By Emily Williams-Robertshaw
In a typical year, Spring is the season when Amy Howe of Better Basics and her coworkers would be working on one of their largest undertakings of the year. The annual Birmingham Reads events.
“This is when we recruit and place a volunteer in every Birmingham City School that we serve in pre-K through fifth grade classrooms,” Howe said.
It requires more than 700 volunteers – including representatives of local companies and recognizable faces.
Volunteers enter the schools, read a book to the kids and then give copies of that book to each student in the class.
According to Howe, in a typical year, the organization hands out approximately 12,000 books to students. Because of the pandemic, volunteers are unable to enter schools, and that number was cut to 6,000 this year.
“So, I put my thinking cap on and thought of another way we could have the students hear books being read to them,” she said. “We also still wanted to give books to the children.”
She reached out to longtime Birmingham Reads volunteer Mayor Randall Woodfin for a video read-along series.
“We always think of Mayor Woodfin because he is such a local celebrity,” she said. “But I also had a thought that we should concentrate on the arts.”
With that in mind, she reached out to officials with the Alabama Ballet, who were happy to have two of their company members get involved, David Odenwelder and Isabella Cowles.
“They read a fun book called ‘Brontorina’ about a brontosaurus who wants to be a ballet dancer,” Howe said.
Next, Birmingham Museum of Art Manager of Public Programs Carey Fountain participated, reading the book “Parker Looks Up” by Parker and Jessica Curry.
“It’s about a little girl who sees Michelle Obama’s portrait for the first time,” she said. “That artist of the portrait is Amy Sherald.”
It just so happens that the BMA has a piece of Sherald’s work in its collection. So, Fountain was able to not only read the book, but provide background on portraiture and show another piece of Sherald’s work.
“A lot of the students we serve wouldn’t necessarily go to the ballet or the museum, so I thought this was a good moment for them to be exposed to that,” Howe said.
Howe said the series allows her to get creative with the books to which she exposes students.
“We are limited to what we can purchase,” she said. “We pick books based on content for our gift book and then we buy dollar books from Scholastic. Their quality and content is up to par, but a book like ‘Parker Looks Up,’ that’s a $10 book.”
Lack of Reading Materials
According to data provided by Better Basics, 16% of Alabamians are illiterate. Seventy-nine percent of low-income children enter kindergarten not knowing all the letters of the alphabet.
“A lot of students don’t have access to print once they get home,” Howe said. “At school they do. If they go to the public library they do. A lot of students also don’t have access to reliable internet. So to have books in print at home is so great.
It’s also a way to keep kids on track outside the classroom. Children not reading at their level by third grade are 13 times less likely to graduate from high school, and 60% of low-income families don’t have a single book in their homes.
“A lot of low-income students fall behind in the summer, it’s called the summer slide,” Howe said. “So, this Books for Birmingham campaign is something we are really proud of because we are able to get books in the hands of some students that often don’t have books in the home.”
The organization recently kicked off its annual book drive, Books for Birmingham. Last summer, 9,600 books were distributed to Birmingham children.
To get these books out to the community during a pandemic, the organization went to great measures.
“Last year, we partnered with different organizations that had food stations,” Howe said. “When families would come by and get food, they were also given a book.”
Any amount of money can be donated, but for reference, a donation of $50 purchases 12 books.
The organization also has wish lists on Amazon and at Little Professor in Homewood, where books can be purchased and donated.
Lists can be found on the website, at betterbasics.org, along with a full archive of the videos.
Howe said the organization plans for the video presentations to continue to grow.
“I’m looking forward to asking someone from the Red Mountain Theatre or have a player from the Barons or have somebody from our fire department,” Howe said. “There are endless possibilities as to who you can ask. You can even have your local barber read.”
She also has heard from the community that adults find it fun, as well.
“I think, as an adult, you don’t get tired of listening or reading a good children’s book. They are so fun and bring back great memories,” Howe said.