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Where Books Are Still Fashionable

Susan Brenna

Susan Brenna is TASC's Chief Communications Officer


Sixth grader Jeremiah Daly, one of 12 siblings, will get on a bus at his Flatbush middle school this Saturday and ride into Manhattan. First he'll tour Bobst Library at New York University with a group of his classmates. Then he'll be treated to lunch (barbecue!) at Hill Country Chicken. Then, with $25 from the National Book Foundation, Jeremiah will go shopping at Books of Wonder.

This upcoming plunge into bookishness is thanks to a project the foundation has undertaken "to keep kids interested in books at a time when books are not very fashionable," as "BookUp" author and teacher John Murillo says.BookUp logo

Jeremiah attends a Middle School ExTRA school, Andries Hudde, where the school staff joins with the community organization CAMBA to offer an extra 2.5 hours of literacy-focused learning and enrichment every day. Once a week during those hours, John Murillo (a poet and finalist for a PEN Open Book Award) visits Hudde. There he uses the same techniques to discuss books, literary genres and writing with sixth graders as he does with his NYU students. Hudde's BookUp club is co-directed by a CAMBA staff member, Simba McCray, who also writes poetry and organizes community slams.

Jeremiah, who inherited some civil rights history books from a grandfather who taught at Medgar Evers College, elected to join the club because "I have a craving for books," he said. "And I noticed that the people teaching it were really nice. They let you read and get your feelings out."

Kyle Rowley, another book club member, was able to raise his English class grades to meet CAMBA's requirement for joining the basketball team. Kyle, who is 11, says that BookUp was not his first choice of an after-school club, "but now I'm glad I got in." He has some hand-me-down books at home, but the club's twice-a-semester book-buying expeditions "make me feel good because now I have my own collection of books. I don't have to read the ones my sister or my cousins chose."

The National Book Foundation fully funds the BookUp club at Hudde and two other schools that are joining in this field trip. The foundation's goal, says Director of Programs Leslie Shipman, is to motivate middle school students to read for pleasure in hopes they'll develop habits for life.

John Murillo describes the club as "a space where kids get to relax and they get to read. To their credit, they don't laugh at one another when someone makes a mistake. They teach one another. They help one another."

Not long ago he introduced Kyle, Jeremiah and the other students to a 300-page, two-book set of graphic novels on China's Boxer Rebellion, Boxers & Saints. On a Monday, the students took turns reading from Chapter One. When he returned to Hudde the next Monday, expecting to start on Chapter Two, Mr. Murillo found that all his young students had finished both books. He cast his lesson aside and "we had a great discussion about China, history and religion."

While this is the first year TASC and the New York City Department of Education are extending the school day at Hudde through MS ExTRA, it's the sixth year that CAMBA has partnered with the foundation to bring BookUp to kids in its programs.

CAMBA's Vice President for Education & Youth Development, Christie Hodgkins, says the clubs are especially transformative with introverts and students learning English as a second language. She's seen many middle schoolers lose interest in reading. But when club members get to read "with published authors who are from the communities where they live," and then get to visit book worlds beyond their neighborhoods, they use a different word to describe reading to her. The word is "awesome."

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