Shelf Help: Why Wondermore Believes School Author Visits Can be Game-changers

Earlier this week, the Boston Book Festival announced that the Rafael Hernández K-8 Dual Language School in Roxbury and the English High School in Jamaica Plain are the recipients of our highly competitive Shelf Help grant for 2020. The grant helps two school libraries fill their shelves with brand-new books of their choosing—many of which are crowd-donated by BBF festival-goers. In addition, the winning schools are each treated to a memorable visit by a well-known author or illustrator in conjunction with their festival appearance.  

The magic of these school visits happens because of our partnership with Wondermore, a local nonprofit dedicated to children’s literacy. Wondermore specializes in curating author school visits, and we’re excited to see what they have in store for this year’s virtual sessions.

The Hernández School will enjoy a visit by celebrated kids’ author and illustrator Juana Medina in October during the Boston Book Festival Online, which will run from October 5–25. Medina is the author and illustrator of the Pura Belpré Award–winning chapter book Juana & Lucas, as well as for Juana & Lucas: Big Problemas, 1 Big Salad, ABC Pasta, and Sweet Shapes.

The school visits are an integral part of the Shelf Help Program and a way to bring our festival fun to children that may not otherwise have the opportunity. 

Students at the English High School will enjoy a session with Jerry Craft, a New York Times–bestselling author-illustrator who has worked on numerous picture books, graphic novels, and middle grade novels, including the Newbery Award–winning graphic novel, New Kid. It was just recently announced that Universal Pictures is teaming up with LeBron James on a film adaptation of New Kid. Jerry is also the creator of Mama’s Boyz, an award–winning syndicated comic strip. He has won five African American Literary Awards and is a cofounder of the Schomburg Center’s Annual Black Comic Book Festival. 

The school visits are an integral part of the Shelf Help Program and a way to bring our festival fun to children that may not otherwise have the opportunity. We were delighted to be able to speak with Wondermore’s executive director, Rebecca Coll, about the organization’s mission and impact, some memorable school moments, and its partnership with BBF.

Could you talk about Wondermore’s mission and how you approach your programming?

Wondermore is a children’s literacy organization. We have been around since 1983, and for the past 15 years we have focused our literacy work on bringing authors and illustrators into Boston-area schools for curriculum-aligned author and illustrator visits.

Wondermore envisions a world in which all children have the opportunity to see themselves in the books they read and are inspired to become lifelong learners. It is well documented that children who love to read become adults who have more opportunities available to them. Our mission is to inspire a love of reading and a love of good books by introducing students to authors and illustrators who reflect our diverse and vibrant communities.

Wondermore envisions a world in which all children have the opportunity to see themselves in the books they read.

Our work has never been more important than it is now. The collective desire for positive social change and the resulting anti-racism protests are on the news every night, dominating social media, and a constant theme of discussion in our communities. Given this recent heightened interest in social justice and the natural alignment with our work, Wondermore will prioritize and emphasize working with Title 1 schools this year. Literacy and sparking a love of reading remain our primary mission, but we now have a unique and timely opportunity to inspire children in the midst of this social turbulence with role models they can relate to and with books in which they can see themselves. We strive to be a part of an anti-racist solution to the social inequities we are currently experiencing in our society.

Students interact in small groups with author Andrea Davis Pinkney.

Wondermore programming comprises a three-part approach: 1) enrich curriculum by selecting books and authors that support academic objectives; 2) motivate and inspire students by creating an environment where students can directly interact with authors and illustrators; and 3) add to school and home libraries by donating copies of the authors’ books to the school and to each participating student to take home and keep.

Note that given the realities of COVID-19 and its impact on schools, we have a plan in place to run our program 100% remotely this school year.

Why is it important for children to connect with authors and illustrators? What impact do you hope that has?

Something magical happens when a student meets an author. Sure, there is the “wow” factor we all feel when we meet someone famous, but an author visit in a school is not about that. Author visits make academic and cultural connections (“mirrors” or “windows”) that enable students to see themselves in the wider world. Students recognize that anyone can be an author or an illustrator if they wish to and if they work at it. Students engage with the curriculum in a deeper, more meaningful way, directly connecting their experience with the experience and work of an author.

Juana Medina on an author visit. She will be head to the Rafael Hernández in Roxbury this year (virtually!).

The impact of this kind of connection is limitless. The most immediate and obvious impact is that when a student meets an author, and particularly an author (or illustrator) to whom he or she can relate, they are motivated to read more of that author’s works. Perhaps students find they want to read more books written in the same genre as the author’s books, or maybe they want to read more books from that particular time period, or books about the same specific subject. Whatever the motivation the student has, the author visit is the catalyst. 

There are other, less obvious impacts, as well. When a child sees herself or himself  in the books they read, they are empowered to imagine themselves in that world, or better yet, they can imagine themselves creating a world that they previously may not have considered. An inspired and motivated student opens doors for herself or himself as they move forward. The empowerment that comes from a confidence in reading can be pivotal in the decisions that a student makes as he or she moves forward in life. 

