The Oak Park Public Library understands what it takes to get kids to read: engage their interests. 

Judging by the number of elementary and middle schoolers who show up every day, whether with parents, school groups or by themselves, the library is developing a community of young readers. From the summer reading program to storytimes and maker labs, OPPL aims to create a well-rounded literacy experience for all young people.

Librarians aren’t there to merely help young patrons find a book. They are constantly trying out ways to make the world of books a source of wonder and surprise for young readers. And fun, too.

“We’re always trying to find ways to make reading fun and part of a community,” says Jose Cruz, middle school services librarian, during an interview in the first-floor children’s department. “You have to have an entry point” to engage their minds. 

Cruz sees the library’s role as “trying to develop critical thinkers.” He, other librarians and community members put in a lot of effort developing programs around that mission. 

One such program, for students grades 6-12, is The Living History Project. Local activist Billy Che Brooks leads the program, which started in May, and meets twice a week. Brooks assigns readings on topics like human or civil rights that have included, for example, W.E.B. DuBois’ historic petition to the United States. Readings and discussions are designed to help participants cultivate social and critical thinking skills, develop research skills while they read and learn about social movements in the U.S. and gain public speaking experience. 

During a recent wide ranging discussion, Brooks told the students, “Listening is the most critical social skill one can have.” An elementary school student, attending for the first time, offered up a confession. “I’m a very slow learner when it comes to reading,” she said. The comment was met with respect and nods of understanding.

The Living History Project mostly attracts kids who come to the library after school and are hungry for something to do, Cruz says. About a dozen pre-teens and teens are regular participants.

Cruz thinks the just-released “America to Me” documentary film at OPRF could be another entry point “to reading further about certain topics, because [it’s about] what kids are experiencing every day. You’ve got to have an entry point,” to draw kids, particularly those who are less inclined toward reading, says Cruz.

When Cruz heard about a 16-year-old Austin student, Kamarion Miller, who had written and self-published his own book, he invited Miller to do a reading and signing at the library. In addition to growing as readers, “it’s important for kids to write their own books,” he says. And for young people to read works by people their own age.

In the high school services department, librarian Racheal Bild likes to see her job as developing programs that encourage civic engagement. And to that point there are a “lot of things happening in this library,” she says. She helped put on an afternoon-long Harry Potter-themed event, “Wizard Rock the Vote,” on Aug. 4. In conjunction with the League of Women Voters, the event included voter registration, Quidditch playing and a Wizard band.

Bild thinks the explosion in comics and graphic novels gives today’s visually oriented young readers new opportunities “to construct meaning from images, and they are a super important tool for visual literacy.”

“From picture books and easy readers that make use of conventions like speech bubbles and panels (like Elephant and Piggie and Toon Books), readers are discovering comics early and reading straight through the kids section, the tween section, into the teen section and hopefully, eventually, the adult section,” Bild says.

Bild and Cruz believe early literacy programs build a strong foundation for a lifetime of reading. Parents, caregivers, teachers each play a role in developing readers, whether it’s sharing books, songs or stories as early as possible. When young children hear new words and know how stories are told, the transition to reading books won’t be so overwhelming when they start school.

Parents use the library to give their kids that start.

As Karen Stoner, a library assistant, observed, in that last week before the start of the new school year, parents were “coming in like crazy to get library cards for their kindergartners and first-graders.”

SIDE BAR 1: Like Slime? Here is a book about it

SIDE BAR 2: Never Stop Reading to your kids

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY). 

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