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.

Interview with Kwame Dawes, founder of the African Poetry Book Fund

Kwame Dawes is the founder of the African Poetry Book Fund, winner of the 2015 Innovations in Reading Prize.

National Book Foundation: What sets African poetry apart from other world literature, particularly the differences between African poetry and the western tradition?

Kwame Dawes: The term “Africa” is a complicated convenience of history. This makes it, despite what totalizing practices we fall into, as absurd to characterize African poetry as anything specific as it would be to characterize European poetry as anything specific. So, for our purposes, the only thing that allows us to call our series and our organization African is the historical convenience of geography.

APBF Founder Kwame Dawes with author Tsitsi Jaji
APBF Founder Kwame Dawes with author Tsitsi Jaji

Because the colonizing world totalizes such a varied continent, it’s the consistent and frighteningly homogenous exploitation of the people of that continent that has made acts of recuperation collective so as to achieve the power of shared suffering. We publish African poets because nobody is doing so in ways that make sense. We ask nothing of the poets but that they be writers connected to any one of the many countries and ethnic groups on the continent. There may be lines of connection between a poet from Nigeria and a poet from Botswana, but these may well be the same connections that these poets find with Croatian poets and Canadian poets.

So I don’t know what distinguishes African poetry except the things that distinguish any tradition of poetry—and that is the tradition, the patterns of what has come before. But in Africa, as in other places, this is never homogeneous nor prescribed. So it’s impossible to credibly characterize it as any one thing. A quick look at the poets we have published so far will confirm this. Perhaps Kenyans may offer a more useful answer to this question in reference to Kenyan poetry.

NBF: What are some of the ways the APBF contributes to the literary community?

KD: The absence of published poetry by African writers has simply meant that the ideas, craft, feelings, considerations and voices of poets from Africa have been excluded from some conversations about poetry in the world. Where African novelists have been part of the literary conversation, the same is not true for poetry—at least not at the same level. So we are slowly changing the conversation by adding these voices. This can only enrich the “literary community,” if you will.

Our other related efforts are creating a network of poets from Africa, facilitating mentorships, and attempting to partner with other entities that seek to ensure that poets from Uganda, for example, are read by poets and people from Senegal. They contribute to this conversation in necessary ways.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Kwame Dawes” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]We publish African poets because nobody is doing so in ways that make sense. We ask nothing of the poets but that they be writers connected to any one of the many countries and ethnic groups on the continent.[/pullquote]

NBF: Could you talk about how these mentorships work?

KD: The editorial team of the APBF is made of some highly regarded poets from Africa and its diaspora, but they are also amazing teachers and mentors for other writers. As a result, we have tried to find ways to add mentorships of various kinds to the work that we do. Typically, all the books we publish by African writers undergo very careful and intense editorial engagement and dialogue between members of our team and the writer we are publishing.

At the same time, we respond with extensive notes to those poets we believe have promise even if we do not select their work for publication. Our mentorship extends to connecting poets with other poets who are not necessarily on our editorial team and also granting advice and support for those poets in the business of publishing and working as a poet. We make ourselves available to work with African poets. This is our commitment. We expect these relationships to last even beyond the publication of a work.

Finally, most of the editorial team travel to various events that might feature African poets. We offer workshops, and in many instances, review manuscripts and offer advice for the poets. Essentially, we are trying to inculcate in our writers a system of support and respect that makes it possible for writers to enjoy apprenticeship opportunities and genuine support for their lives as writers.


NBF: You mentioned earlier that you partner with other entities. Could you talk about some of these partnerships?

KD: The APBF partners with various publishers including Akashic Books, Slapering Hol Press, Amalion Books and theUniversity of Nebraska Press to see the publication of work that we deem worthy of publication. We also partner with organizations like StoryMoja and Kwani in Kenya, and with arts organizations in Botswana, Uganda, Liberia, Ghana and other countries to promote the work of African poets.

