Friday, October 24, 2008

800 books, 800 volunteers

On October 23, I had the privilege of participating in a special program that shows how nurturing a school district can be. It's called, simply, Read Aloud, and this year's was the 23rd annual. The event takes place in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a city with a significant population of low income families.

A group called School Volunteer Association organizes Read Aloud. Each year, they review dozens of picture books, choose one title for each elementary grade, and buy a copy for every classroom of that grade. This year, they chose Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman for sixth grade, meaning they bought about 70 copies for the about 70 sixth grade classes in the city.

The SVA's generosity doesn't end there and the generosity in general doesn't end with the SVA. With tremendous effort, they recruit a volunteer for every classroom in the city and each volunteer reads a book to a class on the same day. That is 800 volunteers, and yesterday, every single one showed up for duty. I met lawyers, doctors, even a delightful retired commercial airline pilot. Two of the volunteers were the authors of the books they read, and one of those authors was me.

My class at Columbus Elementary was engaged and curious, and I learned afterward that their teacher, Steve Taylor, is up for Teacher of the Year. I am not surprised based on how he welcomed me and interacted with his students. Without knowing the competition, I think he's going to clinch it.

At the lunch that followed, I learned something helpful. The committee members said they chose my book unanimously, which is an honor indeed. However, they also said that it is extremely hard to find a suitable picture book for sixth graders—especially one that appeals to boys. (And yes, that age does still like to be read to.) So though I was the unanimous pick, it doesn't seem I had competition as tough as Mr. Taylor probably does!

This is helpful because I've found the idea of picture books for older readers is still met with mixed reaction from editors, even though it's not a new concept. Hearing that there is a need for books like this is ammo for me as I pitch new projects, many of which are picture books for older readers. I have seen or heard of a section for this category in more than one library, but I suspect there is still some market resistance to it. I believe one solution to that is choosing subjects that appeal to older older readers—adults. I consider Boys of Steel a crossover book and I wrote all my subsequent nonfiction picture book manuscripts with the same intent.

To the 799 other volunteers yesterday, see you next year.

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