This article is part of an occasional feature that focuses on literacy organizations and the work they do to promote reading within their communities.
“Who among us readers can imagine surviving incarceration without a library?” It’s a question that Jessica Fenster-Sparber, an educator and librarian in New York City, often considers. Yet, as recent proposed restrictions on prison provisions have shown, reading is not always a right to be taken for granted. The New York-based nonprofit Literacy for Incarcerated Teens (LIT) is solely devoted to supplying reading material and promoting literacy for incarcerated youth in New York state. LIT provides books to organizations like Passages Academy (where Fenster-Sparber works as a librarian), a New York City Department of Education school network that serves youth ages 16 and younger in secure and non-secure detention. Passages has eight locations, including Crossroads in Brooklyn and Horizon in the Bronx.
LIT was founded in 2002 by Passages Academy educator Rebecca Howlett, who recognized the need for physical libraries in facilities that serve teens in detention. The organization originally operated in conjunction with the Prisoners’ Reading Encouragement Project from 2003 until 2009, when LIT became its own nonprofit organization. LIT has gone on to facilitate the donation of thousands of new books to incarcerated teen readers across the state of New York, largely through the work of volunteers.
Karlan Sick, chair of the LIT board of directors, joined the LIT team in 2006. As a former librarian in the Bronx, Sick believes that reading is a critical aspect of developing empathy in young readers; she also laments the “woeful budgets” available for building libraries in detention centers. While facilities that serve detained teenagers are required by law to have schools, that’s not the case with libraries. As a result, the task of building and fostering libraries falls to committed individuals who recognize their importance.
Crossroads librarian Elaine Roberts finds the impact of LIT to be immeasurable. Most significantly, Roberts appreciates how the variety of books she receives for the library enables Crossroads students to take ownership over what they read. “LIT has been tremendously helpful in providing materials that motivate students from varied cultures, social status, and educational ability to take books from the library and read,” she said.
Fenster-Sparber, the organization’s former executive director, observes first-hand the types of books that Passages students gravitate toward. From realistic YA fiction to memoirs and manga, students at Passages read what any other students would, with Walter Dean Myers and Coe Booth being two favorites. Fenster-Sparber and the library teams at Passages share library and book news on their blog What’s Good in the Library. The blog gives them the opportunity to highlight titles received through LIT that have resonated with their students. Recent books featured on the blog include Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World by Pénélope Bagieu and David Barclay Moore’s The Stars Beneath Our Feet.
LIT’s reach goes beyond building libraries. The organization’s Authors and Artists series was in part inspired by Walter Dean Myers, who was among the first to visit students in the Passages network: “[The students] just loved him,” Sick said. “And so we had the idea to get other authors.”
Now, LIT regularly sponsors library programs featuring guest authors at Passages Academy locations. Recent visiting authors have included Matt de la Peña, Gayle Forman, and Fred Aceves.
Meeting authors and illustrators has an immediate and powerful impact on the teens. “Student responses to author visits have been astounding and long-lasting,” Fenster-Sparber said. “Author visits motivate students who might have never read a book before to read their first book. I cannot count how many times students have stated that to all of us on the library team.” The confidence that students feel after reading their first book leads them to pick up others, discovering new genres, authors, and learning more about themselves. “The visits also seem to support the reclaiming of a sense of dignity for some students experiencing detention and incarceration,” she said.
YA author Paul Griffin has had frequent involvement with LIT programming. Before his work with LIT, Griffin had served kids in detention in the areas of conflict resolution and sexual health. “But Karlan [Sick] wanted me to go in and talk about books. This was a side of juvenile detention I hadn’t seen before—the libraries, the librarians,” Griffin said.
For Griffin, while he often talks about his books, the visits are about a great deal more than reading and writing. “The question I get a lot is, ‘How much money do you make?’ I love this question because it’s so practical. I tell the kids I’m rich, that after many years of writing and making not a dime, I now make a living dreaming up stories. Being able to pay your rent and honor your commitments by doing what you love? You’re rich,” Griffin said.
This conversation often leads into one about what the kids are interested in pursuing. “We start with what interests them,” and the discussion evolves into imagining possible futures. For Griffin, “Literacy is reading and writing, but it’s also being able to tell a good tight story about yourself, with a beginning, middle, and an end. The end is where you want to be down the line, and the middle is the step-by-step of how you get there. The beginning is the most important part: Where does your dream come from? Who inspired it?”
Griffin said he loves returning to schools in the Passages Academy, where he is able to reconnect with kids he has met during previous visits—but he also hopes that they move on to bigger and bolder experiences in the world. “I’m going to call this remarkable young woman ‘Marta’ [who is a poet]. She’s in the same secure facility for the past two and some years, an exceptionally long time for a person her age, about to turn 16. Every time I visit, when we say goodbye, she says, ‘Next time, I hope you don’t see me.’ And I say, ‘Next time I see you, you’ll be on the bookshelf.’ ”