The Ypsilanti District Library's (YDL) new Ypsi Family Read program has generated discussions about social issues ranging from domestic violence to disability in Ypsi resident Najma Treadwell's household.
"We talked about how the main character lived in a household with domestic violence, and what that meant, and living in a one-parent home. And one little girl's mom was in a wheelchair, so we talked about living with a family member with a difference," Treadwell says. Three of her five children participated in the inaugural Family Read, which centered on the book Ghost by Jason Reynolds.
That is exactly the kind of dialogue YDL librarians were hoping to generate through the program, which encourages local residents to read, and attend events related to, a different featured book three times a year.
"We hope people will read aloud and talk about the book as a family," says Jodi Krahnke, YDL's head of youth services. "We want to get everybody reading and parents modeling reading at home. It's supposed to be a fun time to get people to spend time together off screens."
Beyond the book club
Modeled on the successful county-wide Washtenaw Reads program, YDL launched the Family Read program last fall. The program is now on its second book, Lucky Broken Girl by local author Ruth Behar.
"The idea behind it was that we wanted to encourage parents as reading role models," says YDL communications and development coordinator Gillian Ream Gainsley. "Parents often read to little kids, and in upper elementary they sometimes stop, but it can be really valuable to read and discuss with older kids."
Krahnke says the library has traditionally run a number of monthly book clubs for kids, but they are time- and staff-intensive, and the discussions were frequently only about half full.
"That doesn't add up to many people we were reaching with reading and discussion every month," Krahnke says. "We thought it would reduce the load on staff if, instead of preparing for four different book discussions every month, we had one big event and we could work together as a team to attract readers."
Under the Family Read program, the library buys many copies of the chosen book so staff can get many patrons excited about reading it at the same time. A series of book discussions and related events are planned for each title, culminating in a fun final event.
Ghost is the first in a series about runners on a middle school track team, so the Family Read organizers created a track meet at Ypsi's Frog Island Park for its community celebration in October. It was a cold, rainy day, but Gainsley says more than 60 parents and kids still turned out.
Elizabeth Gratch says her son Sena Waldsmith, age 10, found out about the Family Read through a book club he participates in at YDL's Michigan Avenue branch. Gratch calls the combination of reading and running in that first Family Read program "kind of magical."
"Sena had actually been a struggling reader, but he's an amazing runner," she says.
Gratch talks with her son about finding out what you love in life by noticing when you feel a "warm hum" inside. Her son feels that "warm hum" when he runs, and she says she hopes to develop that same feeling with reading.
She calls the track meet a "beautiful" experience.
"They also had a poet come and read from the book to the kids, and read some of his own work. It just blew me away," Gratch says.
Treadwell says her whole family loved Ghost so much that they went on to complete the whole series of track and field stories by Reynolds.
"Even as a grown-up, I've never read an entire series, so they picked the perfect book," Treadwell says.
She notes that her family members are all athletic, so the theme was "close to home" for the Treadwells.
"My children were so engaged, they'd ask, 'Can we do two chapters today? Can we finish it?'" she says.
Picking up momentum
The current Family Read book, Lucky Broken Girl, was written by an Ann Arbor resident. Krahnke discovered author Ruth Behar through Behar's appearance at the Ann Arbor Jewish Film Festival.
Lucky Broken Girl's protagonist is Ruthie, a Jewish-Cuban immigrant who lives in New York City.
"She is hit by a car, confined to her home, in bed with a whole body cast for a year, and it gives her time to reflect on issues of identity and forgiving the people who (caused the accident)," Gainsley says. "It's coming-of-age stuff combined with questions of identity."
Treadwell says she and her children just picked up Lucky Broken Girl and are curious to read it.
"I read a little about it, and it's a different perspective from people with a different background and nationality," Treadwell says. "We're an African-American family, and this will open up an avenue to learn and be educated about other people as well."
Because the book's main character identifies with the artist Frida Kahlo, who also was involved in a horrifying accident in her youth, one of the activities YDL organized around the book was a self-portrait art session on Feb. 9.
"We're looking for different ways we think kids might engage with the book," Gainsley says. "Maybe they've never heard of Kahlo, but they can explore her art and find out why Ruthie was inspired by her."
Future library events related to Lucky Broken Girl include a World Language Storytime about Cuba on Feb. 16 at 10:30 a.m., and Family Read Snack and Chat sessions from 6:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. Feb. 28 and March 11. Those events will all be held at the YDL's Whittaker Road branch, 5577 Whittaker Rd. in Ypsi Township.
The final event for Lucky Broken Girl takes place March 18 at Riverside Arts Center, 76 N. Huron St. in Ypsi. Choosing a local author made it possible for YDL staff to invite Behar to the final event to talk with children about her book. The community celebration will also include hands-on Cuban drumming, cha-cha lessons, and a youth art exhibit.
More details on the current Family Read can be found here.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at [email protected].
All photos by Doug Coombe except photo of Sena Waldsmith by Gillian Ream Gainsley.