Traveling Stories, 2016 Innovations in Reading Prize honorable mention

Each year the National Book Foundation, with support from the Levenger Foundation, awards the Innovations in Reading Prize to an individual or organization who discovers new ways to empower communities through literature. In 2016, Traveling Stories received honorable mention.

Traveling Stories is dedicated to helping kids fall in love with reading by the fourth grade. We set up StoryTents at farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods and offer free reading support. At the StoryTent, children read with volunteers, their parents or other children. For every book read, they earn a book buck, which can be redeemed for prizes. Through this, children not only become better readers but they also develop basic money management skills.

Read our interview with Emily Moberly, Founder and Executive Director of Traveling Stories.

NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION: How did Traveling Stories get started?

EMILY MOBERLY: Right after college I moved to Honduras, where I taught high school, and I realized that my students had never had a chance to fall in love with reading. They didn’t have books. They didn’t have a library. They didn’t have a bookstore. The only reading they had done was textbooks for school. No one had ever suggested that they read for fun, and that was a very weird foreign concept to them. I was able to bring books to my students, and then I got to watch them fall in love with reading for the very first time. It just took finding a book that they loved to ignite that love for reading.

When I came back to California, I started getting messages from my students talking about how much they still love reading and what they were reading now. That inspired me to start Traveling Stories. I felt like it had changed my students’ lives in such a meaningful and ongoing way, and I realized that it hadn’t been that difficult. All I did was share my love for reading and put books into kids’ hands.

NBF: Why have you chosen to set up the StoryTents in places like farmer markets instead of someplace more permanent?

EM: Some people assume that we have to do the StoryTents that way, but we purposely choose to do pop-up programs at places like restaurants, rec centers, and farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods. We purposely look for places where families are already going. If we had a permanent facility, everyone would have to come to us. But because we go out into the community, we eliminate a lot of the barriers like transportation and time. It also lets us reach families who may be embarrassed about reading and would never come to a program, but they’ll come to the farmers market.

For us, the StoryTents are about more than just reading. They’re about creating an awareness of the fun side of reading. If you come on Saturday to our StoryTent, we’re at the front of the market with two tents, and we’ve usually got 40 or 50 kids. Anybody who walks by usually slows down to see what we’re doing, and they see kids reading. It’s really awesome because it’s making reading a very visible part of the community.


NBF: How do you make reading fun for kids who might not normally interact with books in a “fun” way?

EM: In the StoryTent, we try to make an experience that’s kid-friendly. For us, the StoryTent is purposely not associated with school. We try to take off any of the pressure that kids might have in terms of performance or obligation, and we focus on fun. So, if a child finds a book that they don’t like, we don’t tell them they have to finish it. We want them to find a book that they love. We also don’t talk about levels or grades because a child might be embarrassed of what their reading level is. At the StoryTent, the emphasis is on fun and practice instead of doing a good job. We also create a kid-friendly environment. We have comfortable carpets and chairs so kids can sit down, lie down, roll around. We have a lot of different books. It’s an environment designed with the kid in mind to make them feel comfortable. Last but not least, we pay kids to read with the book bucks.


NBF: What’s the motivation for that kind of reward?

EM: The book bucks make reading into a social activity. Normally one book is worth one book buck, but if a kid thinks a book is more difficult, they can negotiate for more bucks. Then, they can use their bucks to pay for prizes, which we pick based on the feedback we get from kids. We don’t give books as prizes for reading because that’s not going to work for a six-year-old who thinks reading is boring. He’s not going to come to our program and read books to buy more books. But he is going to see the basketball, read 20 books so he can get it, and then slowly but surely find books that he likes and fall in love with reading itself. Gradually, it becomes more about liking the reading and less about the prizes.

NBF: Your target group is kids younger than fourth grade. Why is it important to reach this group in particular?

EM: A lot of statistics talk about the importance of reading, especially for young children. They say if a child is not reading at grade level by the fourth grade, they’re going to be 15 times more likely to drop out of school, which could leave them unqualified for about 90 percent of jobs. But if children are reading before the fourth grade, they’re going to have much better chances of succeeding in high schools, in college, in work. We’re so passionate about reading because we see it as a tool to open up doors for all of us. So much of what I’ve done in my life has been possible because of reading. Plus, it’s a lot easier to create an experience reading Dr. Seuss or the Clifford books with a six or seven-year-old than it is with a teenager.

