Brick-and-mortar bookstores have been under pressure in recent years due to the ubiquitous reach of Amazon and its too-good-to-refuse discounts and delivery. In addition, e-books cost less and have further eroded bookstore profits. Still, bookstores, like libraries, offer much more than reading material.
Thanks to BookPeople, Austin’s homegrown, independent bookstore, our community gets to meet authors on a regular basis. Through a partnership with local schools, BookPeople also allows authors to visit local schools. My school, O. Henry Middle School, has benefited from this partnership for the last 13 years.
How My School Got a Kwame Alexander Visit
In April, we were able to host a rock star, 2015 Newbery-winning author Kwame Alexander, for free. Master special education teacher Patty Mitzel, who’d studied his book “The Crossover” with her students, had researched the cost of bringing in Alexander to the school and discovered his normal speaker fee is $5,000, plus airfare and hotel room.
Especially considering the current budget crunch in Austin ISD, our school would never be able to bring authors of Alexander’s caliber into our school. But by partnering with librarians, BookPeople provides children access to their favorite writers, enhancing their educational experience, and sells books at the same time: a classic tale of win-win.
Our Kwame Alexander Show
About 350 middle-school students attended the Kwame Alexander show in the school cafeteria. What a show it was. Alexander captivated his audience with his call-and-response speaking style and his outsized personality.
Alexander writes novels in verse that center on boys who play sports, but his books are so much more than sports-themed books. He is a master at character development, humor, conflict, and especially language and word play. His books mesmerize his readers but especially hook our most challenging student readers: boys who hate to read, struggling readers, and English language learners.
“In 30 years of teaching, I have never had such success teaching a book to this population of students,” Mitzel said. “At the conclusion of the book study, my students all wrote poems, submitting them to ‘Teen Ink.’ These are children that will tell you they hate to read and write.”
Alexander’s message, interwoven with humor and anecdotes, was that no matter how many “nos” you hear, you only need to hear one “yes.”
A homeless student, who had only been at our school for a month, whispered to Mitzel, “He’s telling us not to give up.” Sixth-grader Malia Kappelman said, “He was very funny. I liked how he used his own life to tell about the book.”
“Yeah,” agreed eighth-grader Jesse Ruiz Cruz. “He was telling us how when he was a kid and wanted to impress this girl, April, and then he’s talking about how the poem he wrote her got him to start writing poetry.”
Alexander knew how to work his audience, asking the teachers if they had read “The Crossover” and having them participate in a contest, including spelling and defining “pulchritudinous,” which he uses in the book. Alexander’s gift is relating to kids without ever talking down to them.
Reaching Those Dormant Readers
Donalyn Miller, aka Book Whisperer, prefers the term “dormant” to “reluctant” readers. Patty Mitzel confided in me later that normally her students leave our author visits not knowing what the author was even talking about. These students hate reading because it has always been a struggle for them. They are intimidated by so much text on a page and have trouble with reading stamina. Because Kwame’s books are written in verse with more space and fewer words per page, his books wake them up to reading. When we found out Kwame was coming, I made sure Patty’s students got to sit in the first row. We even arranged for a parent to donate copies of this latest book, Booked, to each of these students, mainly boys, in Patty’s class. And of course they got their picture taken with him.
Support Libraries AND /your Local Bookstore
Once I went to BookPeople to hear author Ann Patchett speak. If she weren’t such a wonderful writer, she could have made a great librarian. Rather than only talking about her latest book, she had put together a book cart and book talked her recent favorites. When Borders closed down in Nashville several years ago, the entire city was left without a bookstore. After many community meetings where nothing was accomplished, Patchett was approached to help start Parnassus books, which thrives in Nashville today. Patchett told us that she used to blame Walmart for killing off the small local stores, but now she knows it is each one of us every time we make a decision about a purchase.
We all know the sad story of the closure of the Borders bookstore chain due to e-book and Amazon competition. Still, surveys show that readers, even my middle-school students who are digital natives, prefer real books over e-books.
While convenient, what Amazon and e-books can never replace is the person-to-person community contact that makes bookstores and libraries the heart of a city’s reading culture — and nothing beats authors in the schools to ensure future generations of readers.
Author: Sara Stevenson
I’m a reader, writer, swimmer, and a public middle school librarian. I love all things Italian. I was honored to be Austin ISD’s first librarian of the year in 2013.