school student and to impart on the younger ones, “Hey, you really need to understand what an amazing experience and opportunity you have here,” not only because she had my back, but also because it told me that her experience in BookUp made a difference and was something that was memorable to her and something that she wants other young people to have.


NBF: Which books changed you as a young reader?

SQ: I just finished writing a guest blog post about this. I was talking a little bit about my literary forbears, particularly as a young adult novelist. My blog post ended up being a tribute to Walter Dean Myers, but I also mentioned people like Judy Blume. Judy Blume could write haiku on Kleenex and I’d want boxes of it, you know? [Laughs.] I grew up reading Marilyn Sachs because Marilyn Sachs was also the first author that I read who had books set in the Bronx. [And] S.E. Hinton – I was in Catholic school in seventh grade, and I chose Elizabeth as my Confirmation name because I wanted to have the initials ‘S.E.’ to put on all my writing. So I was S.E. Quintero. [Laughs.] That’s how influential she was. What I loved about her work was that I related socioeconomically to the young people she wrote about. So there was something about thinking, “they don’t live where I live, they’re not the same race as I am, but there’s something I find really relatable as a girl who grew up working class.”

But what really turned it around for me was Walter Dean Myers. When I discovered his work, it influenced me not only as a reader, but as a writer. I thought that if I wanted to be a writer, then my characters would have to be white. And when I discovered his work, I was like, “no, I can put my people on the page.” And that liberated my authentic voice. Reading his work led me to Rosa Guy, and Rosa Guy led me to Nicholasa Mohr, and it just opened up a whole new world for me. It opened me up to a lot of African-American writers that I might not otherwise have been exposed to at that age. I might have had to wait until I was in college to read these. But once I found one, I went looking for more and I found them because they were there.


NBF: You could finally put yourself on the page.

SQ: Exactly. That was really important. And when I say myself, I don’t mean just as a woman of color, as a girl who’s growing up in the Bronx, as people growing up in some way economically-challenged, not growing up with money. It was also even just the way we spoke. The vernacular. I learned that it’s alright to say “ain’t.” [Laughs.] My characters can speak the way they authentically are, and that makes for good story. It’s not making for good story to make them speak proper English when nobody speaks like that on the playground.


NBF: I grew up in an area in which “ain’t” was used commonly, and I remember the first time I read a book that had the word “ain’t” as part of the grammar. It’s like the people you know are possible because you see them in books. It sounds backwards, but I know what you mean. That struck me.

SQ: Here’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. A lot of times, people say that people read to escape. But I think if you come from any community that is underrepresented, in any kind of media, whether that’s around race, around class, or sexual orientation, religion, whatever it may be, sometimes you read to be affirmed. To have your humanity rendered complexly. And sometimes seeing yourself on the page is affirming. And we know that for some young people, that can also be life-saving.

Literature can be life-saving. I noticed that with my BookUp kids. Sure, they want to read whatever is the hot book, and of course they want to read fantasy and any kind of speculative fiction, but they also like to read stories with kids that look just like them, that have the same problems as them. And I’ve noticed that what they particularly want to see is to see those characters prevail. So they don’t want sanitized situations. They want [stories] to be raw, they want them to be gritty, but they also do want to see the hope at the end of the story.


cover of sofia quintero's book show and proveNBF: Which authors inspire you now? Which authors continue to inspire you?

SQ: One of my favorite authors is Richard Price. I’ll read anything he writes, and I’d like to think that I’m writing Richard Price-esque novels for a young audience. [Laughs.] I love the economy of his language, and the richness of his characters, and the way place is always a character in his stories, and how he really deals with complex issues of race and class and where they intersect in his stories in ways where it’s always there. It’s visceral, but it’s not heavy-handed. So I’m always reading and rereading his work and being inspired by it and learning how less can be more. If you can say the same thing in one word instead of five, do the one word.


NBF: What has surprised you most during your time at BookUp?

SQ: I’m constantly growing from the surprises I get by working with young people as a BookUp teaching artist. But the one thing that always sticks out to me was how reading to young people —even if they’re not that young, even if they’re too cool for school, middle schoolers—what a profound act of love it is.