We have a formal relationship, as well, with Blue Flower Arts, one of the leading booking agencies in the US, who has agreed to represent the poets of the APBF in securing readings and appearances around the country and outside of the country.

The APBF has a close working relationship with the Brunel Prize for African Poets, a relationship that allows us to share information about promising poets and to devise ways to bring workshops and mentorship to African poets. I could go on, but what should be clear is that our goal is to make as many connections with various organizations around the world that support the work we do.

Uganda Poetry Library 2b (credit Beverley Nambozo)

NBF: How does your organization create a greater dialogue between African readers and writers across the continent?

KD: The challenges of book distribution on the continent of Africa are disheartening.  But we are trying to use various strategies of partnering, networking, and working closely with publishers, arts organizations, and arts brokers in various countries to find innovative ways to get books across the continent. In our chapbook series we give each poet 100 copies of his or her chapbook to dispose of as she or he sees fit. This is an informal distribution system, but it works in many ways since the poets can become the conduit for these books.

We have been seriously committed to using social media and the Internet to raise awareness of the new books that are published.  Our prizes, the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Literature and the Glenna Luschei African Book Prize, join with prizes like the Brunel Prize in African Poetry to create some media attention around new books and new poets around the continent.

It is not ideal. Ideal would be to have an Africa-wide distributor with reliable links to bookstores, literary festivals, and booksellers around the continent who can get these books to various countries. Some day, we hope this will happen. In the mean time, the African Poetry Libraries are designed to at least make the books available to people who can access the five we have established. A start.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Kwame Dawes” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Poetry writing is a very private and peculiar affair.[/pullquote]

NBF: What has your experience of building poetry libraries been?

KD: This has been an exciting endeavor because it has been based entirely on collaborations and partnerships with individuals and organizations on the continent who have assumed leadership of these libraries. The concept is simple, but the impact is anything but simple. The libraries have become hubs for poets and lovers of poetry and have filled an important niche of bringing contemporary poetry from around the world to these five centers.  As they become fully established, we will expand to other places.


NBF: Where do you see the APBF going next? What plans and expansions do you hope to implement in the future?

KD: We are doing what we set out to do and will continue to do so. Our hope is to be able to facilitate workshops for poets in various countries, some virtual and some physical.  We are seeking the funds to be able to do this.

We are also starting to plan books in translation from European languages spoken in Africa and from African languages. This is a long term goal, and our hope is to be able to do more of such work in the future. Our efforts, so far, remain in English, but we hope to expand when resource will allow us to. This is still a ways off, but we are exploring this.


NBF: Are the poets writing in English to begin with?

KD: Most of the poets that the APBF has published thus far are poets writing in English. The poets themselves may be multilingual, but they are writing in English. There is nothing unusual about this. However, we are now looking at the translated work of poets who are writing in other languages for publication. We will publish the work in English translation.

For instance, we are partnering with the Swahili Writers Prize, run by the Kenyan novelist and poet Mukoma wa Ngugi, to publish any poetry manuscripts that win the prize. The work will be translated into English and published by the APBF. We are also welcoming manuscripts that are then translated from languages other than English.

I can envision a time when we will be able to publish in other languages. But that is not likely to happen immediately given the challenges of multilingual publication. But with increasing success and expanding partnerships, it is likely that this will happen.


NBF: Has working with these emerging African poets influenced your own writing? What ideas have these poets introduced to you?

KD: Poetry writing is a very private and peculiar affair. My life has been equally devoted to making poems as it has been to teaching poets and making space for poets in the world.  I am engaged by poets of all ilk, and I tend not to keep track of how one poem may offer ideas for a poem I may write.  Were I to do that, I would have to include painters, singers, playwrights, teachers, lawyers, and on and on.

What I can say is that there is something deeply affirming in seeing new poets finding their voices and to see established poets getting the due they deserve. It has always been my view that I am as good as the company I keep. The more of us there are, the better I get. So this is at least one reason that I seek to build community.

