I have always loved children’s literature, so in the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, I (and, undoubtedly, most people, right?) can relate with Meg’s character, Kathleen Kelly, when she says, “When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.”
I caught Melinda Englert, the Grant Writer and Communication Specialist at Make Way for Books in Tucson, AZ at her desk when I called. Melinda was probably in the midst of writing one of a multitude of writing projects when she graciously stopped to chat with me over the phone. Make Way for Books (MWFB) is a non-profit organization whose ultimate goal is to help preschool children enter the school system ready to learn so they may have the best start possible in their future educational pursuits.Characters such as Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, E.B. White’s Charlotte, and Roald Dahl’s Matilda are an imbedded part of my identity. I wouldn’t be the same today if it weren’t for their presence in my childhood. From what I know about Make Way for Books, they ultimately help to provide identity-making opportunities for children.
I consider myself fortunate because I can relate to this quotation from Strickland Gillian:
You may have tangible wealth untold;
caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
Richer than I you can never be.
I had a mother who read to me.
But not all families realize the benefits of sharing books with the children in their lives. Educational consultant to the government, Pie Corbett, says that children who are read to regularly before they start school are most likely to succeed and that is a key predictor in terms of educational success (Williams, 2010). Australian author Mem Fox writes in her inspirational book Reading Magic that “Children who have not been regularly talked to, sung to, or read aloud to from birth find life at school much more burdensome than they otherwise might” (Fox, 2001, p. 15). Tucson-based Make Way for Books is one organization determined to help families incorporate literacy before it’s too late.
“Before it’s too late” sounds like a worrisome exaggeration (or even a myth), but according to Melinda Englert with Make Way for Books, a constraint she faces as a writer is that, “Early literacy is a topic difficult to explain its importance. It’s not so obvious a need, as is hunger.” It’s not a myth; it’s a very real situation that people can no longer afford to ignore. She explains how reading readiness is a very important preparation for school and a person’s entire life, and how reading readiness skills don’t immediately occur to people because the focus is usually on Kindergarten through twelfth grades. She emphasizes that it’s equally, if not more, important for learning to take place before formal schooling begins.
Giving the gift to love reading early on will direct children to an education that is essential for the future—for the individual and for society as a whole. In his book The Essential Drucker, Peter Drucker writes, “Tomorrow’s educated person will have to be prepared for life in a global world,” (291) and advocates of early literacy would agree with him when he writes that the educated person must be involved in creating “mutual understanding, that ‘universe of discourse’ without which there can be no civilization” (294). In order to help children receive the gift of reading, Melinda communicates through writing.
The types of writing especially important to Make Way for Books include grant writing, print newsletters, communication to donors and volunteers so they know of their immense value, and the website, plus an associated website called C2Cbookclub.org (which stands for Cover to Cover), and an app. They are currently working on a new website that’s more interactive expected mid-October of this year. For social media, they are prominent on Facebook and Twitter. They also are on YouTube and Pinterest. Additionally, they are looking into Instagram. They create videos and photos to show what reading aloud looks like since its not necessarily a practiced activity everyone instinctively knows how to do. Melinda says reading isn’t always picture perfect and that’s okay. Reading can take place anywhere: outside, on the floor, in the car, in a shopping cart, anywhere! Make Way for Books’ free phone app provides ideas for reading activities, book titles, and music for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. (Having a four-month old, I’ve downloaded it!)
All of their social media, online, and print efforts build community with the organizations’ many audiences. They work with:
- educators to provide mentoring and professional development workshops
- donors and volunteers to keep in touch and show appreciation
- community members (i.e. via Public Service Announcements to host events at local sites like movie theaters, or through TV and radio spots)
- the public (those receiving services and those who are not yet)
- in person to get them involved and keep them informed (i.e. “Raising a Reader” program at apartment complexes)
- via a website to accommodate the needs of the population who deal with time and transportation barriers
The multiple audiences that Make Way for Books creates written communication for would seem to be the biggest hurdle for them, yet, they embrace the opportunity to reach out to them all wholeheartedly. I asked Melinda how she gets spreads the word about their work. They partner with other organizations like the Pima County Public Library, and make a presence at public events such as the annual Tucson Festival of Books.