How do you work with schools both before and after the school visits? 

Wondermore author visits are unique. The fundamental requirement for Wondermore to work with a school is that the school must commit to having every child read at least one book by the author prior to the author’s visit. This ensures the students are familiar with the author’s work, and most of the visit can be focused on what it means to be an author or illustrator. How do authors conduct their research? Where do they find inspiration? How long does it take to write or illustrate a book?

In preparation for an author visit, teachers (or librarians) work with Wondemore to select a book and an author or illustrator that supports their specific grade-level curriculum. Our aim is to add value to the work educators are already doing with their students. If they are studying civil rights, perhaps we select (author) Carol Boston Weatherford’s Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, or maybe (illustrator) E.B. Lewis’ The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial. Perhaps the school has a large Latinx population, then (bilingual author-illustrator) Juana Medina’s Juana & Lucas series would be a perfect fit. Each author visit is planned specifically for that school based on academic connections. 

Our aim is to add value to the work educators are already doing with their students.

Once an author is selected, teachers prepare the students by reading the books together and assigning projects that further enhance the students’ understanding of the work. Taking the civil rights example above, students may prepare a timeline of events that have taken place on the march toward civil rights and perhaps place where the book falls within that timeline (yes, we have had schools do this and it’s amazing!). 

The Wondermore program is a connection that does not stop the moment the author leaves the room. Wondermore follows up with educators to see how we can learn and grow from the experience. Many times we will return to the same school year in and year out, carrying forward what we have learned from working together the year before. For example, students will often write us letters telling us what they liked about the experience, or educators will reach out to let us know how they continued on a theme the author mentioned.

Could you take us inside a school visit? What are some of the magical elements? Do you have a few memorable moments you’d like to share about from a Wondermore session?

Wondermore typically does not conduct “assembly” style visits. We prefer for author visits to take place in a library or classroom where smaller groups of students can have a direct interaction with the author. The ideal size is 40-60 students. An author visit is 45 minutes long and an author or illustrator will conduct up to three of these visits in one day. The first 30 minutes are a presentation by the author followed by Q&A. 

Three examples of “magical” moments:

Last year, at the BBF Shelf Help winning Orchard Gardens Pilot School, the librarian and teachers went above and beyond in preparing their students. Not only had the students read all of author-illustrator Brendan Wenzel’s books, but the art and the music classes got involved, as well. The younger students created brightly colored animal sculptures in the style of Wenzel’s illustrations in his book Hello, Hello. When we walked into the library, these amazing sculptures were on display creating an atmosphere of celebration and creativity. Inspired by the same book, the older students worked with their music teacher to compose a stunning original strings composition, recreating the sounds of the animals with music. The day ended with the older students performing their original score to the delight and joy of not only the other students, teachers, and visitors in the room, but to Brendan Wenzel himself, who was blown away. Read more about this school visit here.

What followed was a robust conversion about research, primary sources, technology, and integrity in data. A remarkable topic to have the rapt attention of so many young students!

During a visit to the Dudley Street School, Raúl the Third, illustrator of bilingual graphic novels and picture books, was asked by a second-grader “what kind of materials do you need to be an illustrator?” Raúl explained that he only needs four things: a red pen, a blue pen, a black pen, and a piece of paper. He told the students that he didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but he always carried his three pens with him (pens he often found lying on the ground) and drew and sketched whenever he could. He shared that these are still the materials he uses for many of his illustrations. The kids in the room were all smiling at each other after that answer, because they realized that every one of them had the tools and the potential to become an illustrator.

Raúl the Third, illustrator of bi-lingual graphic novels and picture books, reads with students from the Dudley Street School in Roxbury.

A final “magical moment” example was during a visit by author-illustrator Oge Mora to the Nathan Hale School. While discussing with first graders what goes into researching a book, Oge explained how, in order to illustrate the book The Oldest Student, she would have to fly down to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to learn more about the main character, a former slave who learned to read at the age of 116. Since there was almost nothing about her available online, Oge worked together with a librarian at a Chattanooga library to find old newspapers and articles that were stored only on microfilm. “Microfilm? What’s that?!?” the kids shouted. What followed was a robust conversion about research, primary sources, technology, and integrity in data. A remarkable topic to have the rapt attention of so many young students!

What do you like most about collaborating with BBF’s Shelf Help program?

The BBF Shelf Help program is an ideal complement to the work we do in schools. Both our organizations work towards increasing exposure and access to books for children, and both are Boston-based organizations reaching out into our local communities. 

Partnering with BBF Shelf Help is always a joy, as it often gives us an opportunity to work with authors who are in town for the festival who we may otherwise not be able to work with. The partnership exposes us to new authors and illustrators, affords us the opportunity to work with a new school, and gives us the chance to be a part of a vibrant annual event on the Boston calendar.

Read more about this year’s Shelf Help winners. Books can be bought and donated to the Hernández School’s wish list here or the English’s book wish list or by visiting BBF’s donate page. Upon checking out, select “Make this a gift” and designate “Shelf Help” as the gift recipient in the appropriate box. 

Share this post: