Monday, May 31, 2010

Object Lessons in Building Literacy - What to do, and what not to do. Part I

May has been an unbelievable Kansas-esque whirlwind for me. Like Dorothy, I have no flipping idea where I've been, and boy am I glad to be home. Back to back to back events did a number on my cosmic sense of time and place. I am only now, safely back in my comfy backyard chaise, remembering to blink on a regular basis.

The first half of May was dominated, for me, with events surrounding the Silver Birch Awards, an Ontario children's choice reading program for kids in grades 3-6. It's part of the umbrella program, the  Forest of Reading Awards, run by the Ontario Library Association.

The combined Forest of Reading programs reach readers from Kindergarten through adult, with selections chosen for reading level, quality, age appropriateness and variety. (Click here for deets of how it works) Only books pubbed in Canada qualify for inclusion in the program, but this is not a limitation; every year, the offerings are uniformly stellar, and are a powerful showcase for the talent that exists here in the Great North.

My 2009 book, The Insecto-Files, was featured in the non-fiction category this past year. What did this mean to me as an author?

First of all, with more than 57,000 kids participating in 2000-2010, the chances of my book actively being read soared as soon as the nominations are announced. From an underappreciated drone labouring in the anonymity of my basement, I became an instant celebrity. My inbox began filling up with requests for school visits (I did well over 100 last year, and probably a similar number this year, but haven't counted 'em yet!).

Another great result was that my bank account began filling up with royalties, because a nomination for this prestigious award boosts sales *significantly.* In other words, authors whose books get the first nod for the shortlist get to eat for a year.

The best part, though, came in the spring when I got to go to kazillions of schools and  meet with kazillions of my readers. As has happened in the past, I was shocked by how influential a "real author" can be on young people. They listen to my trite words (reading is the true superpower! believe in yourself and you can do anything! If my dreams can come true, so can yours!) as if they come directly from the mouth of the Almighty. I'm a Role Model! A Star! A Good Influence! Who would have thunk it? (Mom - check it out!)

I have also been able to see firsthand how a well-designed and well-run reading program can turn non-readers into readers, and turn book-likers into passionate book lovers. Kids DO read, and enjoy it, but like that field of dreams, you got to build it first before they can come. A program like Silver Birch is the true field of dreams, and anyone who cares about literacy really will take note and recreate this program in other places. It's simple, people! Show kids that reading matters, make it fun, make books available to them, and they will fall in love with the art of the word. It won't even cost a fortune. 

The highlights of the program are the various award ceremonies that take place during Children's Book Week in May. The "official" award ceremony, held annually at Harbourfront in Toronto, attracts 1500 kids to each of the Forest of Reading presentations. They scream, they wave banners, they have a blast. They learn that loving books is cool, is fun, is natural, because look how many of their peers do it too! Thousands!!!

Left: At the 2006 Harbourfront Award ceremony, where Boredom Blasters, won in the non-fiction category.

Participating in the program really is rewarding, because who wouldn't find an all-day party that gets you out of the classroom a terrific reward? The only downside to the Harbourfront event is it no longer has the capacity for all of the would-be attendees.

To make up for the space shortage, school boards across the province have organized their ow awards day events, for kids in their districts who can't get to Harbourfront. This year, I attended spin-off award ceremonies in the Niagara region, Aurora region, Uxbridge region and Peel region. I had to pass on Durham region's great event because of a time conflict, but have attended that one in the past.

                                                                           Above: At Niagara's Silver Birch Day, where I gave the keynote address
                                                                           and presented two hands-on writing workshops. Over 700 kids
                                                                           enjoyed the event.

All the satellite events are just as good, if not better, than the bigmama event downtown. Each hosts several hundred - or several thousand - attendees! There's great entertainment, food, and most importantly, authors galore to sign books, present, and answer questions. In Uxbridge, kids dressed up as characters or symbols from a variety of my books and presented a little skit about me.

Left:At the Uxbridge event, kids presented a skit about yours truly! Here I am with my actors. Notice the butterfly who portrayed The Insectofiles,  the scientist who represented Science on the Loose, and the spy who depicted Secret Agent Y.O.U., which won the award in 2008.

I've got to say that my favorite event of them all, though, is the one put on by the Peel Board of Education in Mississauga. They fill a STADIUM with 3-5000 kids and put on a show like you wouldn't believe!!!

This year, more than 3000 kids enjoyed step dancing shows, hip hop performances, and comedy in an all-out extravaganza that can't help but drive home the literacy message. Reading rocks, for sure, and rocks HARD.

Above left: Who doesn't love a book-shaped cake? Above right: a view over the audience toward's the day's end, when everyone was wiped. In the center is author Harry Endrulet, who wrote the very moving picture book A Bear in War.

All in all, the Forest of Reading program is a model of how to encourage literacy. It's proof of the magic that can happen when educators, librarians and individuals get it right.

How to get it wrong, however, seems to be both easier and more pervasive. To find out about that, you'll have to refer to my next post: Object Lessons in Building Literacy, part II: What Not To Do - the truly Scary Story.

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