Children’s Literature for Children: Kemie Nix’s Nonprofit Dedicated to Reading
Children today seem to read less than any previous generation. According to a 2007 National Endowment for the Arts study, only 30% of 13-year-olds read almost everyday. The same study reported that people between ages 15 and 24 watch over two hours of TV and read fewer than ten minutes daily. Children who do not read often enough are at risk of becoming adults who cannot read well. According to a 2003 survey by the U.S. Department of Education, about 1 in 7 adults in the United States have literacy skills so low, that it would be difficult for them to read anything more complex than a picture book.
We tend to think that screen-based media like computers and smartphones are responsible for these statistics, but it’s not that simple. In fact, according to Kemie Nix, founder of the nonprofit Children’s Literature for Children (CLC), people have been reading alarmingly few books since the sixties. Nix, who reviews children’s books for the Parents’ Choice Foundation, has spent decades quietly, but effectively, working to encourage children in the United States and abroad to read more. CLC provides books for children who might not otherwise have access to them, and the organization teaches those children to love reading.
At first working to improve reading rates in the Atlanta, Georgia private school where she taught beginning in the sixties, Kemie soon expanded her work to disadvantaged public schools. From there, Kemie’s efforts to promote reading spread abroad to Kenyan schools. Nowadays, the organization operates in China, Haiti, and other countries. Its book collections span five continents, and it has shared over two million books with children worldwide.
Kemie started as an elementary school teacher in the sixties. Over the years, she taught all grade levels except for second. Reading was her primary interest. By the end of the decade most schools had reworked their elementary education curriculum. The new curriculum encouraged teachers to move away from books and toward worksheet-based instruction. Kemie did not approve.
The way Kemie saw it, cutting books from the curriculum would deprive children of a powerful tool for learning and growth. “Books train long range thinking skills that you get nowhere else,” she says, adding that they can assist children’s emotional development, too. Reading provides people with a chance to explore the lives and thoughts of others, and to encounter characters who might share thoughts similar to their own. How comforting it is, especially for children, to discover books featuring characters who look like they do or face the same obstacles they have encountered. Worksheets could never inspire such emotional connection and deep curiosity, Kemie felt, and that limitation weakens their teaching power.
And so, Kemie set to reviving the role of books in her school’s curriculum right away. Research backed her efforts, a fact that helped her get school support for her plan. On the national level, she saw that falling verbal scores correlated with students spending less time reading. With this and other evidence, Kemie went to her school’s principal to advocate for teaching reading to children. From there, she began assigning book reading as homework, and had her students record each book they read. It sounds so simple, now, in a day when schools encourage read-a-thons and summer reading challenges, but at that point, her program was novel. By not complicating reading with book reports or other assignments, Kemie emphasized the enjoyable aspects of reading and developed a classroom full of avid, enthusiastic readers.
Though Kemie was happy to see her efforts to promote reading work, she knew that a program like hers could do even more good at a less privileged school than the private one where she taught. There were social reasons for why children at disadvantaged public schools struggled, sure. Those problems are difficult to address, but Kemie knew that she could still use a simple method, reading, to create better students. She took her reading program to an innercity school in Atlanta. The children took well to her reading program, which did not surprise Kemie. All it took was a warm personality from a dedicated reading teacher. Having a good librarian helps, of course. Before long, reading scores went up at the school, and Atlanta’s superintendent came to see Kemie at work. He visited her classroom unannounced, complete with an entourage of educators and administrators. Kemie said it was the most intimidating class she ever taught in her life, but she needn’t have worried. The superintendent was impressed, and he asked her to expand her work into more schools.
Before long, Kemie’s work gained international attention. A schoolmistress from Kenya contacted her, and asked her if CLC would be able to help her develop a library for students there. Kemie went to Kenya, where she realized that many children in the schools she visited had never even held a book. Even those that spoke three languages (English, Swahili, and their mother tongue) were used to learning from small pamphlets and worksheets rather than bound books. Seeing a place for CLC’s work, Kemie tried to get US schools to adopt schools in Kenya. She encouraged students to write to the students abroad and to give books to them. Mount Kenya Academy, the original school, now serves K through 12 and has an impressive library with over 20,000 books. Kemie has also brought award-winning authors like Ashley Bryan to the library to speak to students about writing.
As of today, CLC has placed millions of books in disadvantaged schools around the world. Kenya was only the beginning. The organization now operates libraries on three continents through their three primary programs. Their Reader-to-Reader program gathers books for children in need via donations and book drives. These books arrive at local, national, and international destinations. Getting children to read more is not just about providing more books and teachers, but also about developing a safe and comfortable place in which they can be read. CLC ensures that the books they provide to international areas are hosted in places conducive to teaching and reading. They have provided water tanks, kitchens, food programs, and supplies for their partner schools, all of which prepare children to read more and improve community infrastructure. Their Literature Outreach program connects growing readers with volunteers who help children discover appropriate books through reading out loud and discussions. Last, the Reader-to-Patient program connects children in hospitals to volunteers who visit and read to them.
Through a combination of books and passionate volunteers, Children’s Literature for Children continues to nurture new readers. As Nix says, “The first book a child really loves is the “A ha!” book. If a child has that, they’ll go off on their own “ and find more books. CLC volunteers work to help children discover that book.
Having worked for twenty-seven years since becoming a nonprofit in 1986 to promote reading in the United States and abroad, Kemie Nix and the Children’s Literature for Children team are not ready to declare their mission completed. They continue to develop new programs, and to revive libraries when they fall in to disuse. Kemie says, “I think we’re in the same situation now [as we were in the sixties]; children are not reading books.” Many would agree. Those wishing to remedy the problem might look at Kemie’s efforts to encourage reading when deciding what to do next.
To follow and support the work of Children’s Literature for Children, please visit their website.