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

Each year the National Book Foundation, with support from the Levenger Foundation, awards the Innovations in Reading Prize to an individual or organization who discovers new ways to empower communities through literature. The 2016 Innovations in Reading Prize has been awarded to the Next Chapter Book Club (NCBC).

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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