Interview with The Uprise Books Project

Justin Stanley founded Uprise Books Project in 2011 with a very simple mission: to encourage underprivileged teens to read by providing them with new banned and challenged books. Uprise won an Innovations in Reading Prize in 2013.

National Book Foundation: What inspired your Innovations in Reading-winning program?

Justin Stanley: My family didn’t have much when I was a kid. My younger brother and I were raised by a single mother and when we were in elementary school we were completely dependent on government and community help to make ends meet. I knew what government cheese tasted like and the various ways people looked at you when your mom pulled out a book of food stamps in the grocery store line, what it was like to be we-have-to-skip-the-electric-bill-this-month-if-we-want-to-eat poor.

I also remember the day in second grade when I came to school to find a group of strangers from some place called “RIF” standing behind a table of books, telling us kids that we could have one. For free. I couldn’t tell you what specific book I chose that day, but I’ve never forgotten how great it felt to bring it home.

Fast forward a couple decades…

I enrolled in the MBA program at Portland State University in 2010. During the summer quarter in 2011, the school offered a Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship course when I happened to need an elective. The main deliverable for that course was a market feasibility analysis for a new social business of the student’s creation, one that tackled a social issue that the student felt passionate about. I eventually came around to the idea of taking on poverty, illiteracy, and censorship, and the Uprise Books Project was born.

NBF: What obstacles or challenges have you encountered along the way?

JS: Most are the same obstacles that other nonprofits face: not enough hours in the day or dollars in the bank account to accomplish everything you’d like. The most surprising, though, is how difficult it can be to give books to students by going through official channels.

Yes, the Uprise Books Project promotes books that have been banned or challenged, but many of those titles are beloved classics and award-winners. You’d think it would be as easy as calling a principal in a low-income school and saying “Hey, we’d like to give your kids free books! Where do we send the package?” But, unfortunately, that’s not always how it works.

Case in point… we recently approached a lower income high school in a small/medium-sized city. The school has about 1500 ninth-through-twelfth grade students, roughly 75% of whom qualify for free or reduced student lunches. We had a particular title in mind, a National Book Award-winner for Young People’s Literature, but were told that district policy prohibited them from letting us give that particular book to students of all ages.

“No problem,” we thought, and we sent the person in charge of the district’s curriculum a list of about 200 titles in the hope that they could help us find one that would be acceptable. They highlighted two titles they thought would be a good fit, one of which was written by an author we’d worked with in the past, so we started making calls and sending emails.

We were thrilled when the author’s publisher agreed to donate all 1500 copies needed and we emailed the school to share the good news. To our surprise, though, they asked us to NOT send the books after all, that they needed to re-evaluate the title before we could give it to their students. We’re still waiting for the official decision.

NBF: What are the most satisfying aspects of the work your organization does?

JS: I’ve shared this story with people before, so forgive me if this is redundant…

The first time we sent books to a school, the teacher we worked with told us afterward that several of his students were reluctant to write their names in their new copies of The Catcher in the Rye. It turned out that this was the first time in these kids’ lives that someone had ever given them a book, and they were hesitant to “deface” it in any way.

It’s just bittersweet. These were teenagers, after all, young men and women who’d been on this planet for nearly two decades, and they’d never owned a book before. Of course, it feels great to help change that, but it would feel a hell of a lot better if it wasn’t a problem that existed in the first place. It’s really amazing, though, to think that we (Uprise, our donors, our cheerleaders, the teachers we work with, etc.) can change lives so easily and inexpensively.

NBF: How has winning the Innovations in Reading Prize affected your organization?

JS: We’re still a small, relatively young organization with a tiny budget and an all-volunteer workforce. With everyone having day jobs and families and various other obligations, it’s sometimes hard to justify dedicating those precious few remaining minutes to this project. The Innovations in Reading Prize reenergized us all, though, and reminded us that this is something worth doing. It’s been a shot of adrenaline.

Externally, it’s given us clout that we didn’t have before. It’s so much easier to contact authors, publishers, educators, and potential donors as an AWARD-WINNING nonprofit organization than it was before. We may not have the name recognition needed to convince everyone to take our calls, but the National Book Foundation does, and being able to leverage that connection has already opened doors.

NBF: What’s on the horizon for your organization for 2014?

JS: Expansion. We have three big goals for 2014:

  • 50/50 Plan: In 2014, the Uprise Books Project will reach at least 50 underprivileged teens in each of the 50 states. It’s a pretty significant yearly increase in the number of students we’ve reached, but we have no doubt that our supporters will help us make it happen.
  • The Uprise Books Store: The average nonprofit receives over half its funding through sales of goods and services. Uprise, though, has relied nearly completely on individual contributions. It’s not sustainable, and it certainly won’t let us expand the way we’d like. With that in mind, we’ll be launching an online store filled with banned book-related goodies, sales from which will help us get more books to more kids.
  • Personal Banned Book Stories: Starting in January, we’ll be sharing stories from folks from all walks of life about how banned and challenged books have impacted them. You’ll hear from artists and scientists, lawyers and entrepreneurs, CEOs and stay-at-home moms, each of whom simply wouldn’t be the person they are today if not for that special book.

On a personal note, I’ll be heading back to Portland State University to help the next generation of social entrepreneurs learn about the field. I’ll be assisting Cindy Cooper (the co-founder and director of Impact Entrepreneurs at PSU) in her Design Thinking in Social Innovation course in the winter quarter (the first class in the school’s new Business of Social Innovation certification program) and mentoring students interested in making their social ventures a reality.