So the way I get them interested in something that they’re kind of like, “I don’t know about that, Sofia,” is I will read to them. I’ll do an animated reading. I’ll perform the characters and change my voices. And it never ceases to amaze me just how that’s an act of love for a lot of young people. We can speculate why that is, but I have had the toughest boy who’s got the persona on, he’s edgy and hard or whatever, listen to me read like this. [Leans forward.] I have had that happen. So I realized that reading to these kids is showing them love. And they will listen. The toughest kid will melt when he’s being read a story. I try to do that as often as possible.

But then I get to the point where I go, “I want you to read to me.” [Laughs.] And then, of course, if I do my animated thing, then they want to perform. It’s a tactic because making it fun and performing it and making it visceral in that way makes them want to—especially if [the story] has some choice words in it—because I don’t censor with my young people.

And that’s what’s been really wonderful about working for BookUp New York City because the Foundation does not tell us, “You better not read that.” They say, “The kids want to read it, and you want to teach it, and it addresses the objective of getting them excited about reading and getting them to read independently and getting them to be lifelong readers. Run with it.” That’s not the case everywhere.


NBF: Could you talk about your inspiration for the book? Were Smiles and Nike drawn from personal experience?

SQ: I think I’ve been writing Show and Prove since I was twelve years old. It was at that age that I was going to a summer day camp in the south Bronx. I was looking at some of the counselors, the older kids, and being curious about them.

It’s not like when I sat down to write it, I was like, “I’m writing a piece of historical fiction.” I think if I would’ve told myself [that], I think I would’ve scared myself out of doing it. [Laughs.]

[The book] was being described as historical fiction, and I was like, “No wonder it was so damn hard.” [Laughs.] All the research and details and trying to get it accurate but also letting the details of the time enhance the story but not overpower the story – that was a challenge. That was a dance.

What was really important to me was that I wanted to capture that time. I grew up in that time, and I think even as a kid growing up then, I had a very instinctual understanding that what we were creating, especially around hip hop, was something really special. And something very powerful. I remember writing things down, stories, anecdotes, starting off with something that was true and then remixing it. [Laughs.] So even at that age, I knew that there was something there that was worthy of preserving on the page.

There’s just something about being a young, working class, working poor, person of color in New York City in the 80’s that needs to be understood by people outside of that experience. The way I put it is that we created something really amazing, hip hop, when we weren’t even supposed to survive. Not only did we survive AIDS, Reaganomics, poverty, racism, gang violence, police brutality, substance abuse – not only did we survive that, we created something endured. And whatever you might think of commercial hip hop now, there’s a lot there to like and there’s a lot there to critique and there’s a lot of things you could say both about. But we created something that endured when we ourselves were not supposed to endure. When we ourselves were not supposed to survive and thrive. So I think that is worthy of respect and preservation and it’s US history. It’s US cultural, social, political history. And it’s [history] that everybody should know.


NBF: Could you give us some recommendations for summer reading?

SQ: I just finished reading Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper. I highly recommend it, not just because he’s a friend and because he’s a fellow BookUp instructor, but because it’s an amazing book with necessary themes and characters. I’m not a person who reads a lot of fantasy. So for me to get caught up in Sierra Santiago’s story is no little thing, because it’s not usually a genre that I read. And I loved reading that book on the subway with that beautiful cover. I was trying to get the day camp kids’ attentions like, “Yeah, you want to read this.” We don’t see covers like that, so right from the cover, it’s a groundbreaking book. I’m very happy for that and to recommend that.

A book that I haven’t read that I’m really looking forward to reading is Adam Silvera’s More Happy Than Not. Of course I’ve got to support a fellow Bronxite. [Laughs.] I’m really excited to read that.

Some other authors that I highly recommend that inspire me as a writer whose work I like to reread whose work I like to introduce to young people is Upstate by Kalisha Buckhanon, anything by Coe Booth, a fellow Bronxite, [and] anything by Rita Williams-Garcia. And of course, for me, my classics are to reread Judy Blume, reread Marilyn Sachs, Paul Zindel.

And of course, Walter Dean Myers. This month makes a year since he passed. And that’s in the forefront of my mind because my book just came out this month, [during] the anniversary of his death. One of the most affirming criticisms that I got for Show and Prove was a likening to Walter Dean Myers’s All the Right Stuff. That was just an honor to have.

