Students line up to meet author Troy Cummings

Students get ready to meet author Troy Cummings as part of My Very Own Library. (Photography by Jean Lacha)

A read of their own

My Very Own Library gets kids excited about books.

Although Bret Harte Math and Science Magnet Cluster School is located just a few blocks away from 57th Street Books, principal Charlie Bright says most of his families aren’t able to shop there. New books are a luxury for many children at Bret Harte, whose student body is 77 percent low income.

But since Bret Harte joined the My Very Own Library program in 2018–19, there’s been a little more buzz around reading. The school’s 274 students, ranging from preschool through eighth grade, receive free books, author visits, and family programming each year.

“We actually see more students reading books in the hallways, when they don’t have to read,” Bright says. “And that’s what we want to build.”

In September 2019 UChicago assumed leadership of My Very Own Library, which also works with nonprofit organizations in five other states and the Dominican Republic. School of Social Service Administration researchers are studying the program’s impact on students’ education outcomes and suggesting ways to bolster it.

My Very Own Library came to the University’s attention when the UChicago Charter School joined in 2015. Administrators were so happy with the literacy advocacy effort that they worked to promote it to other Chicago Public Schools, before taking leadership of national operations. Through the efforts of Duane Davis, UChicago’s executive director of K–12 education initiatives, 17 South Side public schools now participate in the program. My Very Own Library is also up and running in Kansas City, Missouri; Milwaukee; Newark, New Jersey; and San Francisco.

Thanks to a partnership with the publishing company Scholastic, children at participating schools receive 10 new books a year: usually nine they can choose themselves and a summer read selected by their teachers. Some of the students had never owned a new book before.

“There’s something special about getting a brand-new book that you’re the first one to read,” says Bright.

My Very Own Library gets the whole family involved through literacy nights. With funding for meals and programming—including reading-related games and suggestions for at-home family activities—Bret Harte saw the number of parents attending the events increase from 20 to 80.

Bret Harte students have also gotten face time with Troy Cummings, author of the Notebook of Doom series, and Christina Soontornvat, who wrote the Diary of an Ice Princess series. Both came to read, sign books, take photos, and talk to students about writing.

COVID-19 required the program to pivot quickly. Davis had a full schedule of author visits, celebrity readers, and book fairs planned for March and April, all of which had to be scrapped.

Students will receive additional books in the fall to make up for the canceled book fairs, but the question of author visits was trickier. As a virtual alternative, My Very Own Library uploaded its first batch of videos to YouTube in July: SSA assistant professor Eve L. Ewing, AB’08, reading from her poetry book Electric Arches (Haymarket Books, 2017), author/illustrator Tony Piedra reading his picture book The Greatest Adventure (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2018), and Natasha Tarpley reading from her middle-grade novel The Harlem Charade (Scholastic Press, 2017). The authors go beyond the pages to address viewers about reading and writing.

First intended as a stopgap measure, these virtual readings may become a regular feature. Even in-person visits, once they resume, will be recorded and uploaded to YouTube. With author and teacher collaboration, Davis—a graduate of Chicago’s Whitney Young Magnet High School and a former English teacher there—hopes to develop curriculum guides for the author readings as well.

In that way, he says, My Very Own Library will extend its mission of promoting reading even further, making the videos and related materials “accessible to any school, any parent who wants them.”