Interview with The Uni Project

The Uni Project, a winner of the 2013 Innovations in Reading Prize, is a portable reading room for New York City conceived of and run by Leslie and Sam Davol. The Uni provides a new kind of amenity for city residents, while fostering a stronger, more prominent culture of reading and learning at street level. Below is our interview with Leslie Davol, co-founder of The Uni Project.

National Book Foundation: What inspired your Innovations in Reading-winning program?

Leslie Davol: We started sharing books and creating outdoor reading rooms because we love the city. When you walk through different cities, you pick up on different priorities. Are you dodging bicycles or cars? Can you find a place to sit down? Where are the playgrounds? Look closer and you’ll see differences in the prominence of books. At one end of the spectrum, Paris comes to mind—there seems to be a book store every couple of blocks.

New Yorkers love books and reading. They say that education and learning are top priorities for themselves and for their children. But sometimes, the urban environment of New York can make you think that we’re more interested in just about anything else, from cell phones to shoe shopping. The Uni reading room is simply a way to unleash New Yorkers’ passion for reading and learning by using available public space to gather around these activities. It’s a simple but powerful idea, especially in the middle of a city of 8 million potential readers.
NBF: What obstacles or challenges have you encountered along the way?

LD: It isn’t always easy to set up a reading room in a public space. We like to surprise people, amaze them even, by finding ways to put books in places you wouldn’t expect. But we also want people to feel like a reading room in the middle of the city is a feasible, sensible solution that could be an ongoing part of public life. So ideally, our installation should appear dramatic and practical all at once. We’re constantly working on that balance.

NBF: What are the most satisfying aspects of the work your organization does?

LD: Most of our staff and volunteers say the same thing: we love meeting fellow New Yorkers, especially the ones who like books and enjoy public space. The Uni certainly makes it easy to find those folks.

There are moments when we’re packing up the books when there’s a kid who seems to be more than just disappointed that the day is over. Maybe even distraught. Is this a love of books, or maybe a love of a safe, pleasant place to be? Maybe both. We’ve learned that the Uni can be a haven, a kind of oasis in a very busy and sometimes challenging city.

NBF: How has winning the Innovations in Reading prize affected your organization?

LD: It was great to meet fellow prize winners. We’ve started a collaboration with The Uprise Books Project to bring banned books to NYC streets, for example. Of course, the Prize has also let us share our work with thousands of people who follow the National Book Foundation and the National Book Awards. That has strengthened our own work, opened new opportunities, and hopefully added something back to the book world as well.

NBF: What’s on the horizon for your organization for 2014?

LD: We’ll bring open-air reading rooms to even more spaces in New York City, including special initiatives aimed at plazas and play streets. We’ve also designed new infrastructure—a kind of kit for creating reading rooms—that we’re producing for libraries and other organizations across the country. Just recently, we were brainstorming ideas for curating our collection next year and someone suggested highlighting National Book Award authors when we’re out and about next fall. Good idea. See you on the street!


Why is reading vital?

Reading brings out the best in people. Reading together in public brings out the best in our communities.

Tell us about some accomplishments or successes you’ve had since winning the prize:

In 2014, the Uni Project

– offered 430 hours of reading rooms on the streets of New York City in 26 locations;
– helped launch five portable reading rooms in other cities run by others, including Seattle Public Library and DC Public Library;
– won the Mayor of Boston’s Public Space Invitational and created a Uni reading room for downtown Boston;
– partnered with National Book Foundation to create two special reading rooms in NYC Parks; and
– launched a new reading room activity that helps New York kids write mini book reviews on the side of our carts!

In 2015, watch for Uni reading rooms in parks, plazas, play streets and other public spaces in New York City. Stay tuned for more Uni reading rooms that pop up in other cities, run by libraries and community organizations. See you on the street!

Interview with Little Free Library

Little Free Library, a winner of the 2013 Innovations in Reading Prize, is a free book exchange and social movement. Volunteers build and install creatively-designed book boxes for their local communities to share books with one another. There are now more than 10,000 Little Free Libraries installed around the world. Below is our interview with Rick Brooks, co-founder of Little Free Library.

National Book Foundation: What inspired your Innovations in Reading-winning program?  

Rick Brooks: Funny how the Innovations in Reading program focuses on “thinking outside the box,” because the prototype Little Free Library was just that—a box of books in my partner Todd Bol’s front yard. Both the structure itself and its contents had value. What we soon realized together was that what happened outside that box could establish a rich combination of purposes—new cultural norms for giving and sharing, friendships across generations and cultures, new dissemination channels for books, new ways to extend the reach of public libraries, and much more. To be honest, our inspiration came from many different directions—our mothers and teachers, book lovers and favorite authors. Illiterate farmers and poor families in developing countries also fit into the mix, as do young people with an indefatigable desire to learn, neighbors who are lonely, and people who have a yearning for a sense of community. So do people like Lutie Stearns, the Wisconsin librarian who delivered nearly 1,400 wooden boxes of books to tiny communities throughout Wisconsin between 1895 and 1912. Storytellers and pioneers who knew they had something important to offer and refused to give up.

NBF: What obstacles or challenges have you encountered along the way?  

RB: Because this family of ideas was neither high-tech nor intended to make millions of dollars, it grew almost organically from the ground up.  There was no start-up capital or venture funding; no precedent or business model; and no large institution that stepped up to take the enterprise under its wing and protect it.  So when the word got out through national media and the potential benefits of Little Free Libraries became more obvious, our two-person, then five-person group of volunteers and modestly paid staff found itself in much higher demand than anyone could rightly expect to meet.

