by Eisa Ulen Richardson, author of the novel Crystelle Mourning and an instructor for National Book Foundation’s BookUp program
I love encouraging young people to read. As a writer, I recognize that one of primary tasks (beyond actually writing) is growing readership. As a teacher, I know that the middle school years are the grade levels when kids are most likely to lose interest in reading. As a mom, I cherish the countless snuggles my now- 1st grader and I have shared over books, and I never want the warm emotional power of reading to leave us.
So, when I got a call from The National Book Foundation asking me to lead a reading workshop for middle school children, I jumped at the opportunity. The call came from Leslie Shipman, the Assistant Director at NBF, an award-winning poet, and an advocate who is passionate about young people and reading. She started BookUpNYC, an after-school book club for middle schoolers supported by NBF. BookUp has now grown from locations throughout New York City to satellite programs in Texas and Detroit Michigan, and starting this year, BookUpLGBTQ for high school students at the Hetrick-Martin Institute.
But my BookUp participants don’t care about any of that. They only care about the books (and the food! and the trips!) that make their after school book club special. There is no way I could ever describe BookUp better than they can…
“In Book Up, we get free books to keep. These books have influenced me to read more than I ever did before. Most of the books that we get are interesting and enjoyable. Now that I’ve found an interest in reading, doing my homework like completing my reading log is much easier. I read almost every day. On the train, instead of turning to my phone for entertainment, I’m now reading. Book Up has definitely made my book collection larger. When I first came to Book Up, I really wanted to get over my dislike for reading. I wanted to learn from books and enjoy them, but I am easily distracted and bored. As I was watching a Ted Talk, a man once said, ‘There are many people who have gone ahead of you in life, why learn it all over again when you can read.’ There are several genres of books so even though you’re a picky reader, there is still something for you. Reading can enhance your vocabulary so when you write or even have a conversation with another, you can sound sophisticated. Mark Cuban once said, ‘When you aren’t learning, you are falling behind.’” -William Jiang, 8th grader.
That’s what BookUp does, the influence it has on young people, but what is it that we do in BookUp?
“Like any typical book club, in BookUp we talk about what we liked and disliked about the book and which genre it is. For example, when we talk about the genres we ask each other if we think it is speculative, fantasy, non-fiction, and etc. Also, we talk about what we want improved. Every Friday we walk in, and we sit to talk about the book we got that week. Our instructor Eisa starts out our conversation.” -7th grader Connie Tang
But, enough about books! Gordon Mok, an 8th grader, has his priorities straight:
Talking About Food You Eat At Book Up
“Every week when we have BookUp, Eisa our BookUp instructor buys us a bowl of fruit. The fruit bowl contains melon, pineapple, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, grapes, papaya, watermelon and mangos. She buys the fruit bowl from Whole Foods on Second Avenue and it cost $13.53. Eisa would not allow us to eat any junk food such as chips, soda and etc. So every time I buy chips and come into the room, she makes me put it away. Even if it’s just iced tea I still cannot drink that because, she will not allow that. I don’t mind the fact that we cannot eat junk food, because I can still eat healthy things such as seaweed, granola bars, and bread. When we watch movies, she buys us popcorn which is delicious even though it’s considered healthy. I really like the popcorn and sometimes it makes a movie even better. A Friday before break, she once bought us pizza, french fries and chicken wings. It was really delicious and I was really thankful for it. Eisa had to use her own money to buy food for us and she didn’t get any for herself. Sometimes we go on some trips. We get free lunch from the trips that we get and during that time, Eisa allows us to eat junk food. We get to eat fried chicken, drink soda, and eat ice cream. It depends on what restaurant we go to. I really liked the grilled cheese sandwich that we got from Johnny Rockets. We got hotdogs which were incredible. On the week before Christmas she bought us candy canes. They came in packs and were small. Sometimes she even buys us chocolate covered pretzels. I don’t usually like pretzels but these were amazing with the chocolate. Overall, even though you do not get to eat junk food on a regular day of book up, there is so much more you can eat. You can eat any healthy food you bring to Book Up and plus, you get to eat fruits from a fruit bowl.”
Full Disclosure – The NBF paid for all the food – healthy and junky! Actually, the NBF pays for everything, as 7th grader Jennifer Chen knows:
“At the beginning of Book Up we get to choose our own books and a few books are chosen by the National Book Foundation. The good thing about getting books chosen from the National Book Foundation is you can always rely on them giving you awesome books which were finalists. The good thing about these books are they’re given to us by the National Book Foundation. We get 1 book every week and sometimes if we’re on vacation or a holiday we get 2 books. You get to choose from all different types of genres, ones that are fantasy like The Land of Stories or books like To Kill a Mockingbird. There are even books you’ll think you’ll hate but in the end you can’t helping loving. Book-Up sprouts your imagination.
Every month we go on a group Book-Up trip. Everything is provided for you. We go on tours in universities, like NYU, or maybe museums and libraries. Then we go have lunch, sometimes we have pizza or BBQ, such as Hill Country Chicken BBQ. Then we go get books. The good thing is… you get more books! We go to bookstores like Strand (16 miles of books) to get books! We get to spend $25 given to us from the National Book Foundation. It’s literally book heaven. All these books help your home library grow. Just like how each year more students join Book-Up.”
Not every BookUp participant starts out super enthusiastic about all the books, and that’s OK. Our goal is to grow home libraries, not force classroom-style assignments on reluctant readers. Reading for pleasure does impact school performance, and we’re glad about that. But in BookUp, there are no high-stakes demands associated with reading. In fact, it’s OK not to like every single book, as Susam Yang is learning:
“This is my first year in book up. I like everything in BookUp. The counselor, Eisa buys us fruit to eat. All the fruit were already sliced and in a plastic bowl. There’s blueberries, mango, grapes, pineapple, strawberries, watermelon and other fruits. We all get free books after we finish reading the fruit. Eisa gives us really good books but some of them are boring. Eisa lets us vote for books we want too. I also like the field trips too. Every trip we go to, we get to go book shopping at a bookstore. We all get $25. Before we go book shopping we go to a museum and learn things. I like the lunch part too. The food was really good.”
I like that Susam and other young people around New York benefit from the power of a book club. I’m glad that she is able to express the power of personal preference, to say I didn’t like that book and the grown-up in the room to be OK with that. I am grateful that the NBF supports diverse young readers through BookUp. And I wish every middle schooler opportunities like the ones BookUp provides to feel the emotional force of books. Finally, I wish every caretaker years and years of snuggles through the power of the printed word.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is author of the novel Crystelle Mourning and has contributed essays and articles to numerous magazines, newspapers, websites, and anthologies. She lives with her husband and son in Brooklyn but loves crossing the East River once a week to talk books with the amazing kids at the Chinatown Y. Learn more about Eisa at her website, EisaUlen.com, or follow her on Twitter @EisaUlen.
National Book Foundation‘s BookUp is a national program serving over 300 students annually. We are creating not just a new generation of readers, but a new generation of confident, engaged citizens. Since its inception in 2007, BookUp has provided its students with over 25,000 books free of charge. Learn more about BookUp at their website, or follow them on Twitter at @BookUpNews.