Book club passes on love of literature to Detroit youth

As a child, Shanel Adams experienced a lot of this world. With each new place learned about, she discovered the many cultures and influences that make up our world. From Greece to Hogwarts, it was a little plastic library card that made her a world traveler.

She inherited her mother’s love of reading, and as a child she devoured books at her local branches of the Detroit Public Library. This beloved hobby shaped her outlook and life, and as an adult she passes that love and experience to Detroit’s young girls.

When she graduated from Howard University, there was no place other than Detroit she wanted to use her degree. Not long after she returned, Adams was using the computer at the library and noticed a lot of flyers for reading groups, but none aimed at young girls. This didn’t seem right to her.

From there, the Progressionista Reading Group was born.

The Progessionista program is a reading group for girls 8-12, where Adams passes on her love of reading monthly to new generations and gives them the same inspiration the books gave her.

Adams always presents reading as leisure. “Ninety-nine percent of our books are fiction,” she says.  “I want the girls to have a relationship with literature.”

The program first called the Chaney branch of the Detroit Public Library, on Grand River Avenue, home. When Adams needed more space, she moved further down Grand River Avenue to the Redford branch. A few years later Adams started a second group at the Franklin Library on E. McNichols Road. Post-pandemic, she merged the two groups halfway at the Parkman branch on Oakman Boulevard in Detroit. 

All the libraries have offered space, time, and assistance.

Adams says the term Progressionista means “a woman who progresses in life through a love of reading" and 9 years later, the program is still going strong. Adams says 80 percent of the girls return each year.

A key part of the group is to grow literacy skills, but it also helps the girls beyond the page. Adams uses books to grow empathy, with stories exposing them to new points of view.

“It really does help them be more empathetic and self-assured,” she says.

Each meeting starts with a discussion on the book given out the previous month followed by a guest speaker whose job relates to the book’s subject. Speakers are local women who come from a diverse background of experience, some of the girls’ favorites include a forensic scientist, a dentist, and a florist.

After the presentation, the girls are then given a chance to ask questions. Adams has found that younger girls ask broader questions, like what the job entails, and the older ones’ questions are more specific, like how they attained the job, and why it was chosen.

Following the discussion, there is a related activity. For example, the girls dusted for fingerprints when a forensic scientist spoke. In another, they built cookie houses with a realtor.

Lastly, books are handed out for the next session, and the cycle begins anew. Since speakers are usually more than happy to talk to the group, Adams often searches for something to read first.

“Sometimes it is easier to find a woman than a book,” she says.

The ages in the group are varied, but Adams has not found that to be a problem. The age range falls into the “middle grades” reading group, so the books are appropriate and accessible to everyone.

“All girls regardless of age want to be inspired,” says Adams, pointing out that girls from youngest to oldest enjoy the books, activities, and speakers.

Parents have largely been supportive of the chosen books, with a minor exception. The book for the crime scene investigator involved a murder, which scared one of the younger girls. Adams took this into consideration, and adapted. 

She tries to find a balance, so the books vary in tone. If one month she picks a serious book, the next month it might be more silly or humorous. If the previous month’s book had been a denser read, she will try a lighter book the next month.

Adams also tries to choose books the girls would not read in school, graphic novels or more light-hearted books for example. This keeps the school and leisure worlds of reading separate. Still, she uses her job as a teacher to keep an eye out for books the girls may enjoy, along with browsing online reviews.

In addition, the girls help create the reading list. At the end of each year, Adams polls them about what books they most enjoyed. Of course, with 20 girls in the group, each with her own personality, the list of likes reflects that variety.

Even during the COVID pandemic, Adams kept going. She adapted and hustled to keep the Progressinistas going. The library was no longer an option, but technology and another community institution were ready. She mailed books and activities to the girls and held video chats with women online.

At the end of one year, she received a note from a girl’s parents, which was full of gratitude for their daughter’s improved reading skills. They shared that these skills transferred to better grades.

“It was like, ‘wow,’” says Adams. “I had no idea what was going behind the scenes.”

This girl was not an isolated incident. “Parents always tell me their daughter did not like reading at all until she joined the club,” says Adams. 

Some of the earliest members have grown up and gone off to college, and still stop in when they are home from school. Some have joined the volunteers who help Adams keep the group running smoothly. That sense of civic opportunity is something Adams wants the girls to experience. She wants them to know libraries have resources they can access, as well as Detroit as a whole.

“I believe reading books really changed my life,” Adams says.

Progesssionistas runs the length of the school year, with more information available at the website.

All photos by Steve Koss.
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