The First Internet – In a world of divisive social media, shared books conquer culture, time and space, just like before. With Kemie Nix.
Kemie Nix, founder of Children’s Literature for Children, called in to talk with us about her career innovating teaching and learning in the US and abroad. We came away with a renewed sensitivity to how learning is people-powered, and that the “web” that lies beneath it is relationships.
Kemie started out telling us about the books that started it all...
Kemie: Many years ago, while teaching at Westminster, I observed that children were not reading books. I also observed that all children’s literature courses were taught to adults. I wanted to teach children's literature to children, and this program was born. It soon moved to Atlanta’s inner city where Westminster students were asked to give, not their cast-off books, but two or three books that they loved, to children without books. These books were pre-selected by the children. So I've got some copies of My Little Pink Pony. But most of them were books that they had really enjoyed. This was really, I thought, the most successful part of the whole program, getting these books to the children at Cook. And what happened next was that the reading scores were going up at Cook.
Alonzo Crim was the superintendent of schools at that time. And he was a real educator. One day-- this was the most intimidating class I ever taught. One day I was in a fifth grade class and the door flew open. In came Alonzo Crim with his entourage, and they stood around the wall of the classroom and listened to what was going on. And he liked what he heard. He was very interested in the program. I could not claim that I was the reason that the reading scores were going up but I was a factor. I know that because they were reading. Big, big secret, if the children read, their reading scores go up. Okay.
Yeah. The reading scores were going up at Cook. And so Dr. Crim liked the program. We became friends over the years, good friends. He liked the program so much, he asked me to take it into another school. The school that he chose was Campbell Elementary School, which was down in Carver Homes. So we now had the program at two schools, Cook in Capitol Homes and Campbell in Carver Homes.
I was doing the exact same thing I was doing at Westminster, which was supervising the reading, helping the children check out their books saying, "You bloody well are going to read. You can choose what you want to read but you're going to read."(Well, I didn't actually say “ bloody” - but I was determined!) And this is the big difference between a teacher and the librarian because the librarian can say, "Would you like to read this? Would you want to read this?" But she can't say, "You're going to read." A teacher can say, "This is your assignment, you're going to read." Then when the teacher says, "Would you like to read this? Would you like to read that?" There's some oomph behind it.
Book selection with the young people was my favorite part. I learned so much because I learned what they liked and I learned what they didn't like. To give you an example, one day I was at the shelf with several children and one of the children said to the other, "Don't read that book. Don't read that book. It's only dirty halfway through." I went, what? So I went to see what was going on. I looked at the book, and what they were talking about was that it was physically dirty only halfway through. It was pristine clean in the back of the book. Nobody liked it enough to finish reading it!
So what I thought when they said it was only dirty halfway through was not what they meant. It was only physically dirty halfway through!
One of the things I learned, particularly working... All right, I went to a conference at Simmons College in Boston that summer. And I worked with a wonderful African American librarian from Norfolk, Virginia, Ms. Johnson. I was telling her the various things I had done at Westminster. And I said, "Now how should I adjust it for these inner city children?" And she said, "Don't.” She gave me my motto. She said, "Don't change a thing." And I said, "Well, this book, the characters are pretty pink and white and I've read it to my third graders.. Should I read it to these children?"(The book was “The Princess and the Goblin.”) And she said, "Don't change anything. They will rise to your expectations." So, that became my motto. I would literally put my hand on the door, the back door of the school as I was going inside, and say to myself, they will rise to your expectations.
THE STARTUP LIFE
The next thing that happened was that a headmistress from Mount Kenya Academy came to visit Westminster and Dale Thompson thought to bring her to my program. And she liked the program so much. She said, "Will you bring it to Kenya?" Well, yes.
Malcolm: Yeah, that's something you don't hear everyday.
Kemie: I won't take you through the tap dance of how I got there, but I did get to Kenya and I did use the program with the children there. It worked at Westminster; it worked in the inner city; it worked in Kenya. What I discovered in Kenya was that the children in the government schools didn't have any books. They worked in pamphlets. So I became determined to start a Reader To Reader program for these government schools in Africa, and the dark side goes along with everything you try to do. So I knew that the dark side was, these books were in English. They were from the United States. It was from our culture.
