Traveling Stories, 2016 Innovations in Reading Prize honorable mention

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.

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.

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.

Limitless Libraries, 2016 Innovations in Reading Prize Honorable Mention

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!

LGBT Books to Prisoners, 2016 Innovations in Reading Prize Honorable Mention

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.”

LGBT Books to Prisoners map

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!

The Harry Potter Alliance, 2016 Innovations in Reading Prize Honorable Mention

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



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!

Next Chapter Book Club, Winner of the 2016 Innovations in Reading Prize

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. The 2016 Innovations in Reading Prize has been awarded to the Next Chapter Book Club (NCBC).

NCBC is the signature program of Chapters Ahead, an Ohio-based nonprofit organization. NCBC provides individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities opportunities for lifelong learning, social connections and authentic community engagement through weekly book club meetings. Even non-readers are able to experience the pleasure of books through innovative facilitation techniques like “echo reading.”

“Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities love books for the same reasons non-disabled people do. They are transported to different worlds and exposed to exciting new people and ideas.”
—Dr. Thomas Fish, Founder of Next Chapter Book Club and Director of Social Work at The Ohio State University Nisonger Center on Disabilities

The NCBC network has grown to more than 2,000 club members and hundreds of trained facilitators meeting weekly at 300 book clubs in 31 states, four Canadian provinces, and three European countries—making it the largest community-based book club program for adolescents and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the world.

A wide range of organizations, including libraries, social service agencies and parent groups (often in collaboration with each other) have launched the low cost/high impact NCBC model in their communities.

The Innovations in Reading prize will allow Next Chapter Book Club to accelerate its global expansion through the use of technology-driven training options, including webinars and live-streaming video.

“I’m absolutely thrilled that Next Chapter Book Club is receiving the prestigious 2016 Innovations in Reading Prize,” said Dr. Thomas Fish, Founder of Next Chapter Book Club and Director of Social Work at The Ohio State University Nisonger Center on Disabilities. “Individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities love books for the same reasons non-disabled people do. They are transported to different worlds and exposed to exciting new people and ideas. I’m grateful that the National Book Foundation recognizes the importance of expanding opportunities for people with disabilities to experience the pleasure of books and friends in a community setting.”


Read our interview with Susan M. Berg, Executive Director of the Next Chapter Book Club.


NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION: How did Next Chapter Book Club begin?

SUSAN M. BERG: Next Chapter Book Club was founded in 2002 by Dr. Thomas Fish, Director of Social Work at The Ohio State University Nisonger Center on Disabilities. His intention was to launch and support a handful of clubs in and around Central Ohio that offered a fun way for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to actively participate in their communities. But in the years that followed, an organic process – fueled primarily by social media – took the model far beyond the boundaries of the Buckeye State. In 2011, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization named “Chapters Ahead” was created to more proactively manage the expansion of Next Chapter Book Club while maintaining a strong academic affiliation with OSU’s Nisonger Center.

NBF: What does a typical Next Chapter Book Club gathering look like?

SB: NCBC members (usually four to eight people) arrive and seat themselves around a table. If they are meeting at a place that serves food, they may have purchased something to eat or drink first. There are two volunteer facilitators who are trained to guide discussions about the book that is being read. Each member takes a turn reading a paragraph and then the group talks about the characters, the plot, and how the story might relate to something they have personally experienced. There’s generally a lot of laughter, and occasionally a tear or two, as people share their thoughts, feelings, and opinions.

NBF: The book clubs take place in public spaces like coffee shops. What does that kind of location bring to a gathering?

SB: It brings a sense of normalcy. You know, it’s one thing to live in a community, but it’s quite another thing to really be a part of your community. People without disabilities tend to take for granted simple things like sitting down for a cup of coffee at a local Starbucks with a friend. Yet, these are the sort of human experiences that add richness and texture to life. In comparison, people with disabilities are usually much more isolated, and that can be frustrating to them. That’s why we require our NCBC Affiliates to conduct their club meetings in public places. I also think there’s a powerful message conveyed to the general public when they see a group of people with Down syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy, and other intellectual and developmental disabilities sitting around a table holding books and talking about characters and plot. A lot of people do a double-take when they see that because it’s not what they expect.

NBF: Your program invites people with a wide range of disabilities to participate. How do you accommodate different needs and navigate different levels of reading abilities in one group?

SB: All of our volunteer club facilitators are taught effective practices for engaging members with a variety of disabilities and reading levels. Techniques like “echo reading” even make it possible for people who cannot read to participate. This is a strategy where the facilitator will slowly read a sentence from the book and the non-reader will “echo” the words back.

Although the literacy skills of our club members often do improve over time simply because they’re reading more frequently, the main focus of Next Chapter Book Club is on “reading to learn” rather than on “learning to read.” The emphasis on authentic community inclusion and socialization makes us different from most traditional “literacy programs” —which tend to have more of an academic “classroom” feel. Book selection is also important. Adapted Classics (which are shorter and modified for lower reading levels) and Hi-Lo Books (high interest/low reading level) are typically very good choices.

NBF: What kind of books do you read in the book clubs, and how are they chosen?

