Turning the Page: The Children's Literacy Foundation Inspires Kids to Read, One Book at a Time | Kids VT | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Turning the Page: The Children's Literacy Foundation Inspires Kids to Read, One Book at a Time


Published August 22, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.

Children selecting two free books to keep - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Children selecting two free books to keep

Usually people go to the library to borrow books. But on Thursday, August 10, a group of about 20 kids at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington got to pick out two titles to take home for keeps.

The young readers, including a number of kids from nearby King Street Center, had come to hear a reading of the book Soccer Star by Mina Javaherbin. It's the story of a Brazilian boy who dreams of being a famous soccer player.

The reader: Duncan McDougall, founder of the Children's Literacy Foundation. The Waterbury-based nonprofit, also known as CLiF, aims to inspire kids under 12 to love reading and writing. It partners with schools and libraries in Vermont and New Hampshire to put on events like this one, which celebrated the end of the library's summer reading program.

"We love how exciting and engaging all of CLiF's presenters are," said Megan Estey Butterfield, youth library manager.

At the end of the presentation, each young audience member got to pick out two books to take home from a selection provided by CLiF. Giving away books has been a core part of the nonprofit's existence since McDougall started it in 1998; since then, CLiF has given away books worth more than $10 million.

"When you own your own book and it belongs to you, that's really special," Butterfield said. "We love that we can be part of that experience, too."

Though McDougall was the reader that day, he no longer heads the organization. On March 1, longtime board member Laura Rice took over as executive director. She was at the library that day, too, along with communications manager Sarah Hall.

Earlier in August, I talked with Rice and Hall about how CLiF is helping schools and parents raise readers and how it's responding to challenges such as the flooding this summer.

On taking over as the director:

Rice said that when she took the helm at CLiF, her kids told her that she found her "true home." Her three children — now adults — have fond memories of regular library visits and book-reading snuggles with their mom. Always an avid reader herself, Rice also loved writing and kept detailed diaries throughout her childhood.

While working in leadership roles for other nonprofit organizations, Rice served on CLiF's board from 2014 to 2021. She was taken with CLiF's mission not only to give children more access to books but also to show them the joy of reading, which has been so important to her.

"I feel fortunate to have grown up with books as very much part of my life," she said. "It was serendipitous to be able to bring my professional background to an organization that I so deeply care about."

On responding to challenging times:

Children checking out free book options at a CLiF event at Fletcher Free Library - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Children checking out free book options at a CLiF event at Fletcher Free Library

The July flood didn't damage CLiF's new headquarters, on Route 100 in Waterbury, but the surrounding community was hit hard. So were many libraries — 17 of them across the state suffered flood damage. The Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier lost around 10,000 books as a result of eight feet of standing water in the library's basement.

After taking her 9-year-old daughter out to view the destruction caused by flooding in Vermont, CLiF program manager Cassie Willner wrote a blog post about how difficult it can be for young kids to talk about their feelings after these kinds of disasters. She compiled a list of books with a message of resiliency, such as Wildfire! by Vermont author Ashley Wolff (see sidebar).

Children don't always have the vocabulary to express what they're thinking and feeling, and books can be a great tool for them to recognize their own emotions, Hall said. CLiF has been trying to provide more books with these themes to kids.

On Year of the Book:

During the school year, CLiF selects a group of elementary and middle schools in Vermont and New Hampshire for its flagship grant program, called Year of the Book. Schools apply for the program; 15 were chosen for the 2023-24 group, including schools in White River Junction, Pownal, Glover, Hardwick and Randolph.

Year of the Book is a customizable resource that includes $25,000 worth of literacy programming. CLiF provides 10 new books to every child in the school, and it offers a variety of literacy-related programs. Which ones educators use is up to them, Hall said.

"We have a roster of these amazing, creative people that give presentations to the children that spark interest, awareness. There are so many reasons why kids have negative feelings around literacy, and we try to build positive feelings instead with high-quality resources and presentations," Hall said.