That was both the blessing and the conundrum: how do we stay true to our nonprofit mission and grassroots origin but stay ahead of the massive—yes, worldwide—interest in recreating the magic that got us “out of the box” in the first place?  Early adopters of this innovation became our heroes and advocates. We believed then and now that the name they have earned—stewards of Little Free Libraries—accurately represents the heart of this movement.

Anyone can build a box and fill it with books. They can be proud of their work, even though the roof might leak and they run out of books every once in a while. But there is an almost spiritual aspect of Little Free Libraries that transcends the very temporary trends of popular culture.

NBF: What are the most satisfying aspects of the work your organization does?

RB: Every week we receive hundreds of photographs and messages from people around the world who have brought Little Free Libraries to their communities. We are amazed at the diversity of interest: from a state health department and community health clinics who want to use Little Free Libraries as a key part of their outreach efforts on lead poisoning and early childhood development to elderly housing programs, food pantries, and after-school programs in small towns. There are now Little Free Libraries in countries that we did not even know existed three years ago. Handwritten notes of thanks as well as tearful requests for help getting books in the hands of kids who have never owned one. Grandpas stand proudly beside the Libraries they built for their grandchildren. Survivors of hurricanes and tornados show us the Libraries they built from storm debris. Above the Arctic Circle and in the jungles of Latin America and Africa, Little Free Libraries offer something to do in refugee camps, orphanages, and village squares. Seeing such expressions of goodness and commitment can be extremely gratifying.

NBF: How has winning the Innovations in Reading Prize affected your organization?  

RB: We honestly don’t know yet. We hope that it will help us find partners and support that will relieve some of the pressure to keep up with the huge expansion. We also hope it will help Little Free Libraries to be perceived as an important part of the wide spectrum of service that publishers, schools, and public libraries have fulfilled for years.

NBF: What’s on the horizon for your organization for 2014?

RB: Our four primary programs, Little Free Libraries for Small Towns, Books Around the Block, Good Global Neighbors, and Friends Through the Years, now offer a coherent framework to reach three to four more times the number of people who already know us. Our Give It Forward Team (GIFT) is gaining momentum, too. We’re looking for underwriters and partners helping those who could not otherwise afford Little Free Libraries.

Our primary goal is not necessarily to GET BIG.  Instead, we want to provide both the inspiration and the tools for people everywhere to get involved at their own pace for the common good.  We would like to share the neighborhood and small town experience of Little Free Libraries personally, and see the creative ways that this concept has come alive.  Will there be beautifully crafted boxes of books in art and history museums and folk festivals? We have no doubt. And will they touch the lives of all kinds of people—readers and non-readers alike? We hope so.

Interview with Books for Kids

Books for Kids, a winner of the 2014 Innovations in Reading Prize, installs libraries and literacy programs in pre-school classrooms across the country, ensuring low-income students have access to literature and experience the benefits of reading. Below is our interview with executive director Amanda Hirsh.

National Book Foundation: Why is reading vital?

Amanda Hirsh: Reading invigorates the imagination, expands our knowledge of the world, connects us to information and people, and is the key cornerstone for education. It is vital to encourage reading in young children and provide adequate access to books and libraries so they can grow up with strong literacy skills and love reading. Children who read more achieve more!

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Amanda Hirsh” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]We are creating a space where children not only have access to the best books in the market, but where they feel inspired to learn, imagine, and dream.[/pullquote]

NBF: Tell us about some accomplishments or successes you’ve had since winning the prize:

AH: Since winning the Innovations in Reading Prize in May 2014, we have accomplished so much at Books for Kids. In July 2014 we renovated an outdated Books for Kids library that suffered major loss and damages by Hurricane Sandy in Chinatown, NYC. This renovation was made possible through a continued partnership with Homewood Suites by Hilton, adding to their list of six additional libraries throughout the United States. Since this library was finished, programs within the library are flourishing through an additional Literacy Programming Grant from Homewood Suites. Books are being lent each week from the library to children and families and the school receives on-site lending support and weekly StoryTimes from a Books for Kids librarian.

Also in the Summer of 2014, the Mario Batali Foundation sponsored the renovation of five Books for Kids libraries in Brooklyn, NY that will continue to receive meaningful literacy programming from an $880,000+ grant from the United States Department of Education until the end of the 2015 school year. A re-dedication ceremony of these Brooklyn libraries was held at one of the renovated sites in the Cypress Hills neighborhood of Brooklyn and was attended by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez of the U.S. House of Representatives; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; and of course, Mario Batali himself. In November 2014, the Mario Batali Foundation also sponsored the building of a new Books for Kids library in Las Vegas, NV making this the ninth Books for Kids library built through their sponsorship and our first library in the state of Nevada.

NBF: In your application you write: “Our libraries go beyond just books on a bookshelf in a room.” What makes your libraries unconventional, and how do those qualities impact students?

AH: When we build a Books for Kids library, we are not simply placing books on a bookshelf. Our libraries are beautifully decorated with print-rich murals, animals, letters, trees, and child-friendly furniture. We are creating a space where children not only have access to the best books in the market, but where they feel inspired to learn, imagine, and dream. By giving the site programs to go along with the resource, that is when the library truly comes to life.

NBF: Why is the library model, of lending books to students, so central to program?

AH: The library model is central to our program for two main reasons. First, each child in a site with a Books for Kids library will have access to bring home a new book each week to read and share with their families, an opportunity they may not otherwise have, since books are often a rare commodity in low-income communities. Also having a new book to bring home each week encourages more reading at home and engages the entire family. Second, the lending program helps build lifelong library habits so that when children grow older, they will feel comfortable with standard library practices and be confident enough to use their local public library to continue to read and learn.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Amanda Hirsh” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Once the door to their imagination is open, children are inspired to keep learning and exploring the world.[/pullquote]

NBF: In your program, reading isn’t just about literacy, but also it’s about getting students engaged in a larger world. In your opinion, how do books inspire students to explore?

