By Jeanna B. White
“Hello, how are you? May I PLEASE have a cat? — A tiger’s your reward for asking like THAT,” read Author, Kyle Webster, to the gasps and giggles of 90 delighted first graders at Moore Magnet Elementary School in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Webster was reading his book, “Please Say Please!” to the students as part of the Authors in Schools program presented by Bookmarks, a Winston-Salem-based literary arts non-profit that fosters a love of reading and writing in the community.
At the end of Webster’s presentation, each student took home an autographed hardcover copy of the colorful picture book, and the school’s library received $1000 worth of award-winning and diverse fiction and non-fiction picture books that also included bilingual titles.
According to Literacy Company statistics, more than 20% of adults read at or below a fifth-grade level, far below the level needed to earn a living in today’s society. Forty-eight percent of young children in the U.S. are not read to daily. More than 13 million children under the age of 5 go to bed without a bedtime story. Bookmarks hopes to improve these statistics by bringing more authors into schools and by inspiring students to read and write.
Bookmarks provides these visits by local, regional, and nationally-known authors, illustrators, and storytellers at no cost to the schools. The program has reached 40,000 students since 2010 and has grown from 1,000 students per year to 9100 in 2017. This outreach is funded through donations and grants from individuals and other organizations with a passion for literacy.
Webster’s visit to Moore and four other Title 1 elementary schools was funded by a $25,000 grant from the Mebane Charitable Foundation, based in Mocksville, NC. The grant provided books for the 500 students who participated in the reading as well as more than 60 books each for the library collections. These students will also receive a visit from Stacy McAnulty and a copy of her book, “Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years,” later this year.
“I know what a difference it makes to have an author come into a classroom and to feel a book, touch a book and be able to ask questions of the author,” said Ginger Hendricks, Bookmarks executive director. “I still remember visits authors made to my classes in school.”
It’s great to be able to say that we served 9,000 students last year, but what the Mebane Foundation is allowing us to do is two visits with the same children this spring while also placing new books in the school libraries,” Hendricks said. “It excites us to be able to build on these students’ experiences. In addition, the grant allows us to give the children a hardcover book by the visiting author. Each book has a plate for the student to write his or her name. For many, this will be the first book they will own.”
“One of the experiences I remember most vividly from my early years in elementary school was the opportunity to buy books at our school book fairs, and then the anticipation of waiting for them to arrive,” said Larry Colbourne, president of the Mebane Foundation. “If the Mebane Foundation can create that same love and anticipation for books and reading that I had as a child, we’ll have met our mission. Bookmarks has been a fantastic partner!”
When visiting authors interact with students, they answer questions about writing, the process of creating a book, their writing life, how to get ideas and write them on paper, and the importance of reading in their lives. These experts in the field of writing serve as role models and offer children goals for them to aspire to.
An accomplished illustrator who has drawn for The New Yorker, The New York Times, NPR, TIME, and hundreds of other distinguished editorial, advertising, publishing and institutional clients, Webster explained the illustrating process by showing the students how to draw the little girl in his book, or any other drawing, using circles, triangles, and rectangles.
He encouraged the students to try writing and drawing on their own, saying, ”No one is born with talent. Talent means that a person spent a lot of time doing what they loved and got really good at it. If you keep doing something, you will get good at it, and people will say you have talent.”
Webster was all smiles after answering questions from students and passing out the books. “I have so much fun doing this,” he said. “I just want to leave a positive impression. Even if just a few walk away and think ‘I can do that’ then it was well worth it.”
“Writing this book has definitely been the most enjoyable project I’ve worked on, and it has been the most satisfying because I continue to get to visit schools, read, and connect with these kids,” he continued. “None of the other work I’ve done has had that type of reward. Getting to put my book in each student’s hands and make that connection is a really great feeling.”
“Students need a purpose to read,” said Adam Dovico, Moore’s principal. “If that purpose is ‘Hey, I know the guy who wrote this,’ I’ll take that as a victory. Reluctant readers need that hook or buy in. Meeting the author presents a very good reason to want to read. As the kids were walking up the hall a few minutes ago, half of them had their books open looking at them.
Rachel Kuhn Stinehelfer, education and program specialist for Bookmarks, was thrilled to hear that and said, “One of my favorite parts of my job is getting to see children excited about books. Teachers and media coordinators share the success of these author visits with us — stating that the children check out more books from the library written by visiting authors and are more excited about reading after an author visit. We have also seen our participation triple from 2009 to 2017 in our Young Readers Central area at our Festival which further shows us that we are reaching and inspiring students to read and write.”
“By getting our youngest citizens involved in the literary community at an early age,” Hendricks said, “they will hopefully stay involved and continue reading throughout their lives.”
Bookmarks began as a book festival in 2004 as a project of the Winston-Salem Junior League. Over the years, the organization has evolved into the largest annual book festival in the Carolinas and has added programs including Authors in Schools and a summer reading program. In its 13 years in existence, Bookmarks has brought more than 750 authors, illustrators, and storytellers to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Last July, Bookmarks opened a nonprofit independent bookstore and gathering space at 634 W. Fourth St. For more information, visit www.bookmarksnc.org.