Interview with Mark Hecker, Founder of Reach Incorporated

Mark Hecker is the founder of Reach Incorporated, winner of the 2015 Innovations in Reading Prize.

National Book Foundation: Where did the idea for the program come from?

Mark Hecker:  My background is in social work, and I worked in the foster care system. I had the experience of working with a number of really talented young people that, for many reasons – most related to some kind of trauma – had fallen behind in school. Over and over, I found that schools really didn’t have resources available that help high schoolers catch up. So it started with this idea of how we can get high schoolers invested in reading when, for many reasons, they often hate it?

I knew through doing research that high school students specifically improve at reading when they get to practice at their level. In D.C., what we were finding was that all these kids were getting to high school and reading at an elementary school level. My clinical background told me that, and I always say this in a joking way, if you hand a fifteen-year-old a Dr. Seuss book, they’re going to feel like you’re calling them stupid and they’re not interested.

So the idea we came up with was to hand them a Dr. Seuss book and a seven-year-old to read it to, and it dramatically changes the experience of reading that Dr. Seuss book. We can’t just get them to read elementary school material.  We need to get them to read elementary school material to elementary school kids to reframe the experience of reading for them. That’s really where the idea started.

Photo from reach inc

NBF: How do you see your program expanding in the future?

MH: We look at it in two stages. Our plan is to grow about two and a half times in the next two and a half years. We served about 180 kids in this school year that’s wrapping up now and our plan is to serve 500 by the fall of 2017. That’s 250 tutors and 250 students in our program. I think that’s getting to the size where we’re going to find what it is that makes us special and where we can grow.

We’ll definitely continue to serve D.C. The problem here is significant; we’re not addressing enough of the problem now and I don’t think we’ll be addressing enough of the problem in three years, or as much of the problem as we’d like to.

The second prong is how do we respond to the demand that already exists to replicate what we do. I’ve probably heard already from 30-40 different jurisdictions (nonprofit organizations, school officials, and towns) that are interested in working with Reach and replicating our programs in new places. And because we feel that the relationships that we build are so essential for what we do, we’re just not there yet. We’re not yet considering moving into any other jurisdictions, but when we do, we will focus on values alignment and a commitment to ongoing training and support to ensure success.

So I think, at the end of our current strategic plan, the question that we will be prepared to answer is how does Reach grow if it decides to grow beyond D.C.?  Do we partner with already established nonprofits that we consider great? Or – and I don’t see this in our future – do we sell our curriculum and walk away? I think it’s more likely we’ll do some sort of licensing agreement where we would provide some training and support along the way, but we see that as the next stage of growth.


NBF: It seems great that you’re getting so much support from so many other jurisdictions.

MH: Yeah, I think there’s a really desperate desire for something that’s effective with high school students who are struggling with reading especially in the context of more and more standardized education. I think a lot of teachers at a lot of schools just feel lost. There are not a lot of people having success in part because there are not a lot of programs available. Those programs tend to be obviously remedial, which means the kids don’t want to participate in them. I think that people feel we’ve grabbed onto something that’s worth paying attention to. I don’t think they yet understand how difficult what we do is and how hard the work is and some of the values related to the stuff we do.

One of the most important [aspects of Reach Incorporated is] you can’t be thrown out of our program. So it’s a commitment – that we’re patient, that we work with kids for multiple years. We consider the relationship unconditional. That stuff is just as important to our success as the curriculum is, so when we do grow, it will be important to work with organizations that understand that.


NBF: Reach Incorporated encourages mutual learning to take place between the tutor and the student, as opposed to the traditional top-down hierarchy. How does this reciprocity contribute to the success of the program?

MH: There are a couple of ways. One, our students like their teenage tutors more than they would like working with me. [Laughs.] They think that the teenagers are just the coolest people in the world. They also get one-on-one attention.

