Literature for All of Us
When Karen Thomson opens a book she is certain of one thing: by turning a page, she is opening herself up to the world and all of its potential.
Karen is the founder and executive director of Literature for All of Us, a charitable organization that reaches out to between 500 and 600 disadvantaged teens in the Chicago area each year with thought–provoking book groups. Most groups are made up of teen girls struggling with everything including domestic violence, poverty, teen pregnancy and faltering grades.
The book–loving leader is convinced that by giving teens a safe place to explore the world and speak their mind about a book they’ve read, it gives them confidence–and with confidence comes change.
Literature for All of Us started as a simple idea before it was launched in 1997. Karen, who has a BA in English Literature from Wheaton College and a Master of Arts in Teaching English from Northwestern University, volunteered to lead a book group for teen mothers at the Illinois Department of Human Services. That first week she walked into the room with some trepidation and a stack of Maya Angelou poetry under her arm.
Today, her organization has facilitated over 200 book groups, reaching over 5,800 young people. Twenty percent of all book group members are boys now, a program that started after many girls said they wanted their partners and boyfriends to start reading too.
The organization is also committed to teaching the magic of the written word to young children. Its Children’s Literature for Parenting program introduces parents to relevant and award–winning kids books they can read at home.
"I can’t tell you what it feels like to look in on a group and see everybody’s head buried in a book, because I know what the alternative is," Karen says, sounding perpetually energized and excited. "So this is really good."
Where Are They Now?
With the support of the Harlequin More Than Words Program, in 2010-11 Literature for All of Us inspired and enriched the lives of 537 underserved students aged eleven to twenty-two who participated in one of eighteen book groups held at eight collaborating sites. Collaborating sites included alternative high schools, teen-parent service agencies, and after-school providers in various Chicago neighborhoods and in Evanston. Led by a professional Book Group Leader, each group met weekly for 90 minutes. Book group activities included opening and closing focusing rituals, round-robin reading and discussion, a poetry writing exercise, and sharing their writing in the group. All of these activities are designed to make reading a positive experience and to create a community of readers and writers, while also accomplishing important learning objectives. In all, our professional and caring Book Group Leaders planned and facilitated 383 book group sessions in 2010-11. We distributed approximately 1,200 novels, poetry collections, children’s books and journals, building home libraries and encouraging reading and writing outside as well as inside book group.
Evaluation results from the year showed 73% of participants maintained or increased reading frequency over the course of the book group program year and 34% reported an increase in the frequency of voluntary writing during the year. With the help of Harlequin’s More Than Words Program, Literature for All of Us turned hundreds of low-literacy and at-risk teens into readers and writers.