But what I hoped was that it would be exotic to the children if they didn't understand Thanksgiving or whatever. These books were still being selected by other children. This program spread quickly from Westminster to many other schools. But I always tried to keep it with the children selecting what they wanted to send. So we began to send books to the government schools. Southern Living Magazine wrote an article about this program. I got a lot of people from all over everywhere who were willing to send books. The Kenyans gave me the names of schools that wanted books and I matched them up.
I'm backing up a little bit here. I graduated from Emory. And when I went to get my master's, I had to decide if I wanted to get it in administration or just education. So I decided I was already bossy enough. I did not need it in administration. So I got it in education. And then I ended up being an administrator to administrate all this.
Everybody was running from me because I always wanted money. Always. My Aunt Ada said, "I'm not giving you another dime until I can take it off my income tax." So I decided we needed to be non-profit. I spent a totally miserable summer on the back porch of my house, filling out all these forms for the income tax people. Our name is redundant but it's descriptive. It's Children's Literature for Children.
So I mean, we were flourishing, and then the US post office shot us down because it was a dollar a pound to send books overseas. I had all these people all over the place, sending mail bags of books and you could send a mail bag and it was like $60 and a boy scout troop or any small group could come up with the $60. But then the post office just suddenly quit shipping by sea and said everything had to go by air mail. So it went from a dollar a pound to $4 a pound. And to give you an example, I had a group that had raised a thousand dollars and had 1000 pounds of books and they took them to the post office and they said, "Oh no, you have to have $4,000." This was a blow, but we have persisted, we have continued. We can't send as much but we have continued to send books.
And I tried to be really politically correct. Oh, my first visit, I got a grant and I got two copies of what I thought were appropriate books. I got books by African-American authors. I got books, as many as I could find, about African animals or books that featured African animals. I got a double dose of what I considered would probably be good books. So I took those with me and the children said, "Don't you have any more Hardy Boys? Don't you have any more Baby-Sitters Club?" So all these books that I had left actually in my garage at home were the ones that they wanted. My long-suffering husband packed up all the books that I had of the type that they wanted and sent them. So what I learned was, don't be politically correct. I've always tried to let them choose what they wanted to read.
SPREADING THE WORD
Kemie: The next thing that happened was that I invited an African-American artist and author, Ashley Bryan, to go with us. And so he went with us, Ashley’s first year was 2001. My first year was 1990. And if you want to see a picture of Ashley, if you go to my Facebook page, Ashley is in the picture with me. He went to all these schools where we had started small libraries and some of the libraries had become quite extensive. So he decided to adopt the poorest of the poorest schools, which was Kiboya out in a very rural arid area. And the first thing he did was he gave water tanks so that the children could have clean water to drink. And then he gave a library. This was our first bricks and mortar building, the Ashley Bryan Library at Kiboya. And this started us on bricks and mortar. And just in 2019, we built our 13th library at one of the schools. I'll be happy to name it after your grandmother. If you want to give the money to build a library that would be just wonderful. Yes. And your grandmother would be so happy. ($20,000 can build a whole library!)
Michael: That's fabulous. So it looks like childrensliterature.org is your organization's website?
Kemie: Yes. Well, we now have taken several authors. I was on the Newbery committee that chose Bud, Not Buddy, which is by Christopher Paul Curtis. And so when Christopher was signing books and signing books and signing books and I felt sorry for him. And I said, "This is really hard on you." And he said, "It is not." He said, "I worked in an automobile factory." So he was enjoying it. And I told him that Ashley was going to Kenya with us and he said, "I want to go to Africa with Ashley." So he went and then I've had several other authors that have gone over the years. And I don't know if I'll be able to go back but certainly my heart is in Kenya.
Michael: That's a beautiful story. Wonderful contribution to the world.
Kemie: Well thanks.
Suzy: I love that story. I love Christopher's book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham. I'm fairly recently retired from teaching fifth and sixth grade in Stockton, California. I actually became more of a math teacher. But my masters is in reading and I have a reading specialist credential and I love everything you're talking about. It's wonderful.
Malcolm: Rob, you mentioned that you've been getting good advice on this for books for your family?
Rob: Oh, from Kemie, yes. I had her as my teacher, and then I saw her on Facebook again later and we connected. I have a 12-year-old and an 8-year-old, and I’ve been getting all kinds of advice from her, and it's a lot of home runs. She gives advice on books that nobody else has mentioned... Other parents, they only know the new titles that come out, everybody just knows the new thing. She knows the things that are enduring and that might not be quite as famous. And my son who's really picky, just really super picky. He's like the Mikey in the Life cereal commercials. But he usually wants to go in for a whole series of these books.
Malcolm: That's great. That's great. You know, we're working on the transcription of a really extended interview with Dr. Michelle Purdy, who was a, I'll call her an unindicted co-conspirator of this magazine. And a lot of what she talked to us about on December 29th had to do with her observations about the peculiar and unfortunately, perhaps, permanent new pressures on students, K through 12, as well as college.
Kemie: You don't know if a program is successful until the kids can grow up and can tell you. And so I maintain and ask my alumni and you know, there you sit.
LIFE OF THE MIND
Kemie: As far as I'm concerned, fiction is about the only place that trains long range thinking for young people today because videos and television and games have a short span. And if you're reading a book of fiction, you have to keep all these elements in your head for a long time. So fiction trains long range thinking better than anything that I know of that works with children.
And nonfiction's great. I mean, I love it, but non-fiction is suddenly very popular in the educational field. I think maybe fiction might be too enjoyable. And so they don't like it.
But when you put a book of nonfiction down you can walk away and not think about it. If you're reading a book of fiction, it's going to take you days and you have to keep it in your head for days. Not that you're thinking about it all the time but it's there, it's in your head to be able to be picked back up. I maintain that if young people read fiction and understand it, then everything else is going to fall into place. They can follow whatever interests they have, even books that are dirty.
Michael: I grew up watching a lot of television and one of the negative aspects I think of that is sort of a subconscious thing. You've come to believe that any problem, no matter how complicated, can be solved within an hour minus commercials, right?
Rob: Half hour!
Michael: Half hour. Yeah. But thinking about the old Mission Impossible shows, you could completely change a country's forward path in one hour, even though the thing itself occurred over multiple days. And I think that's built into an American psychology with media that goes from beginning to end, the whole story arc, in such a short period. And that just doesn't happen when you're reading a book, unless you're just a super fast reader, which is a good thing too.
Kemie: Well, back to the math, I think that the reading skills are the foundation for going into higher math. Children that are good at computation and maybe not so good at reading can get along in the very early grades, but when they get a bit older and they're trying to go into higher math and you have to have a very subtle understanding, for example, of prepositions, and-
Suzy: And also just abstract thought.
Kemie: Yes, that.
Suzy: Right. Prepositions. I mean, all those things are obviously crucial to understanding these concepts.
Kemie: To me it's the secret to education. And it's not all that complicated. Let's use a little common sense here.
SPELLING IT ALL OUT
Malcolm: I’ve got to ask this question now --I find that of all the things I've ever tried to do well, writing is easily the most difficult. I currently read probably not as much as I should, but reading is easy for me... writing is incredibly difficult. And I think part of the problem is, usually, that I want to say something but I haven't spent enough time thinking about who my audience is going to be. I'm kind of broadcasting across too many different audiences.
Kemie: Actually I'm not too much into who the audience is going to be. I think you have an audience of one, yourself. And if you can make it clear for yourself, then your peers will find you...
I'm not being very clear but the teacher does not choose the student, the teacher does not choose who they influence, the student chooses the teacher that influences them, and it’s sort of the same thing.
I think you can get bogged down thinking about who your audience is. And if you're writing about something that you're interested in, write for yourself.
The writing is also based on the reading. Everything is based on the reading. So your interest is reading about polar bears? Well, if you read enough about polar bears, you're going to read faster and better and... what is that expression? Follow your bliss.
FOR YOUR FAMILY:
Kemie compiled a Best Reading collection over the years and following our time together, she agreed to make it available to all, courtesy of Wildcat Alumni Magazine. We are thrilled and proud to join Kemie’s community of advocates and resources.
You can download your copy of the list here.
Malcolm Ryder (West ‘72) Contributor
Suzy Goldberg (West '72) Contributor
Michael Slade (West '73) Contributor
Rob Kutner (West '90) Contributor