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Prof Works To Engage Local Youth In Reading Through BookUp Program

Oct. 11, 2012
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt

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English adjunct faculty member Amanda Nowlin-O'Banion (back center) works weekly with 15 of Huntsville's sixth through eighth graders to encourage reading as a means of piquing their imaginations and expanding their understanding of what's possible in the world, including college. —Photos by Brian Blalock


AS A PUBLISHED WRITER, Sam Houston State University English adjunct faculty member Amanda Nowlin-O’Banion understands the importance of storytelling in everyday life.

It is a lesson she teaches the future authors in her creative writing classes, as well as the students in her world literature course.

“Ancient literature in the oral tradition is all about story and how we connect as human beings through story; why story is crucial to the human experience,” she said.

Now, through a National Book Foundation program called BookUp she is conducting in Walker County, Nowlin-O’Banion is extending that lesson to local youth.

Piloted last spring with students at the Boys and Girls Club of Walker County, BookUp is an afterschool initiative designed to motivate sixth-through-eight-grade youth from underserved communities to stay involved with reading. It does so by providing free books to participating children and offering them an opportunity to engage in those books through fun, interactive activities.

“There are studies that show a positive correlation between kids having books at home and higher test scores,” Nowlin-O’Banion said. “That’s not necessarily a causal relationship, it’s a correlation, and some of it can be drawn back to the idea that parents with money for books also have money to promote education and send their kids to college. But there’s also definitely a link to students being good readers and feeling competent in that skill, which provides them confidence in other areas in their lives. When a student feels confident, even when they don’t know an answer, they aren’t embarrassed to learn; they learn it and move on.”

When the pilot program began last spring, Nowlin-O’Banion used extra copies of the five 2012 National Book Award finalists provided to her by the NBF. Each week during the six-week spring program, Nowlin-O’Banion offered a different book to the approximately 15 participants; children were not required to take the books, and she facilitated each of the sessions by engaging students in activities related to that book, whether it was reading a passage and asking students what they would do in a situation similar to one in the book or simply asking them what assumptions they made based on the dust jacket.

“It creates discussion, excitement, and then they go home with the book and usually they end up looking at it,” she said.


Turning Pages of Opportunity

By “promoting” the book instead of forcing it upon the children, Nowlin-O’Banion said she hoped to encourage a feeling of agency among the students when it comes to reading, as opposed to creating a sense of expectation like what they would experience in a classroom.

“I’m trying to make kids see that reading is fun, because middle school is when they stop reading for fun. This is to keep them going,” she said. “They get a book, they take it home, they may read it, they may not. They may read it in two years and that’s fine; whatever we can do to put books in their hands. We know that they will likely come back to them, and sometimes their parents read them.

Boys and Girls Club students
Nowlin-O'Banion said she has found that the students at the Boys and Girls Club are eager to collect and read the books she distributes as part of the BookUp program.
Boys and Girls Club kids

“Reading piques their imaginations. A lot of young adult literature works with supernatural elements, and I think that makes students wonder what’s possible in the world,” Nowlin-O’Banion said. “This age group is a perfect window of hope that we can tap into.”

It is the idea of reading’s potential effect on opportunity that Nowlin-O’Banion finds incredibly valuable in programs like BookUp, especially as they target students from underserved communities.

“Any booklover knows that opening up a book means opening up the world,” she said. “Find a good novel that expands your understanding of what’s possible in the world, and you’ve just exponentially blown up the possibilities for a person’s life. If you don’t know what’s available for someone like you, you don’t know where to set your goals.

“It’s about increasing opportunity. It’s meant to have a very deep impact on these 15 kids, rather than a broad impact among 100 kids,” she said. “There are lots of programs that give out books in the community, but there aren’t programs that come back week to week with a new book and keep opening up that door of opportunity to catch their interest over and over and over again.”

As the pilot program progressed, Nowlin-O’Banion was surprised to find that most of the students were, on their own accord, reading a majority of the books.

“I had kids come back and want to talk about parts at the end of the books; they would get so engaged in the details. The questions they were asking showed they had clearly read the whole book in a week,” she said. “I was astonished. I don’t know if their algebra homework got put off for the book, but, as a writer, I’m not going to shed any tears over that.”


'Booking' Up

BookUp, and similar programs sponsored by the National Book Foundation, are popular in New York, where the foundation is located, but until two years ago, these programs did not exist outside of New York City.

Nowlin-O’Banion, a Huntsville native who taught at Texas A&M until 2011, became involved in NBF activities through an A&M colleague with whom she had attended New York University. The colleague, fiction writer Angie Cruz, had ties to the foundation and sought out permission to bring the program to Brazos County. When Nowlin-O’Banion decided to join the faculty at SHSU, she created the second non-New York-based BookUp site, in Walker County.

The decision to bring the program to Huntsville was multifaceted, stemming from the fact that she is a writer, her love of reading, and, being a Huntsville native, her commitment to the community. In addition to a desire to do something good for the children of her hometown, there was also a deeply personal reason why Nowlin-O’Banion decided to take the project on, all by herself.

“I was a terrible reader as a child. My parents were very involved, but I became an excellent fake reader without raising any flags; I still made good grades. I didn’t want anyone to know how much I was struggling,” she said. “I finally learned to read well when I found a book that grabbed me.

“This program, in particular, would have helped me tremendously.”

Because of her own personal experience, coupled with her steadfast belief in the program, when funding became unavailable (due to budget constraints) just as she was gearing up for the second series in August, Nowlin-O’Banion made the decision to continue on. She now volunteers her time and has been seeking out donations in order to purchase books.

“The NBF will provide the finalists’ books, which is incredibly helpful given the cost of books, but there are only five finalists,” she said. “We need books for 20 weeks of BookUp sessions per academic year.

“The National Book Foundation’s program makes so much sense to me,” she said. “When I found out there would be no funding for 2012-13, I immediately knew I was supposed to keep doing it. There aren’t many things I’ve been sure about, and I was sure about this.”


Sharing the 'Literary Culture'

In navigating the new complications that have arisen from the lack of funding, Nowlin-O’Banion hopes to form a relationship with the Bush Library, which is funding books for the Brazos Valley program, and is preparing to incorporate BookUp into her SHSU classrooms next spring through the university’s Academic Community Engagement initiative, including in her classes that are part of the English department’s new creative writing Master of Fine Arts degree program.

BookUpAmong the projects she’s considering is tying the oral tradition aspect of ancient literature—taught in the world literature courses—into BookUp by sending her SHSU students into the community to record Huntsville’s oral histories.

“I want my BookUp kids to know that not only is reading valuable, but they each have a story with real value, too, and people want to hear it,” she said, adding that this project could also encourage a new generation of writers.

She also hopes to eventually add field trips that would expose Huntsville’s youth to authors and the literary culture through activities such as attending readings, visiting independent bookstores and allowing students to pick out a few books for themselves.

While the program itself isn’t about expectations, the exposure the children get to other worlds or ways of life through reading and through the BookUp program has the potential to make long-lasting impacts on the lives of these children.

“College isn’t even on the radar for some of them, so anything we can do to normalize learning in some way and help them expect that outcome is a success,” Nowlin-O’Banion said. “Life is all about expectations. If you expect something to happen, it’s so much more likely to happen for you because it’s in the realm of possibility. So this has to be something they expect for themselves, to think that they deserve an education, they deserve to read; they deserve books.

“These are hardworking kids,” she said. “I think we’ve got a really good chance of making a significant difference in the lives of these 15 kids.”

For more information on the BookUp program, contact Nowlin-O’Banion at nowlin-obanion@shsu.edu or 936.294.4109.



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