In order to prepare Tucson’s children to enter school ready to learn, Make Way for Books focuses on:
- providing resources
- empowering families to prepare young children to hold books and know a book has meaning
- supporting educators so they have tools and confidence
Make Way for Books exists because there are myths this organization is working to overcome. One myth is that kids don’t need to have any reading skills prior to starting school. In an article from ReadingRockets.org titled Ten Myths About Learning To Read, they dispel a myth that children will eventually learn to read if given enough time. “If literacy instruction needs are not met early, then the gap widens…until the gap gets so wide that bridging it requires extensive, intensive, expensive and frustrating remedial instruction.” According to an article in Scholastic.com, “Kindergarten teachers believe that it is their responsibility to teach kids letter sounds and how to write, but they do hope incoming students can recognize most letters by sight. They also hope children can count to 10, identify numbers 1 to 5, and know some shapes and colors.” Teachers will expect the children will be ready to start learning as they have standards to meet. The brain connections to succeed in school start early. An article on the Zero to Three website explains that it’s never too early to start reading with a baby because, “Beginning at about 4 months, babies start to show a focused interest in pictures in a book” which is the first step to interpretation skills. Melinda explains that all parents can help their child with early literacy skills. Make Way for Books works to help people understand the importance of early exposure to literacy and to help them feel confident no matter their situation—financially or educationally. Secondly, people tend to believe that in our education system, you must learn to read in English, but it’s untrue that it’s the only way. Families should absolutely read and share books in their home language regularly.
As for using narrative, Melinda says it depends on the audience and the situation. However, the volunteer readers at Make Way for Books are expert storytellers and use narrative regularly to help convey the words in a picture book in the most enticing and entertaining way. Who doesn’t love to be read to? My husband I read The Hunger Games series aloud together and it definitely was a shared activity we could bond over and then discuss further after seeing the films. It’s a common bond we share now. Craig Smith writes in his book Rhetoric and Human Consciousness,”Since prehistoric times myths and narratives have been used for entertainment, but they also built tribes, cultures, and nations” (p. 20). I could hear the passion Melinda has for sharing the importance of early literacy when I asked her why written communication is important. That’s a loaded question because in regards to literacy it references the shared written word as well as writing to spread the knowledge about reading with children. She paused before saying, “Sharing stories is the way people have always communicated.” That’s the deep-down truth. Building community and sharing the experience together. Melinda explained that it’s not about the numbers, which when looking for support, Make Way for Books shares, but really, she finds that people care about the families being helped. Drucker wrote, “Communication…may not be dependent on information. Indeed, the most perfect communications my be purely ‘shared experiences’ without any logic” (p. 265). Make Way for Books shares success stories and why the support they receive is so important to them. And Drucker supports this as well with, “At its most powerful, communication brings about ‘conversion,’ that is, a change of personality, of values, beliefs, aspirations” (p. 264).
Melinda says that she works to share all three modes of persuasion—logos (reason), ethos (character of organization), and pathos ( a move to action). She says early literacy is important for all audiences. To the business owner, they explain the importance of education and the Heckman Equation which encourages to invest in the children for our future. To the workforce, educated people lead to a better economy. And to the educator, they want students coming to school ready to learn and build on prior knowledge.
Make Way for Books continues to selflessly pave a path for reading readiness in the Southern Arizona community. A couple national organizations that advocate literacy efforts include Volunteers of America, Literacy Information and Communication System (LINCS), Read.gov, Reading.org, and Literacy in Learning Exchange. I have a greater appreciation for all of the written correspondence involved in managing such an organization.
Arizona Department of Education. (2014). K–12 academic standards. Arizona Department of Education. Retrieved from: http://www.azed.gov/standards-practices/
Drucker, P. F. (2001). The essential Drucker: The best of sixty years of Peter Drucker’s essential writings on management. New York: Harper Collins.
Fox, M. (2001). Reading magic: why reading aloud to our children will change their lives forever. New York: Harcourt.
Scholastic. (2014). Ready for kindergarten: Five teachers tell you what preschoolers really need for next year. Scholastic. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/parents/resources/article/what-to-expect-grade/ready-kindergarten
Smith, C. (2013). Rhetoric and human consciousness: A history 4th ed. Waveland Press, Inc.
Williams, R. (2010, April). Many parents failing to read to children, survey shows. The Guardian.
Wren, S. (n.d.). Ten Myths About Learning to Read. Reading Rockets. Retrieved from http://www.readingrockets.org/article/ten-myths-about-learning-read
Zero to Three (n.d.). What do babies think when they look at pictures in a book? Retrieved from http://www.zerotothree.org/child-development/school-readiness/qa/what-do-babies-think-when-they-look-at-a-book.html