AH: Books can be the key to many new worlds, places, and opportunities for any child or even adult, but particularly for children that come from low-income communities, since access to travel and new experiences is often limited. Books can take you to faraway lands, can teach you new concepts or about different modes of transportation, or types of food, and can open your eyes to endless possibilities. Once the door to their imagination is open, children are inspired to keep learning and exploring the world.

NBF: What types of books do you find are most successful in accomplishing your vision?

AH: We select a variety of books for our libraries because no two children have the same interests and backgrounds. It is important to have books about all subjects so that all children are engaged and find reading fun and interesting. We also make sure to have many books that reflect the diverse communities in which we are working. For example, in a preschool that has a large population of native Spanish-speaking children and families, we are sure to include many Spanish language and bilingual books so that they too feel comfortable and can make use of the books in their library.

NBF: Your program extends beyond the library; what sorts of reading activities do you share with your parents?

AH: We often give parents a reading guide to go along with a book that their children keep at home for their home libraries. The guides include a summary of the story, and important questions for them to address as they read the book with their children. We also include a fun literacy-extension activity so that reading the book is as much about having fun as it is about learning a new concept or piece of information.

NBF: In your application, you write: “In a middle income neighborhood, the ratio of books per child is 13 to 1, whereas in a low-income neighborhood, the ratio is 1 age appropriate book for every 300 children.” Where does this disparity come from, and what is the danger there?

AH: Unfortunately studies have shown this dire statistic that indicates how rare age-appropriate books are in low-income communities. This lack of access to books has very serious long-term consequences for literacy and learning. When preschoolers do not have access to books and do not learn basic literacy skills at this crucial stage, they face the challenge of starting kindergarten behind their more affluent peers, and unfortunately it is rare that they ever catch up. This has a snowball effect that often ends in an alarming number of high school dropouts and incidences of juvenile delinquency.

NBF: Can you share a moment or two when you saw your program in action and realized that it was really working?

AH: I will never forget a particular email that we received from a parent in Brooklyn. She wrote us to say that she was so thankful for the books her child received for his home library each month because he otherwise was not getting any new books, and she really loves to read with her son.

Other moments of success that we often see are during StoryTime, when the children truly engage with the reader and the book, ask questions, and often ask for the book to be read again. We know our program is working when children are excited to read and want to hear more.

Interview with Chicago Books to Women in Prison’s

Chicago Books to Women in Prison (CBWP), a winner of the 2014 Innovations in Reading Prize, is a volunteer-led collective that provides paperback books to women incarcerated in the U.S. prison system. And they do it all for free. Below is our interview with CBWP’s Linnea Kennedy and other volunteers.


National Book Foundation: Chicago Books to Women in Prison is staffed by a “small but mighty team” of volunteers like yourself. What inspired you to get involved?

Chicago Books to Women in Prison: I first heard about CBWP when Megan Bernard, one of the group’s founding members, came to speak at one of my women’s and gender studies classes in grad school. I was inspired by how immediate and tangible CBWP’s work is—you open a letter, you find the books (or a near match), fill out the mailing label, write a note, package the books for mailing, and done. After my first Sunday at CBWP, I wanted to come back again and again. For me, there is also an element of resistance to the act of answering these book requests—resisting societal forces that largely ignore incarcerated populations (in particular, women), and resisting the larger oppressive structure of the prison industrial complex. A fellow volunteer, Katie Wadell, describes her commitment to CBWP’s mission: “I read all the time, and I would be bereft if I was without books. I volunteer because I don’t want anyone else to be without them.”


NBF: In addition to 3 paperbacks and an order-form to get more books, you send your constituents handwritten notes. What messages do you send out?

CBWP: Usually it’s something simple like, “Hope you enjoy the books!” or “Happy reading!”, or sometimes a “Sorry we don’t have the exact book that you asked for, but here are some others by the same author/in the same genre/ on the same topic, etc.”  If I’ve read the book myself, I’ll write something like, “I really enjoyed this book/author, I hope you like it too!” CBWP volunteer Bill Goosby says, “My handwritten notes usually say something to the point, relating to the order, and something positive, because I regard the inmates as ‘clients,’ not ‘criminals.’…I have noticed that when you sign your name, you may get a ‘thank you’ letter in their next order. Sometimes amounting to several pages of their life story. They seem to be very moved that there is a person ‘out there’ who cares enough to pick books out ‘just for them.’ Sometimes we read the thank you letters to the rest of the volunteers: it seems to inspire them to be more conscientious in their tasks.”


NBF:You aim to offer women “access to a range of literature, free of judgment and with no strings attached.” What are some of the books prison libraries readily carry, and what are the types of books your women are looking for?

CBWP: We get a lot of requests for blank journals/composition notebooks, dictionaries, dream journals, dream interpretation books, meditation, daily affirmation, books on yoga and health. Urban fiction is also a popular request and, unfortunately, not a genre that is donated to us very often. Romance and thriller are also frequently requested genres. GED prep books are also very popular, as are high school- and college-level text books. CBWP volunteer Vicki White explains, “The [availability of books] can vary greatly from prison to prison. We understand that prison libraries are required to make law books available, but, beyond that, budgets, librarian preference and state policy can play a large part. Our limited information suggests that prison libraries carry a variety of fiction and non-fiction. But there may be few copies of particular books that are in high demand. Brief loan periods can mean women cannot hold onto a book for as long as they’d like. And access to the library is often limited. All these factors help create demand for programs like ours… It’s important to add that we get many, many requests for journals and composition books, and we’ve come to see this as an important part of our mission. Women who ask for journals often mention the reasons, which include education (whether as part of a program or self-directed), self-expression and self-reflection. But it has been challenging to meet this need. Some prisons have prohibited journals; we’re not sure, but it could be because they sell them in their own prison stores. Or they may simply want to discourage women’s documentation of their lives in prison. The main issue, however, is that we must send journals by First Class Mail instead of the less expensive Media Mail, and this has meant limiting the sending of journals. We are taking steps to be able to send journals more frequently and to as many women as possible.”