SB: We think it’s important for club members to choose books they want to read. Our club facilitators guide the process by presenting some choices that might be a good fit (e.g. Adapted Classics, Hi-Lo Books, etc.), but leave the actual decision-making process up to the club members. Of course, sometimes there’s a difference of opinion and tastes among members and that’s when a democratic process – like voting – might come in. In terms of specific titles that are favorites – the Goosebumps books by R.L. Stine are extremely popular. A club in North Carolina really enjoyed reading Robin Hood and Black Beauty. A club in New York is currently reading a biography on Steve Jobs. But I honestly think the book that is enjoyed most of all is Lucky Dogs, Lost Hats and Dating Don’ts: Hi-Lo Stories of Real Life, which is a 216-page collection of short stories by NCBC Founder Dr. Thomas Fish and NCBC Director of Training and Technical Assistance Jillian Ober. They wrote it specifically for our clubs.

NBF: You say that reading is the centerpiece but not the only piece of these book clubs. What else do you hope the members take away?

SB: An appreciation for books, lifelong learning, and cultural engagement. The weekly gatherings also foster many friendships between members that often extend beyond the weekly book club. In a few cases, romances between members have been sparked at club meetings!

NBF: What was the first sign of success for Next Chapter Book Club?

SB: I think every meeting (from the very first one at the very first club that met for the first time 14 years ago, to the hundreds of club meetings that took place just last week) is a success simply because they happened and are happening. Something like this would have never have occurred three or four decades ago. The inclusion of people with disabilities into the fabric of community life is becoming more common, and Next Chapter Book Club is part of that story that’s still being written.

NBF: You are now the largest community-based book club program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the world. How did you grow to that point?

SB: Growth during our first 14 years was fueled primarily through word-of-mouth and social media. Growth during the next 14 years will be very strategic, very proactive, and very targeted. We really want to connect the dots between public libraries, social service agencies, and parent groups. Each of them values community inclusion, lifelong learning, and greater independence for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Next Chapter Book Club is a low-cost / high-impact vehicle for achieving that, and it is easy to launch and sustain – particularly in collaboration with multiple partners.

NBF: What do you want to see happen in the future?

SB: Our goal is very simple. We want to see a Next Chapter Book Club in every county in the United States (there are 3,000) and every public library (there are 17,000) by 2026. And best of all – we absolutely, positively believe it will happen!

Reach Out and Read, 2017 Innovations in Reading honorable mention

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 2017, Reach Out and Read received honorable mention.

Reach Out and Read’s mission is to give young children a foundation for success by incorporating books into pediatric care and encouraging families to read aloud together.

With Reach Out and Read, medical providers give books to children at more than 10 well-child visits from infancy until they start school. Currently serving 4.7 million children and their families in the U.S., half of whom are from low-income families, Reach Out and Read aims to ensure that no child in our country misses the experience of sharing a story on the lap of a loved one.

Poetry in Motion, 2017 Innovations in Reading honorable mention

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 2017, the Poetry Society of America’s Poetry in Motion received honorable mention.

The Poetry Society of America, the nation’s oldest poetry organization, was founded in 1910. Its mission is to build a larger and more diverse audience for poetry, to encourage a deeper appreciation of the vitality and breadth of poetry in the cultural conversation, to support poets through an array of programs and awards, and to place poetry at the crossroads of American life.

Poetry in Motion engages over 8,000,000 transit riders nationwide with pithy poems posted in place of advertising on public transit systems in cities around the country. What the program provides—the unique and unexpected opportunity to read poetry and to engage with dynamic, excellent literature as a community, and even to find private meaning in the midst of a city’s public places—remains precious to many. Currently the program runs in New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Portland, Oregon, and will make its debut in San Francisco in 2018.


Great Reading Games

Great Reading Games – 2017 Innovations in Reading Prize, Honorable Mention

2017 Innovations in Reading Prize Honorable Mention

In 2017, Learning Ally’s Great Reading Games received an honorable mention for the Innovations in Reading Prize.

ABOUT: Learning Ally’s mission is to promote personal achievement when access and reading are barriers to learning by advancing the use of effective and accessible educational solutions. Our vision is for all people to have equal opportunities to learn. Quite simply, Learning Ally provides students with print-related disabilities access to required coursework through audio textbooks, technology solutions, and holistic support services that empower them to achieve their personal best.

Through the human-narrated audiobooks and gamification, Learning Ally’s Great Reading Games motivates students with reading disabilities to impact their reading frequency and duration of 20 minutes each day, driving improved reading habits and providing a platform where a love of reading can be nurtured. This year, more than 16,000 students in more than 1,300 schools read five million pages during the competition, nearly quadrupling the result totals from last year.



Books@Work – 2017 Innovations in Reading Prize, Honorable Mention

2017 Innovations in Reading Prize Honorable Mention

In 2017, Book@Work received an honorable mention for the Innovations in Reading Prize.

ABOUT: Books@Work builds human capacity to imagine, innovate and connect, strengthening a culture of trust, respect and inclusion, at work and in the community. In professor-led literature discussions, Books@Work participants challenge assumptions, share their stories, experience mutual recognition and practice critical dialogue, without judgment.