This article is part of an occasional feature that focuses on literacy organizations and the work they do to promote reading within their communities.
Dara La Porte and Heidi Powell, founders of An Open Book Foundation, have long believed that a great way to inspire lifelong reading is for kids to have personal interactions with authors and illustrators. Based in Washington, D.C., the organization brings authors and illustrators to schools from Head Start programs through high school; not only do kids get to meet a children’s book creator, they also receive their own signed copies of books to begin building home libraries.
La Porte, who taught seventh and eighth grade before focusing on children’s literature, met Powell while they both worked as managers in the children’s and YA department at Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. The two bonded over their mutual love of children’s books and the experience of seeing how kids reacted to meeting authors at the store. Yet they both observed that events at Politics and Prose were largely “attended by children from well-resourced schools,” said La Porte. While Powell and La Porte didn’t typically meet children from schools that had fewer resources, what they did see were a lot of teachers purchasing books for their students who otherwise wouldn’t have them.
La Porte also recalls meeting author Linda Sue Park one day while she was perusing the store’s children’s section. She told La Porte that she was buying books to bring with her on her visits to Title One schools so she could give them to the classrooms that were lacking in reading material. During their years together at the bookstore, Powell and La Porte began to see a niche that they believed needed filling: “We spent a long time talking,” said La Porte. Together, they came up with a literacy program model that would serve those kids that they didn’t typically see coming to Politics and Prose events. The two formally launched their nonprofit literary organization in 2010, and they have been pairing under-served classrooms with authors and illustrators ever since.
For the 2016 –2017 year, the organization held 135 school events with 275 individual presentations, supplying 10,500 picture books, middle grade, and YA novels to students, classrooms, and libraries. The organization relies upon a small staff of three full-time and three part-time employees, and is based in D.C. La Porte stores the books to be distributed to classrooms “in my den, dining room, and my children’s old bedrooms.” The books supplied by AOB come directly from publishers as well as through First Book. Schools apply online for author visits and AOB works with teachers and librarians at the schools to find an author and/or illustrator whose work suits the curriculum and community concerns of the individual student body. They carefully consider the languages spoken by the students and their families, particularly so that parents will also be able to enjoy the books with their kids when the students take their copies home.
As with any venture, Powell and La Porte have learned through putting their ideas into practice. When they first launched the organization, Powell said, they had the goal of “reaching as many children as possible,” and envisioned having authors and illustrators speak to large crowds of kids. However, “we learned that’s not the best for authors and children,” Powell said. They realized that events had the most impact when authors could connect individually with students, so rather than have an author or illustrator speak at a school-wide assembly, they will instead do several small visits in different classrooms. Authors and illustrators have the freedom to design their own AOB presentations and, as a result, no two events are ever the same.
The D.C. metro area is home to what La Porte calls “a great cavalry of local authors,” but the organization also reaches out to individuals nationwide and even internationally. Authors and illustrators who have taken part in AOB programming include Kwame Alexander, Carole Boston Weatherford, Paul O. Zelinsky, Don Tate, Grace Lin, Sophie Blackall, Daniel José Older, Tonya Bolden, and Andrea Beaty. A recent grant from the D.C. government has enabled the organization to pay for author and illustrator travel expenses as well as a night at a hotel.
Inspiring Young Writers and Artists
Again and again, Powell and La Porte have witnessed authors and illustrators igniting kids’ creativity. Powell noted the “unspoken mentoring process” that takes place in the classrooms, which she described as being all the more powerful when an author or illustrator is a person of color. “For many of the children, it never occurred to them that someone wrote and illustrated this book, and that writing and illustrating are viable options,” Powell said. During the events, the authors and artists take the time to look at the students’ own artwork and writing, validating their efforts and urging them to pursue these creative outlets throughout their lives. Middle grade and YA authors will often reconnect with kids via Skype following their initial school visits to answer questions students may have after finishing their books.
“I’m still in tears all the time watching what authors and illustrators give; the chemistry and magic they bring still moves me,” said La Porte. Beyond showing kids that they can be writers and artists, kids pick up other important messages from their classroom guests. Frequently, they discuss the revision process, so students understand that they don’t write or illustrate a story perfectly the first time. They also discuss rejection, with some individuals even bringing in their rejection letters to share. “There’s a message about perseverance,” said Powell.
Since the students served by An Open Book aren’t accustomed to having authors and illustrators meet with them, La Porte and Powell believe that the students bring genuine enthusiasm and curiosity to the events. And they see this “freshness” of perspective reflected in students’ thoughtful questions for the authors and illustrators. For example, one fourth grader asked Adam Gidwitz to name his muse. Powell recalls being “so floored by the question—as was Adam—that I don’t remember his response!”
She and La Porte have heard from school librarians that, following Open Book’s events, students come into the library asking for books by a visiting author or illustrator’s name, showing that they have made a connection between the content and the individual who created it. For students who often don’t have many—or any—books at home, being given one means a great deal; kids often hug and kiss their books after learning that they can take their copies with them.
Both Powell and La Porte find that the most gratifying aspect of their work is getting to see kids line up to have their books signed and have a special moment of interaction with a guest artist or author. An Open Book Foundation not only allows La Porte and Powell to benefit underserved children across the D.C. area, but to interact with the broader community of children’s authors and illustrators, whom La Porte calls “individuals of incredible generosity and openness of spirit.”
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