Why Reading Matters Conference

Exploring ways to build a new audience for literature

Why Reading Matters Conference 2017: (left) Jason Reynolds, (top right) participants during the keynote speeches, (bottom right) attendees collaborate during a workshop. (Photo credit: Christian Rodriguez)

The Why Reading Matters conference introduced me to individuals and organizations doing amazing work to engage communities in reading. I left the conference with new connections and renewed inspiration for my own work.

—Karen Phillips, Executive Director of Words Without Borders

St. Francis College President Miguel Martinez-Saenz welcoming attendees during the 2018 Why Reading Matters Conference. Photo credit: Christian Rodriguez

The National Book Foundation’s Why Reading Matters conference brings together diverse stakeholders to explore a simple idea, that reading matters, from a variety of complex perspectives that includes educators, service providers, writers, librarians, academics, publishing professionals, literary activists, and more.

Since its launch in 2016, the conference has grown to a daylong event complete with a keynote presentation, celebration of the Innovations in Reading prize, author appearance, and a series of rich breakout sessions—and we hope to keep expanding.

To keep up-to-date with conference information, including calls for proposals and registration information, .

Why Reading Matters is designed to bring together educators, non-profit administrators, librarians, academics, publishing professionals, writers, and literary activists of all kinds to discover and share ways to welcome more readers into their community. The National Book Foundation’s third Why Reading Matters conference was held on June 7, 2018 at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, and included a full day of presentations focused on reading without boundaries.

Why Reading Matters: Reading Without Boundaries featured a keynote presentation from Alvin Irby, an author talk by National Book Award Finalist Lisa Ko, and a celebration of the 2018 Innovations in Reading Prize winner, Academy of American Poets. A variety of breakout sessions focused on how we can use books to bridge divides, create new connections, and deepen understandings. The full schedule from the 2018 conference is below.

To keep up-to-date with conference information, including calls for proposals and registration information, .



Alvin Irby Barbershop Books
Alvin Irby Barbershop Books

Keynote Speaker: Alvin Irby, Founder of Barbershop Books Winner of the 2017 Innovations in Reading Prize

Alvin Irby is an award-winning educator, comedian, and entrepreneur. As Founder and Chief Reading Inspirer at Barbershop Books, winner of the National Book Foundation’s 2017 Innovations in Reading Prize, Irby has expanded book access for thousands of children and inspired a national movement to promote reading in barbershops. As a 2015 StandUp NBC national finalist, he beat out more than 600 comedians nationwide to showcase his stand up comedy at the Hollywood Improv in Los Angeles, CA. Irby has established himself as a thought leader in early literacy and a cultural competency specialist, captivating audiences with his passionate keynotes and insightful workshops. In 2016, Irby published his debut children’s book Gross Greg, a laugh-out-loud story that combines his passion for humor and children’s literature. Irby holds a BA from Grinnell College, an MS in Childhood Education from Bank Street Graduate School of Education, and an MPA from New York University.



Lisa Ko author photo, credit: Bartosz Potocki
Lisa Ko, photo credit: Bartosz Potocki

Author Talk: Lisa Ko, The Leavers 2017 National Book Award Finalist

Lisa Ko is the author of The Leavers, a novel which won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction and was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction, the 2018 PEN/Hemingway Award, and the 2017 Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, BuzzFeed, O. Magazine, and elsewhere. She has been awarded fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and the MacDowell Colony, among others. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn. Visit her at lisa-ko.com.




Conference Schedule

9am-9:30am: Registration & Light Breakfast

9:30am-10am: Opening Remarks & Recognition of 2018 Innovations in Reading Prize Winner

10am-10:30am: Keynote presentation

10:45am-11:45am: Breakout sessions, round 1

11:45am-1pm: Lunch break

1pm-2pm: Breakout sessions, round 2

2:15pm-3:15pm: Breakout sessions, round 3

3:30pm-4pm: Author talk

4pm-5:30pm: Happy Hour


Full schedule of breakout presentations

BREAKOUT SESSIONS – ROUND 1 (10:45am-11:45am)

