If Football Players Can Wear Pink, We Can End Illiteracy

Football blog collage

(Left to right) Cowboys & Lions in pink; Pam Good, Renee Prewitt, Leslie Andrews and Councilman James Tate at Beyond Basics Literacy Summit; Links Panel on Literacy; Art Wall at Starr Academy.

I believe that we will greatly diminish illiteracy–especially in Detroit–in my lifetime. I’m a believer because I’ve seen problems of this magnitude make significant advances since I’ve been around, and I’m convinced that, when it comes to illiteracy, this too shall pass.

For example, December 1 was the anniversary of the day that Civil Rights Advocate Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus. Today, Barack Obama sits in the White House as the nation’s first African American president. Decades ago, Nancy Brinker’s sister, Susan G. Komen, sat in the back room of a hospital at a time when it was taboo to say the words “breast cancer.” Today, even big, strapping football players wear pink shoes on the football field, and an army of survivors have helped to turn fear and shame into courage. I’m a big fan of classic movies, and beyond their black and white allure and stylish sophistication, they reflected a time when smoking cigarettes was considered cool and sexy. Today, cigarette cool is making its last stand. The little tobacco stick is not even allowed in its most sacred refuge, the bar! Who ever would have thought?

But, most of all, I’m a believer because every time I’m with a group of people who are committed to reading and literacy, the energy in the room is so powerful. The people and the programs underway are not overwhelmed by the problem here in Detroit, where 47% of people are illiterate. Rather, they are dedicated to exposing children to books, to new experiences and helping them to develop language. Small victories become huge successes over time.

I believe that we will win this war on illiteracy in Detroit, in America, and eventually, around the world. Think about it, and I am sure you will agree. We’ve all seen issues of this magnitude solved in the past, and in time, we will say, Illiteracy: Problem solved! The opportunities to be a part of the movement are everywhere!

Reading and Volunteer Resources
http://detroitk12.org/readingcorps/
www.beyondbasics.org
www.liveunitedsem.org
www.gradelevelreading.net
www.pnc.com/grow-up-great
www.matrixhumanservices.org
www.readingrecovery.org

Renee Prewitt is author of Taj Cleans the Garage and Malcolm Mows the Lawn, books about little boys whose chores turn into exciting adventures!

Indies Are Not Dinosaurs

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Christopher Paul Curtis and Renee Prewitt at Book Beat “Indies First Storytime Day”

Some people say that the independent book store will be like dinosaurs soon; they will only be resurrected as Hollywood remakes. But I wouldn’t wager my 35mm digital movie camera just yet, based on the response from authors and readers alike at the Indies First Storytime Day, which took place on Saturday, May 17 at Book Beat in Oak Park, Michigan.

 

The whole idea was put together by Kate DiCamillo, author of the 2014 Newbery Award for Flora & Ulysses, The Illuminated Adventures. She’s also National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature (2014-2015). “The point is to show up and to read aloud, to celebrate stories and to celebrate the indies who work so hard to put our stories in the hands of readers,” she said.

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To honor Children’s Book Week (May 12-18) about 15 authors came to Book Beat, and read to a medium-sized, responsive crowd throughout a cool, windy day, full of sunshine. I started out reading Book Fiesta! by Pat Mora, recalling with great care, a few Spanish words I learned in high school. Cheered on by Book Beat owner Colleen Kammer, I followed up by reading one of my children’s books, Taj Cleans the Garage, about a little boy whose chore turns into an adventure. (A lot of parents liked the chore idea.)

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My highlight of the day was meeting Christopher Paul Curtis, who read a hilarious excerpt from The Watsons Go to Birmingham. My kids grew up reading his books and when I found two that they hadn’t read, I asked him, “Which one of these do you think they would like the most?” Without hesitation and despite my protests, he purchased, signed and gave me both of them: The Mighty Miss Malone and Elijah of Buxton. When I texted my daughter about it, all she said was “OMG, OMG, OMG! Did you tell him that Bud, Not Buddy, is my favorite?” Now, I have!

Gloria Whelan was there–all of her titles covered a whole table–as well as Susan Whithall, Wong Herbert Yee, Jean Alicia Elster, Kathryn Madeline Allen, Matt Faulkner, Jenny Risher, Terry Blackhawk, Michael Zadoorian, Rick Lieder, Brynne Barnes, and Tracy Gallup.

Children clapped and held out their books to be signed, Moms and Dads laughed, we discussed the ups and downs of the book industry, and ate delicious cake. Author swag bags included Gayle’s Chocolates and City Girls Soap, both Michigan based businesses.

“This event competed against a lot of activities on Saturday, including thousands of trees being planted in Detroit to remove blight, volunteers cleaning up the Detroit River, religious ceremonies, and an international Comics convention,” said Kammer. “Still, I’m happy for all of the authors and supporters who came out. Books matter and everyone’s presence reinforced that message.”