BookUp LGBTQ Launches
at the Hetrick-Martin Institute

tai freedom ford photo
t’ai freedom ford

The Foundation is pleased to announce the launch of our first BookUp site for LGBTQ youth at The Hetrick-Martin Institute, an after-school center that creates a safe and supportive environment for LGBTQ youth, many of whom are homeless or otherwise at risk. Taught by award-winning poet and Cave Canem fellow, t’ai freedom ford, BookUp LGBTQ will run similarly to our current BookUp sites,but will focus specifically on giving the youth a richer sense of their history and the tremendous contributions of LGBTQ authors throughout time.

The youth will select books they want to read from their own list as well as a curated list of books hand-picked by LGBTQ authors, including Naomi Jackson, Garth Greenwell, and 5 under 35 honoree Megan Kruse. The field trips will be geared towards queer bookstores and historic sites throughout the five boroughs. BookUp LGBTQ is run in partnership with Lambda Literary, the longest running literary organization championing the works of LGBTQ writers.

BookUp students interview author Martha Southgate

BookUp students in University Settlement’s STRIDE Program on the Lower East Side, led by author/instructor Eisa Ulen, read Martha Southgate’s The Fall of Rome this spring. Southgate was generous to answer some of the students’ many questions via email.

Alice Looi (13) & Jessica Nguy (13): What was your motive or inspiration that drove you to write this book

Martha Southgate: I went to a prep school in Cleveland where I’m from. It wasn’t a boarding school but it was a school with a lot of kids who were wealthier than me and a big campus with trees and a barn. I learned a lot there but I was uncomfortable a lot of the time too. That’s where the idea for this book came from.

Continue reading “BookUp students interview author Martha Southgate”

BookUp students interview National Book Awards Finalist Julie Anne Peters

BookUp students in Lissette Norman’s group at I.S. 318 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn read Julie Anne Peters’ By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead earlier this year. They sent a few questions to Peters, a 2004 National Book Award Finalist for Luna, which she was happy to answer via email.

BookUp: Did you experience things like bullying when you were young or know kids who attempted suicide that made you want to write about it?

Julie Anne Peters: I can think of times when kids were teased about their weight or athletic (in)abilities or lack of social skills. One time someone told me I had a big nose and that comment haunts me today. Words can be powerful and demeaning. They can impact your self-image for the rest of your life.


by the time you read this i'll be dead by anne petersBU: If your book is made into a movie, who do you think would be good to play the parts of Daelyn and Santana?

JAP: Wow, I’m not very familiar with young actors and actresses. That might be a better question for you to debate.


BU: Where do you find your inspiration to write?

JAP: Inspiration comes from everywhere. Writers are great observers and absorbers of life. I may read an article in the newspaper, or see a story on TV that touches me deeply, and I’ll want to write about it. Sometimes a single snatch of overheard conversation is all it takes. Dreams or nighttime visitations inspire stories, the way Luna did. She came to me as a vision at 3:00 a.m., night after night, demanding that I write about her. For By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead, I was at a conference where bullying was the topic. I’d been receiving so many letters from young people who felt that suicide was their only way out of the harassment and isolation they felt that the book practically wrote itself. As a matter of fact, it did write itself because I woke up one morning to find the entire manuscript on my dining room table.

There are books I’ll write where the inspiration is lost on me until many years later. Between Mom and Jo was one of those books. I knew I wanted to write about a boy with two moms who is forced to choose between them, but it wasn’t until five or six years after the book was published that I figured out its connection to my life. When my parents divorced, I felt that tug, as if being pulled apart by their separation. So that book was more about divorce than same-sex families.

I love to write love stories, even if they don’t always have happy endings. Love is my greatest inspiration.

VIDEO: BookUp students share what they love about BookUp

Sarah and Orchid are 8th graders from the I.S. 318 program in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Sarah has been in BookUp for three years and Orchid for two years. They’re going to high school next year and took a couple minutes to look back on their experiences in BookUp during a field trip at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Precious is an 8th grader from the CAMBA Kids program in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, who has participated in BookUp for two years. She’s going to high school next year, but she’ll take all of the good stuff she learned in BookUp with her.

VIDEO: Come along on a BookUp Field Trip

These photographs were taken during a BookUp NYC field trip on February 28th, 2009, when Brooklyn BookUpNYC students from the CAMBA Renaissance Program in Crown Heights and Intermediate School 318 in Williamsburg spent their Saturday touring the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library and lunching at the world famous Smoke Joint in Fort Greene. The day ended with book shopping at Book Court in Cobble Hill. The Foundation is grateful to BPL, Smoke Joint and BookCourt for welcoming us!