Lilli Leight loves A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. The 15-year-old loves the classic novel’s exploration of perseverance, tenacity and hard luck, as well as the metaphor shared by its title, so much that she is reading it for the fourth time.
So it should come as no surprise that for her bat mitzvah project, Lilli decided to create a “reading ecosystem” for homeless children.
What may be surprising is just how much her ecosystem has grown.
Over the last three years, she has collected at least 5,000 books for kids at the Chapman Partnership’s Homeless Assistance Center in downtown Miami. She has also spent close to 200 hours reading to kids, helping them with homework and setting up a library. She wrote book blurbs for the shelves at Books and Books in return for book donations. She also started a monthly book club, then persuaded its members, along with other friends and peers, to volunteer at the shelter. According to Trev Flowers, the center’s director of community relations, she has “tangibly improved the academic success and quality of life for the children.”
Her work also caught the attention of the National Book Foundation.
The foundation, widely known for presenting its prestigious National Book Award every year, also honors efforts to promote literature. After encouragement — Lilli would say nagging — from her father, Lilli filled out an application for the foundation’s Innovations in Reading award.
And to her surprise, she was chosen from more than 300 applications for one of five awards this year, becoming the youngest recipient to ever win the annual honor.
“The thing with Lilli’s [project] is she connected things beautifully. She took something you do alone and found so many ways to involve the wider community,” said Leslie Shipman, director of programs for the foundation. “We tend to get a lot of book clubs and librarians who are great and creative, but that’s not enough.”
Other winners this year include a television show produced by a Colorado school district and public library and hosted by high school juniors and seniors; an adult-literacy program in Chicago that marries books with outings to plays, museums and other events; a bicycle-powered street library for the homeless in Portland, Ore.; and a Memphis Public Library program in which African-American men create positive role models by reading to children.
In addition to receiving a $2,500 prize, Shipman said Lilli will travel to New York City in November to give a presentation during the week leading up to the ceremony announcing the National Book Award. During that week, she’ll get to attend events and rub elbows with the luminaries of the publishing world as well as get a spot at the coveted gala at Cipriani Wall Street.
The foundation launched the Innovations in Reading, first funded by the Ford Foundation and now sponsored by the Boston-based retail store Levenger, about five years ago, Shipman explained, to encourage kids to continue reading after middle school.
“We saw studies showing that that’s when kids stopped reading. Something that had been lovely and pleasurable was now homework and we wanted to create something to counteract that,” Shipman said. “We wanted to promote people doing out-of-the-box thinking.”