Long live the independent book stores! Dinosaurs not allowed!

Renee Prewitt is the author of two children’s books: Taj Cleans the Garage and Malcolm Mows the Lawn. 

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50+ Kids and Me on MCB Day

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A few weeks ago, I joined a national community of bloggers–many of them authors of children’s books like me–to help celebrate January 27 as the first Multicultural Children’s Book Day. I am pleased to say that yesterday was one of the best days of my life!

I had the pleasure to meet with children in two different elementary school classes who joined me in putting together our own spin on how we would make it a memorable occasion. At University Prep Science and Math School in Detroit, Michigan, Ms. Thomas’s third grade class brought their favorite multicultural books to school and sat together in a big, wide circle of sharing. I came face to face with several smiling, eager kids, dressed in their uniform beige and blue, who introduced their favorite books, told us the author and illustrator’s names, and explained why the books were their favorites.The first names of students, as well as the names of their books, are listed at the bottom of this blog.

ImageLater that day, I visited Vandenberg World Cultures Academy in Southfield, Michigan. Ms.Lewandowski teaches an ESL class–English as a Second Language–and I met children from several countries, including Vietnam, India, Senegal, Nigeria, and of course the good ole USA. Can you imagine that? While they didn’t bring books to share, this first grade class was the perfect audience for my new children’s book, Taj Cleans the Garage. One little boy asked right away, “Is Taj African-American?” I told him yes, and that his friend was Hispanic.

Afterwards, they were delighted to tell me where they wanted the flying horse to take them. Usually when I ask this question, Grandma’s house wins, hands down, but Chucky Cheese emerged victorious yesterday! One student started a second go-round on that question, and after thinking about it, they also said they would fly to California, India, to parties and to school!

Working on this event has been an uplifting and exciting experience for me. The co-founders, Valarie Budayr of Jump Into a Book and Mia Wenjen of Pragmatic Mom created this special day to draw attention to the need for publishers to publish more children’s books that reflected the country’s changing population.  They pointed out that despite census data that shows 37 percent of the US population consists of people of color, only 10 percent of children’s books published have diversity content.

It is also true that multicultural books can help to break down stereotypes and raise awareness about cultures that are different from our own. Personally, I was always on the hunt for books that reflected my children’s brown skin on the page, and drew them into the story. I wanted to help nurture their identities with characters like them who had adventures, discoveries, mysteries and just plain old fun. I also wanted them to learn to appreciate people and their differences.

Yesterday put an exclamation point on the many reasons why authors like me write books that show children whose mainstream lives merge with cultural traditions. Many kids and parents get it; I hope that many more publishers will too.

University Prep students and their books:

Taniya: Brianna, Jamica and the Dance of Spring. Juanita Havil, author; Anne Sibley O’Brien, illustrator

Micah: Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Doreen Rappaport; Bryan Collier, illustrator

Logan: Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco

Nevaeh: One of Three. Angela Johnson, author; David Soman, illustrator

Aliyah: Bein’ With You This Way. W. Nikola-Lisa; Michael Bryant, illustrator

Cassidy: First Bear in Africa by Santomi Khikawa and Ellis Island. Frank Brooks, author, Matt Straub, illustrator

Isaac: Egypt. Elizabeth Bert, author; Susan Manuel, illustrator

Sterling: Jalani and the Lock by Lorenzo Pace

Joaquin: Down to the Last Out, the Journal of Biddy Owens by Walter Dean Myers

Renee Prewitt is author of Taj Cleans the Garage, a story about a little boy whose chore turns into an exciting adventure, and he learns that money isn’t the only reward in life!

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Pick a School, Donate a Book

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What are you donating this holiday season?  There are coat drives, food drives, and pet appeals, all worthy causes that tug at the heart and purse strings. Here is one more appeal for something that can change a child’s life: a book.

It is no secret that children are not reading as much as they should. Often, I talk about the 30 Million Word Gap, a study that points out a glaring disparity: high income children hear that many more words by age 3 than low income children. Before they reach Kindergarten, many low income children are already trying to catch up. Books are at the heart of the matter. Read any major study about the achievement gap and it will say that reading more books is the key to closing the gap and bolting the door.

My friend, Tanya Allen, knows this. She volunteers as a mentor at Cornerstone Schools and loves to give away books as gifts. She describes it as planting the seed for reading. “I love holding a book in my hands and turning the pages,” she says. “If we let them, children will learn to appreciate books in this way too.”

I do not want to overwhelm my readers with a bunch of facts and figures, but a Reading is Fundamental study agrees. It found that when children borrow books or receive them, they develop more positive attitudes towards reading and learning. Books also encourage children to read more frequently and for longer periods of time. Some educators say that access to books is just as important as food, shelter and health care.