Last year, Hall helped an elementary school organize a reading challenge as one of the ways to use the funding. If the students reached a cumulative number of books read, they got to take a trip on the Cog Railway up Mount Washington. The students successfully completed the challenge and took the trip in June, amazed to see snow on the top of the mountain. One of CLiF's presenters, Erik Pinder, who is the author of the children's book Cat in the Clouds, works at the Mount Washington Observatory and joined in on the excursion.

Said Hall: "These kids had an experience that was created as a result of their reading. That was a powerful connection."

On connecting libraries and schools:

Children selecting two free books to keep - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Children selecting two free books to keep

Throughout the year, CLiF also works with libraries through the Rural Library Grant, which provides $2,000 in books for the community's public library, $500 for the local public school library, as well as storytelling presentations, author visits and book giveaways for kids.

"I've heard from a lot of these libraries that this programming has really helped kids reengage with them post-pandemic," Rice said.

Butterfield of Fletcher Free Library recalled that last year's collaboration between CLiF, the Fletcher Free Library and Edmunds Elementary School was particularly effective.

Jason Chin, a Caldecott Medal-winning children's book author, was the presenter, and he shared a story about an author talk he attended as a child. It was with children's book author Trina Schart Hyman, who inspired him to work on his art.

"It just made me think that we could have the next Caldecott winner here in this group of kids, and they could be seeing that their own dream is possible, too," Butterfield said.

On encouraging reading at home:

One of the best ways to get a child interested in reading is by allowing them to choose their own books, Rice said.

"When they choose what they wish to read, show interest and support their choices," she added.

Hall said that when her daughter was an early reader, she gravitated toward comic books and graphic novels. Parents can see that as a "cop-out," but Hall emphasized how wrong that is. "Reading is reading, and we should encourage kids to read whatever brings them joy."

Another great way to encourage reading, Rice said, is to sit and read with a child. Even if a caregiver doesn't have high literacy skills, sitting with the child and starting conversations about the content in the book can make a big difference in encouraging them to read more.

She also recommended making outings to a library or bookstore part of a child's life. If they associate positive memories with books, they're more likely to pick them up into adulthood.

How you can help CLiF's literacy efforts:

CLiF is founded entirely by private donations and grants — the organization does not receive any federal funding. Beyond donating money to CLiF, Rice said that when people host book drives, it makes a big difference.

"Brand-new, high-quality books are always appreciated," she said.

Find a guide to hosting book drives for CLiF at clifonline.org/host-a-book-drive.

Stories of Resilience

After seeing the devastating flood damage in Vermont, CLiF program manager Cassie Willner compiled a list of books that exemplify strength and adaptability in kids confronted with natural disasters. Here are four of them:

I Am the Storm by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple; illustrated by Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell (2020)

Ages: 3 to 7 years
I Am the Storm - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • I Am the Storm

This picture book offers examples of four distinct weather emergencies (tornado, blizzard, forest fire and hurricane) with reassuring family stories of finding comfort in preparedness and resilience. This book was also a Vermont Red Clover nominee for 2021-22.

Wildfire! by Ashley Wolff (2021)

Ages: 3 to 8 years
Wildfire! - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Wildfire!

With artwork by Vermont-based author-illustrator and CLiF presenter Ashley Wolff, this fact-based picture book takes readers into the heart of a forest fire and shows how animals survive, how firefighters curb the flames, and how life can and will return to the forest. It's useful for students to learn about the natural world's ability to recover after a disaster.

A Place Where Hurricanes Happen by Renée Watson; illustrated by Shadra Strickland (2014)

Ages: 5 to 9 years
A Place Where Hurricanes Happen - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • A Place Where Hurricanes Happen

Children of New Orleans tell about their experiences of Hurricane Katrina through poignant and straightforward free verse in this fictional account of the storm. As natural and man-made disasters become commonplace, we increasingly need books like this one to help children contextualize and discuss difficult and often tragic events.

The Puttermans Are in the House by Jacquetta Nammar Feldman (2023)

Ages: 8 to 12 years
The Puttermans Are in the House - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • The Puttermans Are in the House

This fiction chapter book follows 12-year-old twins and their family's hardships after Hurricane Harvey. It's a coming-of-age story with themes of acceptance, family relationships, hope and baseball.

Find Willner's full list at clifonline.org/after-the-flood-helping-kids-find-resilience-through-literature.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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