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Photograph courtesy Raising A Reader

Child-Driven Child Literacy: Raising A Reader’s Latest Chapter

The red tote bags hold adventure and history. They hold laughter and struggle. They hold inspiration and understanding. Recently, the signature book-filled tote bags that Raising A Reader (RAR) distributes helped a mother in California, who recently endured a terrible loss: “My husband passed away due to COVID and having the constant routine of opening the red book bags to escape into books offered my daughter and me a way to process and heal emotions.”

Founded in 1999, RAR is fueled by the power of reading together. “The world becomes less lonely and makes a little more sense when a child sits with a caring adult and opens a book.” says Michelle Sioson Hyman, senior vice president, Program and Partnerships.

“The key,” says Hyman, “is that children drive the process.” She herself started her career with the organization and then left for 13 years—during which she worked as a birth doula, a yoga instructor and a foundation program officer—before returning last June. Under the leadership of Michelle Torgerson, she says, RAR has made a concerted effort to listen to community partners through surveys and town halls. Bilingual materials and books from small, minority-owned publishers are being given greater emphasis.

Cindy Eggleton, Co-Founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization Brilliant Detroit, which is dedicated to life “from belly to 8,” has nothing but praise for RAR’s offerings. “They get it,” she says. “It’s not just about helping a child; it’s helping families foster a love of reading.” In the 12 neighborhoods where Brilliant Detroit operates, the red bags are a status symbol. “Kids point them out and proudly say, ‘Me too.’”

The collection of 3,000 books has to be just right. Over the summer, RAR undertook a book audit, taking stock of the authors, illustrators and main characters of the books they distribute.

Hyman is particularly excited about three ways that RAR is connecting with families:

1. Family Learning Circles, an app powered by Guardians Collective, allows families to interact with an educator and one another, to ask and answer questions and to find and recommend strategies for helping kids love books. Local RAR educators are available for each circle of families.

Click here to see some of Raising A Reader’s favorite titles for 3-5-year-olds

2. Malcolm Mitchell. As a wide receiver with the New England Patriots, he won a Super Bowl in 2017. Today, he is a father of a one-year-old, a children’s book author and executive director of the Share the Magic Foundation, which he founded to help children unlock the magic of reading. As an RAR partner, he helps get books into their hands so they can follow in his footsteps. “Through RAR’s influence,” he says, “Share the Magic has been able to reach kids, families and communities throughout our country. RAR helped us create a summer atmosphere for reading.”

3. Ready Freddy. RAR’s social and emotional learning mascot appears on the pages of literacy materials to offer guidance with uncomfortable conversations. Freddy’s there to help if you’re talking race or climate change with a toddler.

“The ultimate test of new initiatives,” says Hyman, “is whether children and families find them fun and engaging.”

Thanks to RAR, anyone can be an educator, not just professionals with the title. Parents and siblings are educators. Friends, neighbors, aunts and uncles are all educators when they read with children. So are the staff members of nonprofits or government agencies that help families with emergency food and housing. An educator can be anyone in the “village” willing to be part of a safe and nurturing relationship.


Early Learning Nation loves writing about reading. Explore more:

Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. He lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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