What was your experience with reading like as a kid?

EM: I have been a book nerd pretty much my entire life. As a child, before I could even talk, my grandma gave me a book club membership where I would get a book every month. Growing up, I think I was drawn to so many characters, strong women like Nancy Drew, and it made me want to do something big with my life and to have adventures. My favorite time of the day was bedtime because my parents would read to me every night, and a lot of kids today, especially in low-income neighborhoods, grow up without having that. So many things that I took for granted like going to the park and reading or going to the library every week to pick out new books— those are experiences that not all kids have. For a lot of kids that come to the StoryTent, the only reading experience they have is school, and I think that’s only half the experience of what reading can be.

What kind of books do you fill the StoryTents with?

EM: We try to have at least 400 books at each StoryTent all the time. We’re really fortunate to have a lot of books donated. We try to have multiple reading levels (from super easy all the way up to chapter books), and we try to have a lot of variety: animal books, space books, princess books, basically everything you can imagine. Then we also have different language books. On Saturdays, we have over 14 languages represented by the kids who visit. We don’t have books in all those languages, sadly, but we do have books in Vietnamese, Urdu, Arabic, Spanish, and French. We’re very attentive to our population. If kids or parents ask for something, we’ll put a post on Facebook or send an email to our donors to share our wish list. Basically, we have almost everything, and we rotate the boxes between programs so kids don’t get tired of them.

NBF: Do you see relationships develop in the StoryTents? Between the kids and volunteers and/or the kids and other kids?

EM: Our StoryTents happen every week, the same day, the same time. The reason we do that is because we want to build relationships. We believe that putting books in kids’ hands is only part of it. The other part is having that person that they know and they trust to encourage them, and say, “Great job!”

I remember a little boy named Edwin who started coming when he was five or six years old. He was from Mexico, he had a speech impediment, and he was very, very shy. He would not ever read out loud because he was too embarrassed. Then he met our volunteer Denise, who would come every week. She got to know Edwin, and they started reading together. At first she would read out loud to him every time, but because he became more comfortable with her, he started reading out loud to her. Now he’s been reading for five years, and he reads chapter books out loud to younger children. That’s completely because of the relationship he built with that volunteer. Things like that happen all the time.


NBF: Have you encountered any difficulties engaging kids in the StoryTents?

EM: Our main difficulty is a lack of volunteers. Our program emphasizes a lot of one-on-one reading instead of one adult reading out loud to a room of children (which is fun, but it’s not what we do). We want kids reading out loud to volunteers, which means we need volunteers to listen. Since we’re paying kids [in book bucks], we also need adults to make sure kids don’t lie about reading or exaggerate their level when they’re reading alone. We have to find that fine line between encouraging reading and holding kids accountable to their abilities. But engaging kids with reading is the easiest part. It’s just a matter of having enough people to do that.


NBF: What is your most memorable moment in a StoryTent?

EM: One of the kids, Malika, is ten years old now. She’s from Pakistan, the youngest in her family with all brothers, and she started coming to our program when she was five. When I first met her five years ago, she hated reading. But then she found a book she loved—Madeline by Ludwig Bemelman—and now she’s reading a ton. About two years ago Malika was reclassified from a below average reader to an above average reader! The best part of it is that when she found out, she came running up to me tell me. She’s just a kid, and she already understood the importance of her reading skills. She was literally running around the market yelling her news to all the vendors because she’s so proud of it. Over the years, I keep seeing her grow and become a better reader.


NBF: Now you have libraries not just in StoryTents around the states but in countries around the world. Where do you see Traveling Stories going next?

EM: Our dream is to have StoryTents all over the U.S. Right now they say that 82 percent of low-income children can’t read at grade level by the fourth grade, and we would like to dramatically change that. We’d like every child to have a chance to discover a love of reading by the fourth grade. We’d like to start in the areas that have the lowest literacy levels. Currently we’re working with some larger companies, looking for partners that would allow us to expand nation-wide. My ideal dream is to partner with someone like National Geographic and have reading adventure tents in every community, where kids come in and are not only learning how to read, but also learning geography and exotic places. That’s what I would like. If anyone is interested in supporting, even if you can’t come to a StoryTent, it only costs $37 to provide reading support for one kid for a whole year. We all have something valuable to contribute.