NBF:Can you talk more about opportunities for “self-empowerment, education, and entertainment that reading provides”?

CBWP: In thinking about these important benefits of reading—key to the mission of Chicago Books to Women in Prison—there is one obvious conclusion: these are the same reasons anyone reads. In providing books to women prisoners, it becomes impossible to see them as the “other” because they are (of course!) like us in vital ways. We believe that connection is conveyed to the women we serve, which makes a difference beyond the physical books.

In her book Reading is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons, Megan Sweeney documents extensively the reading practices of incarcerated women. According to Sweeney’s research, drawn from hundreds of interviews conducted with women in three different U.S. prison facilities, reading serves multiple functions for incarcerated women. Reading in prison allows for escapism and entertainment, is a crucial part of self-making and identity creation, and provides a foundation and context for prisoners to understand their past actions and former selves, especially in relation to larger socioeconomic forces and systems. We frequently receive thank you notes from the women who order books from us; they often detail the relief that reading provides—the solitude and moments for reflection that can come from a good book. Sometimes women request books on specific topics related to jobs they are interested in procuring once they are released. I recently answered a letter from a woman who was enrolled in a pre-release job training program in environmentally friendly landscaping. (She was asking for gardening books, an illustrated plant encyclopedia, etc.) Books can be a part of a larger process of planning for life post-incarceration.


NBF: One of your application sponsors described how library access is limited because prisons may view a library as a security risk. She also explains that many books are banned. What do you think is the perceived danger, and what can be done to help prisons see books as a resource rather than contraband?

CBWP: Personally, I wish I knew. I feel like the answer lies somewhere in an ideology shift—less focus on punitive measures and potential sources of profit for the prison system, and more focus on the restoration of prisoners’ humanity and agency.  CBWP volunteer Vicki White explains, “In general, prisons today are more interested in control and pacification than in rehabilitation. For example, we have read that in recent decades television has been made more available to prisoners, while reading has received less support. Prison authorities seem to view thinking prisoners as potentially disruptive. (Perhaps they’re right, in that a prisoner who reads may be more likely to know her rights and pursue them.) There are exceptions, and we’ve read about individual officials who see the benefits of reading in the prison system and have introduced such programs. It does appear that much of the initiative for reading and other enrichment programs comes from the outside, and this is likely to continue until the overall philosophy of the prison system changes. At the same time, there is evidence that reading, along with educational programs in general, tends to reduce recidivism. This should help in gaining the support of prison authorities. But perhaps there are fewer incentives for reducing recidivism than for keeping prisons full? If so, that again suggests that the general situation will change only with changes in the system as a whole.” CBWP volunteer Bill Goosby adds, “A male prisoner who I correspond with, is a gang member from the Crips-Bloods franchise in Los Angeles.  After a recent prison riot, sparked off by some accidental foul during a basketball game, he was put in solitary confinement for two weeks. He was not allowed any personal mail, soap or deodorant, nor any of his books (he is quite literate and articulate), but they allowed him a color TV in his cell! Even he pointed out to me that this is one way they keep inmates from thinking!”


NBF: How can books and the act of reading help prisoners “reclaim their humanity”?

CBWP: To quote one of our dedicated volunteers, Katie Wadell: “Imagination, empathy, curiosity, and the ability to think for ourselves are all part of being human, and are all things that can be repressed in an institutional environment. Reading is a quiet way to get all of that back. I find that reading (especially fiction) stimulates my imagination in ways that can help me find solutions to my problems. I can’t be the only person who feels that way.”

Pam Harcourt, a longtime CBWP volunteer adds, “It’s important to note that we don’t serve just clients in women’s prisons, but also trans women who write us from inside men’s prisons. We had a lengthy letter from a woman in her early thirties who’d been inside a men’s prison for 10 years. She described being assaulted many times and said that reading helped her pass some suicidal early years inside, and that she’d since built community with many of the younger women who came to the prison, taking on a mentoring role with them. This mentorship included general care and safety as well as seeing them through GED and other studies. The girls were thrilled (as were we) that they had recently won a victory, getting their own pod (group of cells). But when the prisoners who had previously been in those cells moved, they ransacked that pod’s library, leaving very little left. We had a list of requests from each trans prisoner, but we voted to break our three-books rule and send them a large box with their requests and more. There were some requests for trans-related books (one of the few categories which we purchase, as we get few donations), but many for spirituality, romance, horror— the usual requests. In some cases the small service we provide is one of the few instances of a woman being recognized, in any official way, as a woman. We think being able to determine one’s gender, rather than it being determined by the state, is important to one’s humanity.


Interview with Books on Bases’ Janet McIntosh

Books on Bases, a winner of the 2014 Innovations in Reading Prize, provides free books and reading programs to children of military families across the country, helping them to develop a sense of community, stability, and essential literacy skills. Below is our interview with program manager Janet McIntosh.

National Book Foundation: How did you come up with the idea for Books on Bases?

