Kids Need to Read is an essential program designed to help foster the importance of reading with youths. Its Executive Director Denise Gary stopped by CBIto talk about the program, how it was started, and how comic books are a valuable tool for the success in reading…
JMH: What is Kids Need to Read?
DENISE: Kids Need to Read provides books and literacy programs where they are lacking. We are one of the only national literacy organizations to regularly provide books to children of all ages, so we serve many children who have been left behind. In addition to schools and public libraries, we often assist dropout recovery programs, juvenile offender facilities, special education classes, and urban afterschool organizations. We have recently partnered withArizonaStateUniversityto provide a highly targeted literacy curriculum and accompanying reading resources to middle schools, aimed at raising literacy rates and lowering dropout rates among students who have been labeled as failing. Middle school is such a critical time during which many children lose interest in reading and academic achievement, and we don’t see enough being done to engage and inspire these children. This program will introduce students to the world of literacy in a way they have previously never experienced.
JMH: Can you give the readers a history of how it was formed?
DENISE: We began in a most unusual way. I lead an online Nathan Fillion guerilla marketing group back when he was little-known and contacted author PJ Haarsma regarding one of our projects that involved his book. He is a close friend of actor Nathan Fillion and everything just snowballed from there. PJ had experienced the low funding levels of school libraries during visits to promote his book and he wanted to do something to help. He told Nathan about our energetic group and asked if he would help start a program to provide books to schools and libraries. Once Nathan was on board, he approached me for assistance from our group. This was before the economy crashed – funding for libraries has been terrible for quite awhile. As the project grew, I became its full-time director and established it as a nonprofit foundation. I knew we had to find a way to move our operations to a physical location or we would never grow beyond eBay auctions. There were repeated signs of strong support in thePhoenixmetropolitan area, so I moved fromTexastoArizonain an RV (dragging my husband with me) to give the organization a chance to grow. It was one of those wing and a prayer moments, just working on instinct and not much else. It proved to be a fortuitous move and we have been growing steadily ever since.
JMH: Do you have any working relationships with Arizona school districts?
DENISE: We don’t currently have working relationships with any school districts, but we are working very closely withASUPreparatoryAcademyon our middle school pilot program, which we call Reading Revolution. Once we are able to show a high rate of impact on their literacy scores, we will expand this program to other schools and school districts that are seeking innovative programming for their students. It is imperative to change the attitudes of adolescents toward reading, which will entail a different presentation style (exciting) than is currently being used (boring) if we are to compete with the many distractions available to kids these days.
JMH: What is your title for the organization and what are your duties?
DENISE: My title is Executive Director, which makes me responsible not only for the day to day operations of the foundation but the vision of its future, as well. I am its moral compass—a responsibility I take very seriously—and its voice. I feel as though it is my duty to represent our passion and commitment at all times. But most importantly, I believe it is my priority to ensure that everyone in our organization remains focused on the kids, and what we can do to ensure they have a literate and successful future.
JMH: Has the program had any measurable success?
DENISE: Currently, we measure our success from letters and surveys we receive from the educators involved in the programs we serve. All feedback has been very positive, but I am never satisfied with the status quo. I am always looking for ways to expand our program to make sure our impact grows as our organization grows. Reading Revolution is the first program we have established that will include research on the literacy rates and dropout rates of the students we are working with. It is extremely exciting to reach this level of engagement!
JMH: How do comic books and Kids Need to Read fit together?
DENISE: Kids Need to Read has always embraced comic books and graphic novels as exceptional tools to reach reluctant readers and children who are highly visual in nature. We include hardcover graphic novels in our book donations and have received a great deal of appreciation for them. More and more teachers recognize their power as literacy tools. We have a category of literary classics in graphic novel form for those kids who would never touch a traditional classic novel. Every year, we participate in a Free Comic Book Day event as a way to call attention to this enduring literary and artistic medium, and we are honored to be heavily involved with Phoenix Comicon, who has long been a major supporter of our work. The local comic book industry and superhero costuming groups have really embraced our cause and they are super-committed to improving the lives of children through literacy. We always hand out backpacks filled with Highlights magazines and other literacy goodies at our events, but I am hoping to get a sponsor who will provide comic books in our backpacks, as well. I sincerely believe in using every tool available to inspire children and adolescents to read, and comic books are fantastically inspiring!
JMH: What types of genres, formats, characters, or themes do you prefer kids read when assessing comic books for the literacy program?
DENISE: We always look for material that is positive and uplifting, whether it be for children or adolescents. The subject matter can be dark, provided it takes kids on a journey away from a negative situation. For obvious reasons, we don’t give kids any type of book filled with swearing, blood and gore, or explicit sexual descriptions, although we do provide some mildly mature content to organizations who accept such subject matter for adolescents. Kids find a kinship with books based upon their unique life stories, so we like to mix up genres, characters, and themes to ensure that every child will find something that grabs their attention. One of the most difficult challenges with comic books is to find stories centered around strong, non-stereotypical female protagonists. We would love to receive some good suggestions from folks in the know.
JMH: Where can fans read more about your program?
DENISE: We have an active website with a lot of information at www.kidsneedtoread.org
And for those who enjoy social media interaction. Inquiries are welcome at:
JMH: Anything else that you’d like to mention that we haven’t covered yet?
DENISE: I would just like to encourage parents to create a culture of reading for their children at home. Literacy is the most critical tool by which children will find success in life. Make reading a part of your household! Be a reading role model when your kids are young and keep it up as they grow. Let them have an active part in selecting their reading material. Let kids stay up 30 minutes later at night if they read. Read some of the books your teenagers are reading so you can have interesting discussions about books at dinnertime or in the car. For sure, include comic books and graphic novels as part of the family reading experience! And if you have never attended a comic convention, grab your kids and go have some fun!
JMH: Denise, CBI appreciates your time. All the best.
DENISE: Thank you so much for having me! It has been a pleasure.
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