Crossing Boundaries through A Book a Day
Universities hold an important role in developing the well being of a community, and the University of Pennsylvania has dedicated itself to that role by bringing diverse books into public school classrooms and community bookstores. In this workshop, presenters from the university discuss possibilities for upholding community responsibility and creating similar programs elsewhere.
Presented by:

  • Sibylla Shekerdjiska-Benatova, A Book A Day Program Manager
  • Jon Bekken, Co-owner, Bindlestiff Bookstore
  • Jayne Downing BSEd, MEd, MSLS, National Board Certified Teacher, Library Media / Reading Specialist, Penn Alexander School
  • Molly Deutsch, Library Assistant, Penn Alexander School


Literary Festivals: Creating and Celebrating Literary Communities
As civic celebrations of reading, how do book festivals establish and strengthen literary communities? In this roundtable workshop, organizers from across the country discuss their signature programs and the role of festivals in the literary lives of cities.
Presented by:

  • Norah Piehl, Deputy Director, Boston Book Festival
  • Saraciea Fennell, Founder, Bronx Book Festival
  • Linda Hellstrom, Founder & Chair, Morristown Festival of Books
  • Steph Opitz, Founding Director, Wordplay


Reaching from There to Here: Broadening Student Perspectives Through Place-Focused Literature
Literary journals are a key medium. In this session, literary journal The Common identifies ways educators may leverage literary journals in the classroom, as they offer a unique path to inspire and enrich students’ engagement with contemporary literature.
Presented by:

  • Elizabeth Witte, Associate Editor, The Common; Director, The Common in the Classroom
  • Jennifer Acker, Founder and Editor-in-chief, The Common; Director of the Literary Publishing Internship at Amherst College
  • Katherine Hill, Assistant Professor of English, Adelphi University


Reading Together Frees Minds: The Experience of Two Prison Book Clubs
What happens when a group of prison inmates and facilitators from the outside read a book together? Learn how two different prison book clubs are creating conversations, opening minds, and offering hope.
Presented by:

  • Kelli Taylor, Co-founder, Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop
  • Anne Mahon, Founder, Book Mates Book Club for the Winnipeg Women’s Correctional Centre
  • Keela Hailes, Reentry Manager, Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop
  • Nick Hunter, Poet Ambassador, Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop


Word Up: Building Toward Language Justice in Our Communities
Non-profit organizations and other community spaces benefit from a better consciousness of language justice. This session will inform participants about the current discourse around language justice and equip them with the best practices for building language justice consciousness in their communities.
Presented by:

  • Veronica Santiago Liu, Founder and General Coordinator, Word Up Community Bookshop
  • Daniella Gitlin, Assistant General Coordinator/Translation Committee Member, Word Up Community Bookshop
  • Allison Corbett, Volunteer Co-Manager/Translation Committee Member, Word Up Community Bookshop
  • Mariel Escalante, Story Time Coordinator/Translation Committee Member, Word Up Community Bookshop


Writing the Great (International) American Novel
How does an international setting interact with an American protagonist? Authors Jessica Chaffee and Deji Olukotun answer important questions regarding novels set abroad and discuss how exploring other cultures through fiction offers insights into the human experience.
Presented by:

  • Jessie Chaffee, Author of Florence in Ecstasy; Editor, Words Without Borders
  • Deji Bryce Olukotun, Author of Nigerians in Space and After the Flare




2018 Innovations in Reading Panel
Join us for a discussion featuring presentations by this year’s Innovations in Reading Prize winner and honorable mentions.


  • Dr. Mady Holzer, Educator in Residence, Academy of American Poets
  • Karen Phillips, Executive Director, Words Without Borders
  • Lisa Register, Development Manager, Jewish Women International

Moderated by: Glory Edim, Founder, Well-Read Black Girl


Good Reads and Good Deeds: How Little Free Library’s Action Book Club Connects Readers and Creates Neighborhood Heroes
By combining reading with community service, Little Free Library has built a community of neighborhood heroes. Founder Todd Bol will provide an overview of the Little Free Library model that has sparked a grassroots movement of readers, helps build strongly-connected communities, and fosters greater understanding between people.
Presented by:

  • Todd H. Bol, Founder and Executive Director, Little Free Library


My Voice in Yours: How a 140-Year-Old Book Club Is Having a New Kind of Conversation 
Experience Traveling Stanza’s groundbreaking technology, Emerge, that allows readers to hear their own voice in seminal texts through the process of erasure poetry, and learn how this innovative approach developed by the Wick Poetry Center is being used to stage dynamic conversations about books for readers at the Chautauqua Institution—and around the world.
Presented by:

  • Atom Atkinson, Director of Literary Arts at Chautauqua Institution (they/them)
  • David Griffith, Vice President and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, Chautauqua Institution (he/him)
  • David Hassler, Director, Wick Poetry Center (he/him)
  • Alan Walker, Vice President and Creative Director, Each + Every (he/him)
  • Emily Carpenter, CLSC team member, Chautauqua Institution (she/her)
  • Stephine Hunt, CLSC team member, Chautauqua Institution (she/her)


Reaching Readers, Building Empathy: How Books Can Raise Awareness of Places and People Beyond U.S. Borders 
How can reading build Americans’ empathy for people and places beyond U.S. borders? In this session, participants will be encouraged to share concrete ways literary professionals and enthusiasts can use book clubs, author events, and online book communities to generate energy and empathy around issues of global importance.
Presented by:

  • Chris Feliciano Arnold, Author of The Third Bank of the River: Power and Survival in the Twenty-First Century Amazon
  • Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, Author of There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia; Executive Director, Drug Policy Alliance
  • Lauren Markham, Author of The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life


United Through Reading: Supporting a Vulnerable Population
Why are the children of military professionals considered an “at-risk” population? This workshop highlights the vulnerability of an underserved population and how shared story time supports the educational development, health, and well-being of military children and other “at-risk” communities.
Presented by:

  • Kara Dallman, Senior Director of Development, United Through Reading


BREAKOUT SESSIONS – ROUND 3 (2:15pm-3:15pm)


Connecting the Classroom: Using Citizen to Engage Youth Advocacy & Creativity
Using Claudia Rankine’s 2014 National Book Award finalist book of poetry, Citizen, Community-Word Project will suggest concrete methods of using reading and literature to engage meaningful dialogue around social injustices, as well as ways to utilize that collective voice in the community.
Presented by:

  • Katie (M.K.) Rainey, Teaching Artist, Community-Word Project
  • Dorothy Jones, English Teacher, The Young Women’s Leadership School of Queens
  • Sairis Almonte, Kayla Dike, and Naysa Harraway, Students at The Young Women’s Leadership School of Queens


Reading Without Boundaries, Reading the World
AmazonCrossing works to connect readers from around the world with translations of best-selling and prize-winning books, making books accessible to new readers. In this session, AmazonCrossing’s Director Gabriella Page-Fort discusses how reading in translation is an integral part of reading widely and well.
Presented by:

  • Gabriella Page-Fort, Editorial Director, AmazonCrossing
  • Karen Phillips, Executive Director, Words Without Borders
  • Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief, Publishing Perspectives
  • Emma Ramadan, Literary Translator and Co-owner, Riffraff Bookstore and Bar


What Librarians Know About Adult Readers (And You Can Too)
Librarians use powerful and inventive tools to appeal to adult readers, but their knowledge needn’t stop at the library. New York Public Library staff members Stephanie Anderson and Lynn Lobash will share their secrets around tools and knowledge that can be used by a broad range of book professionals to create more opportunities for adults to discover, read, and discuss books.
Presented by:

  • Stephanie Anderson, Assistant Director of Selection for the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library
  • Lynn Lobash, Manager of Reader Services, New York Public Library


Why Reading About Girls Matters
Award-winning authors Brandy Colbert and Elana K. Arnold will explore the power of reading girl-centered stories, their own experience writing for and about girls, and commonly-held biases about girls, both on the page and in the world.
Presented by:

  • Elana K. Arnold, Author of What Girls Are Made Of (National Book Award Finalist)
  • Brandy Colbert, Author of Little & Lion (Stonewall Book Award Winner)


Why Reading Matters to Adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities
Next Chapter Book Club will highlight the impact that book clubs have on adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities by presenting book clubs as sources of community, confidence, and intellectual zones without academic expectations.
Presented by:

  • Karen Zuckerman, Director of Volunteers and Corporate Engagement, Next Chapter Book Club


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