Janet McIntosh: Blue Star Families (BSF) created the Books on Bases program in 2009. The goal of the program is to positively impact military children and inspire a love of reading through free books. Military children face many challenges when a parent serves in the military and many of these challenges affect their education. The Books on Bases program focuses on working with parents and children to enhance literacy skills and create a life-long love of reading. The Books on Bases program was also created as a morale program for military kids, giving them a program full of children-focused events. When a child is dealing with a parent being deployed or separated, it is nice to have an afternoon where you get to be a part of a program designed just for you.


NBF: In your application essay, you write that certain difficult features of the “military lifestyle—long separations, recurring geographic relocations, and frequent school changes—have resulted in greater emotional, behavioral, and educational challenges for military children.” Books on Bases has an obvious educational benefit, but how does reading improve emotional and behavioral issues?

JM: In addition to offering free books for children, Books on Bases is a resource to parents. When a child is dealing with a deployed parent or has been separated from a parent for long periods of time, they can experience a lot of different and often difficult emotions. Some children may act out during these periods because they don’t have a way of expressing themselves. Books on Bases aims to assist parents by giving them a program that will not only boost their child’s morale but also support their literacy skills, helping children better experience their feelings. Children can lose themselves in a book and reading can provide an escape from the everyday challenges. Books on Bases also provides children with fun events where they can connect with other military kids, build new friendships, and have some fun. Being able to interact with those going through similar situations can also be a very valuable resource for a child.


NBF: Can you tell us more about how technology, especially your online reading groups, has helped foster a sense of community for “milkids”?

JM: Books on Bases helps military children stay emotionally connected and educationally prepared. During the summer when most military families move, children often miss opportunities to participate in community summer reading programs. Consequently, BSF created an innovative, interactive online summer reading program specifically for military children, allowing them to take part in a summer reading program virtually, no matter where they are in the world. Children download a reading log, track summer reading, and submit their logs via email or mail. At the end of the summer we recognize the kids through certificates and prizes for all the great reading they did over the summer. Interacting through this online program, children receive a sense of connection with other “milkids” that might otherwise be lost.


NBF: What are some titles that particularly resonate with “milkids” and their families?

JM: Our military children are diverse and so are their tastes in books. Many of our older children were very into popular series, such as the Percy Jackson series, Hunger Games, and the Divergent series. Our younger kids are always fans of Dr. Seuss books and books that involve super heroes or Disney characters, like Cars and the Disney Princesses. We were fortunate to be able to offer children a variety of wonderful books specific to their age group and reading level. The children and their families are also very fond of books that speak to military life. Dr. Jill Biden’s Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops and Debbie Fink’s The Little C.H.A.M.P.S books have been big hits with military families.


NBF: What was the moment when you knew Books on Bases was having the impact you’d hoped for?

JM: I think we see the biggest impact through the families and their response to the program, especially at events. We have had many families who attend our events and are so appreciative of the free books and the opportunities those books offer their kids. Parents see Books on Bases as a valuable tool for their children and something that can make a true impact on their lives. Another gratifying part of the program is the numerous thank you letters from schools and libraries that have received Books on Bases book donations and are better able to serve their local military families. There is a need in our communities, and it is very rewarding to know that Books on Bases is making a real impact in the lives of our military children and families.

Interview with Todd Boss, Founder of Motionpoems

Todd Boss is the founder of Motionpoems, an honorable mention for the 2015 Innovations in Reading Prize.

National Book Foundation: How does the filmmaker select the poem?

Todd Boss: It’s a misconception that Motionpoems “matches” poems with filmmakers. In fact, we offer filmmakers groups of about 10 poems at a time, and filmmakers select their poems from those groups. We invite filmmakers to read, fall in love, and choose.

Filmmakers fall in love with poems the same way any reader does; something in the poem reaches them or speaks for them or touches a chord. If a filmmaker doesn’t fall in love with a poem, we send them more poems until they do.


Photo of Todd Boss with Guest Producer Jennifer David (Credit: Sarah Hrudka).
Todd Boss (right) with Guest Producer Jennifer David (Credit: Sarah Hrudka).

NBF: What is the relationship between the poet and the filmmaker like? Do filmmakers often consult poets about the direction of their motionpoems?

TB: We invite the filmmaker to participate in a short, facilitated conversation by phone with their poet if they would like. That’s because they have been guaranteed complete creative control over their project.

We always preface the conversations by telling the poet that the conversation is purely research for the filmmaker and may not have any bearing on the creative direction of the project. We take the opportunity in that conversation to reinforce the fact that the filmmaker is in complete creative control. In fact, I often tell poets that they may not like their films.


NBF: Does that happen often?

TB: Almost 99 percent of the time. It’s a shock reaction in its initial viewing and it’s usually overcome in the second and third viewing. It’s just that, at first, seeing someone else’s interpretation of your work is jarring.

It’s a real trust game that our poets have to play. They have to be comfortable with giving up the poem. Smart poets understand that intrinsically. Once you put a poem on paper, it becomes reimagined by every reader. A motionpoem is just a window into one reader’s reimagination of the work.

Most of our poets love our motionpoems after the third time they’ve seen it. It’s just that initial shock that we’d like to prepare them for.


NBF: Your entire sixth season, thanks to a partnership with VIDA, features poems from female writers. How do you see Motionpoems expanding the voices of other communities in future seasons?

TB: We just announced that season 7 will consist exclusively of poems from African American writers through a partnership with Cave Canem. We’ll have more representing voices from different cultures and groups. We will also be exploring poems on timely themes that are potent for the moment.


NBF: Many of your films are co-produced by presses like Copper Canyon, Milkweed, and HarperCollins. How did these partnerships form?