I am currently reading my multicultural children’s book, Taj Cleans the Garage, to children in Head Start, Kindergarten, first and second grade. The kids are always so excited and so fascinated and so inquisitive, and they all want to talk about where they would go if they had a flying horse. (Trust me. There is a connection between the garage and the horse!) Reading to them and seeing them light up is therapeutic too. It makes me feel good about doing something to promote literacy and to help them learn the love of reading.

Tanya is buying children’s books to donate this holiday season. Maybe we all should follow her example because every little step we take will bring us closer to alleviating the achievement gap. We can start right in our own neighborhood: Pick a School and Donate a Book. If you have time to read it to the class, that’s even better.

The 32 Million Word Gap by Age 3

How many words?

I recently attended a fundraising breakfast for The Children’s Center, where President and CEO, Deborah Matthews listed a few facts about the many children the agency serves in its mental health, foster care and Head Start programs. She referred to a startling statistic:  By the time an impoverished child reaches age 3, he (or she) has heard about 30 million fewer words than a child from a more affluent family.

What?

She was referring to a study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley called The Early Catastrophe, the 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.The study was done in 1995 to learn why children in Head Start showed only small to moderate advances in the areas of literacy and vocabulary, and none in math skills. They found that environment trumped genes, hands down.

Based on their elaborate study of 42 low, middle and high income families, Hart and Risley found that poor kids were getting stuck in an intellectual rut long before they turned three- and four-years old. Data showed that speaking, reading and listening to children early and often was the norm for professional families who averaged 215,000 words per child per week. A working class family averaged 125,000 words per week and a welfare family averaged 62,000 words a week. By third grade, vocabulary growth was on par with levels attained through Kindergarten.   

Tone and complexity of words were also measured. The study found:

·         In the first four years after birth, the average child from a professional family receives 560,000 more instances of encouraging feedback than discouraging feedback;

·         A working- class child receives 100,000 more encouragements than discouragements;

·         A welfare child receives 125,000 more discouragements than encouragements.

I’m writing a children’s book that I hope will be one of many that parents use to help their kids to learn to love reading.  Studies like this have reshaped my mission: I want to help close the 30 million word gap and encourage others, whether parents or not, to do the same.  I also want more people to talk about intelligence: it’s not fixed, it’s learned.

I’ve raised two children and have had my own share of child rearing challenges. Even now, I cringe at some of the ways that I communicated with them—sometimes I was too short and too inattentive—but I always tried to make the next encounter better than the last.

If we’re serious—and I believe that so many of us are—about bridging the education gap in minority and low income communities, and preparing our kids for a better future, let’s make it cool to talk about stuff like this, and find ways to change it as Literacy Empowers All Families (LEAF) points out here: http://alamosa.k12.co.us/evans/assets/files/ssanchez/Word%20Gap.pdf

Information is power…always has been, always will be.

New books coming soon!

Taj Cleans the Garage is a new children’s book by Renee Prewitt and illustrated by Michaela Nienaber. Taj always wants new cars for his train set, so his parents encourage him to start earning the money to buy them. Much to his surprise, Taj’s new chore turns into an exciting adventure where he is the only one who can save the day.

Coming in September:

Malcolm Mows the Lawn, a new children’s book by Renee Prewitt and illustrated by Scott Everett is about a little boy who wants a new car for his train.  His Mom suggests that he mow the lawn to earn enough money to buy it himself. Join Malcolm as his new chore takes him on a great adventure. Who knew that working could be so exciting? Coming July 2013.

Note: Subsequent studies have shown that children in Head Start achieve high scores in many of the soft skills that employers value today, such as teamwork, planning, negotiation and task completion.

Reading is the Back Stage Pass to Your Quality of Life

Many, many years ago when my son was born, I said to myself, “I got this.” I was a well-oiled machine, determined to do many of the same things I had done for his older sister with a single goal in mind: Help him to develop a love of reading and set him on a path that would lead to academic success.  So, I read to him every night, never let his idle hands sit for long without books and crafts, and tuned into Sesame Street every morning.

Both of my children did well in school, but like a lot of parents, I wish I had known more about how to prepare them better for life’s never ending contests, which is part of the reason why I’m writing this blog. Reading is fundamental. It is truly the back stage pass to so many events that determine the quality of our lives. Too many American children, especially African American children, don’t read well, and the predictions for their futures come true too often.

In the months to come, I want to use this space to drill down to the basics. I plan to focus on:

  • New reading methods
  • Teaching boys to read vs teaching girls to read
  • The relationship between reading and sounding out words
  • Learning to read is a team effort.

I don’t know everything, so I hope we can learn and share together!

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