It's Not That Complicated

So, an author walks into a literacy conference…

I know there’s a joke in there somewhere. When I figure it out, I’ll let you know.

Meanwhile…I went to NerdCamp Michigan 2018 a few weeks ago, which is basically a few thousand teachers, librarians, authors, illustrators, and other assorted ne’er-do-wells, assembling to talk crazy-talk about books, kids, reading, getting kids to read books…you get the idea. Nerding out about literacy.

I spoke about/led sessions on (1) service-learning projects tied to literacy, (2) One School One Book events, and (3) early chapter books. But I also attended every session I could, because there were so many brilliant people talking about things that profoundly interest me. NerdCamp is an avalanche of ideas, and I’ve decided my best approach is to let it bury me alive for the two days of the conference. And then…

…on the plane ride home, I sift and settle and see what is left poking up from the now-silent drifts. What are the things I’m still pondering as the plane lifts off from Detroit Metro Airport? What are the pieces of the puzzle of children’s literacy that keep rattling around in my brain, still demanding my attention? Do they fit together in some coherent way? Do they lead to action?

Well, this year: YES. Yes, yes, yes, in a really big way. Let me first tell you the fragments, the singular puzzle pieces I picked up over the two-day blizzard that is NerdCamp.

Fragment #1

Donalyn Miller said the best way to get kids to read is to give new books to kids who need them. Give them new books. To keep. Forever. That’s it. Give a new book; make a reader. (There’s a ton of good research to support this strategy, but I’ll just include this info from a 2017 survey of 42,406 children aged eight to eighteen conducted by the National Literacy Trust in the UK: “Children who say they own a book are 15 times more likely to read above the level expected for their age than their peers who say they don’t own a book.”)

Fragment #2

Donalyn has been speaking at literacy conferences for a long time, so it’s pretty understandable that she’s kind of had it with road blocks and excuses and red tape and all the things that keep good people from doing the good things they should and can do. Her refrain, repeated several times in her short talk: It’s not that complicated. We can figure out how to get books to readers in need. It’s not that complicated. Really? I wondered. It’s not that complicated? Inside my brain, everything is complicated. Hmm, let me think about that (as the plane climbed higher and Detroit fell away from view).

Fragment #3

Alison Morris (@AlisonLMorris), along with Ro Menendez, Ashleigh Rose, and Meg Medina, gave a presentation on First Book, which is one of the greatest non-profits on earth. (Please go to their website right now and become a member and/or donate!) This from First Book: “Since 1992, First Book has distributed more than 175 million books and educational resources to programs and schools serving children from low income families in more than 30 countries.”

Whoa! That’s a lot of books. A massive number of books. Sitting in that room in Parma, Michigan, I was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the work First Book does. And while I’ve been a fan of First Book for years and always understood their mission, I never fully understood how they did their work. Now I get it. Because of Alison’s brilliant, organized presentation, I’ve seen a workable model for getting books into the hands of kids who need them.

Fragment #4

And then there was Ro Menendez (@romenendez14). I still haven't actually met Ro, but she might be the new love of my life. (In the previous session I had led on early chapter books, her name had been mentioned by Jarrett Lerner with a certain hush of reverence that made me take notice.) Ro is a school librarian in Texas who uses First Book to get books for her kids to keep. During Alison’s info-packed, statistically grounded presentation, Ro kept popping up like a prairie dog with a Post-it note stuck to her index finger to provide yet another real-life example of a kid at her school who had received a book. Every couple of minutes, she’d interrupt Alison—pop!—and tell one more story with the same message: just do it. She made participation in this concept (getting books into the hands of kids who need them) seem like a no-brainer. Why wasn’t everyone doing this?

By now, we had reached our cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, and from that point on, there’s nothing left to do but ponder the enormity of the sky and the beauty of the world, marvel over the miracle of flight, and consider the fact that we’re all on earth for such a short period of time and that the time is always growing shorter. Never longer.

Putting all the puzzle pieces together, I landed in Boston with this personalized, synthesized takeaway from NerdCamp 2018: Kids need books. New books. Good books. Books they get to keep forever. In order to make this happen, I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Instead, I can follow a stripped-down version of First Book’s model and create my own channel for getting books into the hands of kids who need them. I don’t need permission from anyone, I can just do it. And in the end, it’s not that complicated.

So, um, I did.

I set up a web page, and I’m calling my personal initiative kids+books. I’m inviting any teacher, librarian, or administrator of a Title I school to submit their names. Every month, I’ll pick one or more names from the list of registered participants, and then I’ll ship a carton of books at no cost to them. It’s up to the teachers, librarians, and administrators to decide how best to distribute the books I send. I trust them. (I needed to hear it two or three times, Donalyn, but I get it now: It’s really not that complicated.)

And yes, I know this is just a drop in the bucket. I can’t get a book into the hands of every child who needs one. But it’s something, and it’s what I can do for now, so here goes. Learning on the fly.

And if you’re reading this blogpost (and all the way to the end, bless you), I’d like to ask a favor. Could you please spread the word? Using whatever tools you have at your disposal, let as many teachers, librarians, and school staff know about the initiative. Pass along the website address ( It’s true, not everyone who registers will get free books, but many will, and I’m going to try my hardest to get as many books out as I can. 

And if you’re an author or illustrator and any of this makes sense to you (and you have the means to give free books to kids who need them), then consider doing it. You don’t have to follow my model. You can figure out your own way. Because any way is better than no way. 

It’s really not that complicated.