TB: Really just through an invitational conversation. We say, “What have you got in the coming year?” and “Can we read through it?” and offer it to our filmmakers. The resounding answer is yes; we’re rarely turned down. It’s a great marketing and publicity tool for publishers. It’s also a great gift that publishers can give to their authors.

Interview with Tony Valenzuela, Executive Director of Lambda Literary

Tony Valenzuela is the Executive Director of Lambda Literary, an honorable mention for the 2015 Innovations in Reading Prize.

National Book Foundation: What was the literary landscape like for LGBTQ readers and writers when the first Book Report was published in 1987?

Tony Valenzuela: In the ‘80s, there was an explosion of queer literature, which is the very reason that the Book Report and the Lambda Awards were born. The LGBTQ community was besieged by homophobia and the AIDS crisis, and the burgeoning literary community that was publishing  had this kind of do-it-yourself mentality. For a lot of us, our community centers were bookstores. Deacon Maccubbin, our founder, saw how the landscape was growing for queer writers, and he wanted to have an institution that would spotlight those works.

The political landscape was obviously very different, and the literary landscape was smaller, but we had our bookstores – many more LGBTQ bookstores in the ‘80s than we do now. In terms of mainstream acceptance, visibility, that was much smaller. We were doing it for ourselves.


NBF: I’m trying to think now of queer bookstores that I’ve seen or visited, and I can’t think of as many as I know there used to be.

TV: There’s the Bureau in New York City, and Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia, but where else? So many bookstores have closed, and there are so few that are queer-specific.

I will say that there are a lot of independent bookstores doing a really good job with queer literature. In LA, Skylight Books has a great queer reading series, and so does Bluestockings in New York. There are others around that aren’t queer-specific that are doing public programming that includes queer writers. But many queer-specific bookstores have closed.



Lambda Fellows 2013
Lambda Fellows 2013

NBF: So it’s less a physical space now than a community.

TV: Yes. That’s another thing – virtual space is huge right now. Lambda’s one part of it, but there are blogs, there are queer writers in social media, there’s Goodreads and Amazon. There are a lot of places where we’re talking about literature in the virtual world. I know it’s a change, and that you lose something, but that’s so important.

I’ll give you one example with Lambda. Our Lambda Book Report ended as a print journal in 2009, and we had a circulation, I think, of about 3,000 subscribers. But since it’s been online, the review gets upwards of 50,000 readers a month. There’s a lot to be said for that.


NBF: The books that Lambda spotlights can be a lifeline for a lot of readers, especially more underrepresented readers. But access has always been and is still a huge problem. So how do you reach those readers?

TV: Librarians do a big part of it. As a community, they’re plugged into Lambda in a really meaningful way; we have a lot of friendships and relationships with librarians. They’ll tell us that they subscribe to the newsletter so they see what books are being published. They pay attention to the shortlist and winners at the Lammys because they want to know what books to stock in the library. That’s one way that the literature is reaching a larger audience that’s outside of the internet.

One of the things that surprised me when I started working at Lambda five years ago is this: you might think that we’re going to have a huge number of members from big cities or the coast. But the truth is that our members are from all over the place, from small and medium-sized cities in every state and other countries too. And that struck me powerfully.

Many of those members are readers. That’s another thing about Lambda Literary; we’re an organization that’s largely supported by readers. And they’re all over the country, not just in big cities, so books from all over the place, large and small, are given attention. That’s the reason why Lambda Literary, as an organization that’s about LGBTQ literature, has been able to sustain itself for all these years. We have a really dedicated, passionate base of supporters. It has grown and continues to grow, but it’s been there for decades.


NBF: There’s a kind of hunger for those books that you don’t always see.

TV: We’re one of the only places where some writers are getting reviewed. It’s really important, and we do as much as we can.

William Johnson in New York, the [Review] editor, gets well over a thousand books sent to him every year for consideration. We’re only able to do about a quarter of those. And for those that do get reviewed, Lambda is one of the only places, if not the only place, where that writer’s getting covered in a literary publication. The book review sections of major newspapers have shrunk, and it’s an important place for queer writers to have a platform and a spotlight.


NBF: Why is it important for a larger audience to read books by LGBTQ authors with LGBTQ narratives?

TV: Well, by and large, we’re the best at telling our stories. There are heterosexual writers who do their homework, who are strong allies and really understand the LGBTQ experience, and who do beautiful work to show different narratives of that experience. But, for the most part, we LGBTQ people are still best at telling our own stories, and we’re also the most invested in telling our own stories with us as protagonists in the most nuanced ways.

A lot of mainstream audiences are reading LGBTQ writers now, writers like Sarah Waters and Justin Torres and Michael Cunningham. They’re read not only because they’re beautiful writers, but also because they’re telling our stories in ways that a lot of heterosexuals wouldn’t be able to. I know that there are straight writers who do a beautiful job at it, but too often we still see ourselves stereotyped. We aren’t protagonists. That’s one thing queer writers are doing: we’re protagonists of our stories, of every kind of story imaginable. Literature has given us that more than any other form of storytelling, more than film and television. I mean, that’s why so many of us are drawn to books.

And we’ve barely scratched the surface of what our stories are. There’s a lot of attention now to LGBT characters in television shows or films [coming out], but there are still so many stories beyond coming out to be told. Still, we’re asked, “Is there a need for LGBT literature? Is there a need for an organization like Lambda Literary when now there’s gay marriage?”


NBF: Obviously, because marriage is legalized, everything is fixed.

TV: Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what happened in other marginalized groups. Once they got civil rights, it all went away [laughs] – which couldn’t be further from the truth. But we’re only now telling the stories of our lives in ways that mainstream America is paying attention to.

A lot of us write for our own community. Many of us write to a broad audience and want the mainstream to read what we have to say, but a lot of us tell our stories because we feel they need to be told to our own. I think that’s great.


NBF: Let’s talk about the Writers in Schools program, which was launched in 2012. What’s been the most rewarding aspect of working with teenagers and young adults?

TV: It’s rewarding to go into schools and see that, in a lot of places, there’s so much more support and understanding for gay youth than there has ever been.

For example, we were just in a suburban San Diego school last month. The high school’s GSA invited an author, and I sat in, because we were videotaping this particular session to do some outreach with it. At lunchtime, at this GSA meeting, there were about fifteen kids in the classroom. They’d all read A.S. King’s book Ask the Passengers, and she came in via Skype and did this Q&A for forty-five minutes.

It was just remarkable for me to watch because not only did they get to engage with literature and storytelling with an author and get to ask her what it’s like to write a book and what it’s like to be a writer, but they got to talk about themselves and the context of their own lives as queer kids.

This also happens in classrooms where there’s gay and straight kids. They get to talk about their own understanding of what gay life is and have it enriched by the stories that they read and the authors that visit them. And I think, most importantly, it’s introducing young readers to new works by queer authors. Young readers, you know, become older readers [laughs] and they know that there’s this vast queer literary landscape that is for them, too.

We’re introducing a lot of young people to that literature that their teachers may not have otherwise assigned. They may not have otherwise known that Catherine Ryan Hyde’s books exist, or Charles Rice-Gonzalez’s, or A.S. King’s, or Alex Sanchez’s. And now they do. They may become, more than just fans and lifelong readers of those works, lifelong readers in general. We know from the Harry Potter generation, when people become lovers of books young they’ll read when they’re older. Lambda wants to play a role in that by introducing young people in high schools to this other body of work and authors telling these others stories in ways that they’re not going to see anywhere else. So that’s very gratifying.

The program has remained in pilot phase because it’s been kind of small. I can’t tell you what this is, but we’re going to have a major announcement about the program in another month. It’ll be expanding in some important ways, and we’re excited about that. It just means we’re going to be able to reach more young people.

Hilton Als accepting Lammy 2014
Hilton Als accepting his 2014 Lammy Award.

NBF: There’s also the Writers’ Retreat, which I know you just came back from. How has that expanded and changed since its original conception?

TV: It started in 2007, so it’s not quite ten years old, but we’ve done it enough times that, after this year’s class, about 350 fellows have gone through the program.

One of the ways that it’s changed is that it’s bigger. We started with three workshops – fiction, nonfiction, and poetry – and we now have five. We added playwriting this year, and we have genre fiction, which is a rotating workshop. This year there was a focus on young adult fiction and graphic novels. In years past, we’ve had a focus on sci-fi or mystery. So that one changes each year. We also get a ton more applications than when we started. [laughs] It’s become really competitive, which is great. Of course we want people to come into it and do the work in their own writing.

The faculty choose the students. They go through their own genre; they go through the applications and choose the group that they’re going to work with. The writing samples and the artistic statements are really important. I only say this because I hear from folks who didn’t get in once and they think, “Oh, well, Lambda didn’t think I was good enough for it,” and that’s not it at all. That particular year, the student may have applied to a workshop where the instructor was interested in a particular kind of student, but it may be different the next year. There are excellent writers who don’t get in. There’s this subjectiveness to it.  People have to keep trying.

And the other thing that has changed is the amount of diversity. It’s always been a diverse group of writers, but we now have people who are writing across a multiplicity of identities: trans writers, and writers of color, and women writers, who are all queer and writing across all these identities and telling their stories across many different identities. That’s really important. It is a reflection of who our community is. Lambda has really paid attention to the diversity of the students in the program, and it’s been a really positive and powerful change in the program.


NBF: What’s on the horizon for Lambda Literary, and LGBTQ literature more broadly?

TV: We want to keep doing what we’re doing in each of our programs – the awards, the retreat, the Review, and the writers in schools – and make each of them better. Just five years ago I was the only staff member. Now we’ve got William Johnson doing the Review, Kathleen DeBold managing all the judges for the Lambda awards, Shirley doing the writers in schools and Kyle, our programs coordinator, doing everything under the sun. Our capacity has expanded, and so we’ve been able to grow and improve our programs.

We want to continue to advocate for our literature, to advance our literature, so our authors have the most exposure possible. We want to give emerging writers a leg up in our programs so that they have [the support of] our stronger writers and also have a better shot at getting their book published. The writers in our emerging writers program have this astonishing success in getting their books published – it’s just incredible.

We want to keep doing what we’re doing, but to grow it smartly and be a resource to readers. To expand our reach to readers and to people who don’t know we exist. There are a lot of people who still, even in the LGBT community, think, “Oh, Lambda, Lambda Legal,” and we have to say, “No, no, no! We’re Lambda Literary! And Lambda Literary has been around for over a quarter of a century!” And then they see what we do, and all the different ways that we’re involved in the literature communities, and they become a part of that, the Lambda family. We want to grow our family.

I guess this is the main thing: when I came in five years ago, it was me and a team of people who’d been working hard to grow the organization. There was potential for strong and steady growth with no ceiling in sight. And there’s still so much potential for what our writers and our literary community are doing. I believe that the sky’s the limit. We have not seen it slow down. In terms of Lammy submissions, five years ago there were 450 and this year there were over 850. So where’s that coming from? It’s exciting. I think that the queer literary community is really vibrant right now, and Lambda wants to play our role in helping writers and exposing writers to more readers.