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.”
Among its first winners in 2009 were author James Patterson, who not only started writing children’s books but created a web site, ReadKiddoRead.com
, to help parents and kids find books. Other winners included writer and teacher Robert Wilder and a nonprofit in Hawaii that created a program allowing fathers jailed in the mainland to record stories and send them to their children.
That same year, Lilli, then a seventh-grader and having just moved to Coral Gables from Santa Barbara, Calif., was thinking about what to do for her bat mitzvah project. Her mother, a clinical psychologist, began looking around and found the Chapman shelter. So Lilli began volunteering every week as a homework helper.
At first the shelter, where families live together in an effort to keep them intact while they try to find homes, was shocking for the teen, who attends Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove.
“It’s a lot of people. That’s how I would explain it. They’re just, like, waiting. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s shocking, I guess, that you didn’t even know about it or think about it. But it’s reality.”
Almost immediately, she noticed that after finishing their homework, kids turned to video games.
“All the kids would finish their homework and would turn on the TV or put in a movie or play video games and the pinball machines,” she said.
An avid reader who during the summer consumes a book a day, Lilli was bothered.
“She was trying to think what more she could do because it was irking her,” said Lilli’s mother, Liz.
So for her bat mitzvah, rather that accept gifts, Lilli asked guests to bring books to set up a “giving” library at the shelter. When she realized she would need to keep restocking the books — because she wanted kids to keep the books, not just borrow them — she decided to approach Books and Books to ask for galleys and other books the store did not sell.
“If they’re reading it while they’re moving out, they’re not going to have to return it,” she said. “And it’s really nice to have a book you really like.”
And having that book might just be the foundation for a lifetime of reading.
“I love to read and I think a lot of people say they don’t like to read, but I think that’s just because they never found a book they liked or an author,” she said. “So I think everyone should be given an opportunity to find a book they love.”
In 2010, when she was in eighth grade, Lilli also started a book club to encourage her peers to read and talk about books. Again, she went to Books and Books and persuaded the Coral Gables store to give her space every month.
“At this point, we’ve probably pulled the majority of books at Books and Books off the shelves. At least in the teen section,” she said.
She also started writing the store’s “shelf talkers” — the blurbs posted on book shelves — in exchange for books for the shelter. According to Children’s Book Buyer Becky Quiroga Curtis, the blurbs have had the added bonus of “helping introverted teens find just the right book without having to ask any adults for help.”
Finally, Lilli persuaded friends, both at Ransom and other schools, to begin volunteering at the shelter.
Over the years, the shelter has transformed for Lilli, from that shocking place where families crowded onto benches. Her little ecosystem now contains bookshelves stocked with books, rocking chairs, bean bags and rugs. She also plans on donating her $2,500 prize for more improvements to the library.
“It’s a friendly place,” she said.
But more than the place, the people are what matter to Lilli. She still remembers one of her first readers, a kindergartner. When the little girl first came to the library, she only looked at picture books. Lilli read to her every week and helped her unravel words until she began reading them herself.
The girl left, but later returned. This time, rather than flipping through picture books, she was reading Eloise
, and quite possibly, like Francie Nolan in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn
, finding her escape in books.
For more information about the Innovations in Reading award, visit www.nationalbook.org