On a very basic level, the reason it [works so well] is that the little kids get individual attention. They love that the attention is from a peer tutor from their community. And the older kids feel like what they’re doing is important. When they walk into our program, instead of feeling like a bad reader who has to work on something that they don’t feel good at, they just get tackled by a seven-year-old who wants to sit with them and read. The learning that happens does become secondary [to that], but it’s the driving force of what we do.


NBF: Which students’ stories from the program have surprised you most?

MH: There are a lot of them. I think every teacher has experiences of feeling running head first into a wall over and over.

There’s a young lady named Ashley from Ballou High School, which is one of our rougher schools. A year and three-quarters into our program, I went up to one of our staff members and said, “I need you to deal with Ashley.” I was getting into my own feelings and I was just angry. The key here is that we focus on being sure that every student has positive relationships with someone from the organization. In this case, when I grew frustrated, I knew it was important for me to step away for a minute.

Ashley had a strong relationship with one of our instructors, Ms. Sully, and she began to focus more on school. We remain positive, no matter what, to help our kids see their potential. Coming out of that, she’s shown some real improvement. During the third quarter, she won a Most Improved Award from her school.

I think this story illustrates the fact that we have to always believe in kids, and we need to be aware enough to know when our feelings get in the way of our ability to do the job.There’s a year and a half of work that feels thankless, and to see a kid flip that switch and get there when it would have been very easy to give up long before…we have to challenge ourselves sometimes to live our values. Those are very rewarding moments.

Two summers ago, [because of the lack of] diversity in children’s literature, we started publishing our own books. We’ve now published nine books written by teenagers and we’ve had a couple opportunities for events where authors go and read to kids. I was shocked by how meaningful it [was] for a kid at an elementary school to see a teenager from their community who went to their school and is now a published author. Those were really special moments.

We did [a reading] a couple weeks ago where we had teachers coming up with copies of those books and asking their own former students for autographs. These are students that likely were not these teachers’ favorite students. To see that reframe of what these kids can do — I was a little surprised with how hard that hit me. I don’t think we realized at the beginning the import of the work we do around what usually gets called “narrative change.” It’s this idea of getting [teachers and other adults] to see these kids differently because they’re generally seen as the troublemakers. [At Reach Incorporated,] we’re really focused on all that the kids have to offer, and that can be very powerful.

Photo from reach inc

NBF: We were looking through some of the books the teenagers published. Khalil’s Swagtown Adventure and One Lonely Camel would definitely help many seven-year-olds out.

MH:  Yeah, we had a reading last week with Litzi, one of the authors of Khalil’s Swagtown Adventure. Her younger brother Joey was one of the Reach students, and the authors read to the entire student body. It was one of those moments where he was the coolest kid in school because that was his sister and he got to go up and get his book signed by her.

When we met Litzi, she was always a pretty solid student, but she literally did not speak. She would not respond if you talked to her directly. And she now is headed out to the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer as part of a team that won a public speaking challenge. The turnaround you see in moments like that is really, really cool.


NBF: What more can you tell us about the books the tutors write?

MH: The whole premise behind Reach is instead of looking at these kids as problems, let’s look at them as assets.  We we were working really hard to find good, diverse books – I feel like I know most of them at this point, but there are just not enough. And for us, there was just a moment where we said, “Well, we believe in these kids, and we notice this new problem related to our work. Why don’t we look at them as the ones that can solve this problem, too?”

It became part of our summer program to have the teens write new books to better reflect the realities of their world. We talk about diverse books a lot these days, but it’s not just about the color of the characters, it’s about their experiences. So with the ones you mentioned (Khalil’s Swagtown Adventure and One Lonely Camel), there’s talk of family dysfunction, there’s being the new kid at school, there’s being abandoned by your family, there’s dealing with death. We have one book that takes place in a shelter. Those things are real to our kids, and there are just not many books about those things.

Using the examples you just mentioned, One Lonely Camel has a camel who’s a rapper. His best friend is Tunechi, which is a nickname of Lil Wayne. And our kids know that. They understand that cultural marker. You and I can both imagine a book called Khalil’s Magical Adventure, but the fact that it’s called Khalil’s Swagtown Adventure – it speaks to the community that we work with in a different way. It’s been fun to see them not only step up as role models and do readings in the community, but to really contribute to a problem and, again, to change people’s minds.

When we first published the books, part of the reaction was, “Cute, I’m sure your students will like those.” What’s been fascinating is to watch the families more privileged than those, rich white folks, all of a sudden saying, “You know what? This book is really good!” Yeah, I know it’s really good! [Laughs.]

Photo from reach inc

NBF: What obstacles did you face in creating this program?

MH: The work is hard and I [won’t] sugar coat that. So when we say things like, “We don’t throw kids out of our program,” the difficulty of living that is real.

We don’t meet our kids before we hire them. At each of our schools, we get at least twice as many applicants as we have spots in the program. We simply don’t have the ability to interview all those kids. This means we’re making decisions based on applications and school data. For that reason, we don’t always know what other factors might come into play. We look at that as a mostly good thing. We want to serve those students with significant need, not those that can do the best in an interview.

We select them based off a bunch of factors, but when we walk into a classroom at the beginning of ninth grade and three of our tutors are demonstrably pregnant, how do we support those kids? What do we do when the kid gets suspended from school for a long period of time? What do we do when kids get arrested? There’s lots of things we deal with.

Again, I come from a social work background and there was a lot that we saw that I was comfortable with because I was from that world. But my staff, who came more from the world of education, didn’t feel equipped to handle all those things, so that’s been a challenge. I think we’re better at it, but it’s a challenge in education in general, especially in urban communities. So many of our kids are coming from backgrounds of chronic stress and trauma that we need to find ways to better prepare instructors to deal with that.

There are also issues about  perceptions of our kids and whether people believe they can do a good job both as tutors and as authors. We, at this point, have been lucky enough to have pretty solid data that shows what they’re able to do. But at the beginning, we had to prove it because people weren’t willing to trust teenagers and believe that they could do it.

We live in a world, in the education space, where there’s a focus on how quickly you can grow an idea and how you can scale it. It’s one of my least favorite words. Relationships aren’t really scalable. How do you end up growing a program that’s highly effective? We do want to serve more kids, but we find ourselves constantly in this battle about how fast we can reasonably grow while maintaining the quality we’ve established.

I’d rather do a really good job with a thousand kids in ten years than get to a thousand kids in five years but do half the quality work. I think a lot of education programs have grown big and have lost their quality along the way, and we’re trying to do that differently. We’re trying to grow in an appropriate way, but it constantly feels like we’re fighting that battle.  When we say we don’t want to “scale,” we’re not just interested in serving as many kids as we can as soon as we can, people sometimes roll their eyes and say, “Oh, you’re one of those cute nonprofits that’s not ready to make hard decisions.” And that’s frustrating.

We have been able to find resources and build a family of supporters and a community that really believes in us. But that tension of [how to grow is real for us].  We’re getting there, but that’s been a real challenge.

Interview with Tim Manley, artist, storyteller, and BookUp instructor

Tim Manley is a BookUp instructor, longtime Moth storyteller, and multigenre artist. His first book, Alice in Tumblr-Land, was published by Penguin in 2013. His first one-person show, Feelings, is running at FringeNYC through August 29.

NBF: What drew you to BookUp originally?
TM: I used to be a high school English teacher here in New York City, and I feel like BookUp is just the most fun parts of being a teacher. From my point of view, BookUp’s real goal is just to have fun with kids with reading. What could possibly engender a love of reading more than the pure joy of being given a book and not being tested, when it’s just for fun?

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Video interview with Sofia Quintero, author and BookUp instructor

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


NBF: Which books changed you as a young reader?

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

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


NBF: You could finally put yourself on the page.

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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