Thank You to Balzer & Bray!

Here's Alex, our Program Intern, struggling to carry some of the books. Careful Alex- don't trip and fall!

Here’s Alex, our Program Intern, struggling to carry some of the books. Careful Alex- don’t trip and fall!

This morning, the staff at Behind the Book received a great surprise! A huge box of books arrived on our doorstep from Balzer & Bray. These books will be going to classroom libraries at Community Health Academy of the Heights, PS 46, PS241 and PS154. An imprint of Harper Collins, Balzer & Bray publishes some of our favorite authors including Patricia McCormick, Kadir Nelson, and Mo Willems.  Thanks for helping us Create Readers for Life!


Brooklyn Landmark Field Trip with C.S. 21

After weeks of preparation (and one rain check due to inclement weather) Behind the Book and Mrs. Lebron’s Fourth Grade class at C.S. 21 were finally able to embark on a fantastic field trip last week. They visited eight of Brooklyn’s most notorious buildings as part of their research on Brooklyn landmarks through our program which placed The Brooklyn Bridge author, Elizabeth Mann, with this classroom of lively students.

Mrs. Mann's first visit to the classroom

Ms. Mann discussing The Brooklyn Bridge at her first classroom visit.

With digital cameras hung snugly around their necks, students boarded the tour bus with high spirits in tow. Blessed with a knowledgeable tour guide from Levy’s Family Unique Tours, the students learned fun facts and details about the landmarks on each stop.

A beautiful day for a walk in the park, our first stop was at the Grecian Boathouse in Prospect Park. We were able to get up close to the old boathouse, and after recording its shape, size, material, and other miscellaneous details, the students snapped pictures of both the boathouse, and of course, the geese that swam in the river ahead. Judging from the “Oohs” and “Ahhs” from the kids,  this was one of the top sites of the day, and what a treat to have it first.

Beautiful day out at Prospect Park Boathouse

Beautiful day out at Prospect Park Boathouse

From there, we covered Leffert’s homestead, the oldest Dutch house in the state, The Brooklyn Zoo, where naturally we wish we could’ve bought a day pass and stayed ogling those cute baby monkeys all day, the Brooklyn Public Library, picture seen below with our light saber toting tour guide, and followed by a dart across the street to the Grand Army Plaza.


Lovely ladies posing for the camera.

Lovely ladies posing for the camera.

It was great to witness the determination students had when trying to capture “the best shot.” Contemplating the building, where its finest features were, and even pointing out the details invisible to the naked eye, we were pleasantly surprised to see the kids harness their engagement with art.



A fine example of this was when we were standing under the Grand Army Plaza. As the students moved forward, we noticed two boys lagging behind. When we inquired as to what they were doing, each pointed excitedly to the under head of the Plaza monument, showing us the design depicted just over our heads that everyone else had failed to recognize when we all stood huddled together. They bounced around in their school sweatshirts and each told the other where and how to zoom in to get the best shot. While one snapped the picture the other wrote on their worksheets about the material, observations, and commentary of the architecture.


After a brief lunch at the Brooklyn Public Park, we headed towards the grand Brooklyn Bridge. Each student renewed with the energy that only lunchtime can bring, spent the next few minutes observing the bridge and discussing Mann’s The Brooklyn Bridge. Having been in the classroom nearly three weeks prior to the field trip, we were happy to see how well the students retained and rattled off their knowledge of the BK Bridge.

Eating lunch at The Brooklyn Park

Eating lunch at The Brooklyn Park

Ending our field trip with a visit to the Brooklyn Borough Hall,  students ran up the steps in an effort to get as close as possible to the details of the building. Some preferred to photograph the monstrous landmark from further away, and we watched as each pair of partners scattered throughout the area in order to obtain their unique shot of the landmark.

All in all, a gallant success, we can’t wait to bring Ms. Mann back into the classroom next month. For more information on our programs and other field trips we’ve taken, please feel free to check us out here. If you are interested in volunteering with us please contact Bess, our volunteer coordinator, at

Why We Love Banned Books

This week we’re celebrating the freedom to read – it’s Banned Books Week!

When Behind the Book staff visited the New York Public Library last week for an exhibit called The ABC Of It: Why Children’s Books Matter, we saw an ominous room covered ceiling-to-floor in black paneling. This contained books that have been censored, banned, or challenged. One might not be surprised to find Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn due to its content dealing with racism and controversial use of language, but even the fun tales of the rebellious Pippi Longstocking did not escape criticism due to the main redhead’s notorious naughtiness. The extremely popular books in this section came under fire, especially by fundamentalist religious groups, for mature content and setting bad examples. Mark Twain surmised that the success of such books was not in spite of censorship, but partially because of it.

A section of the tower of censored books. See any familiar titles?

We have brought controversial books that discuss sensitive issues into classrooms because we believe that it is important for students to read books that reflect their experiences, especially when most books do not. We try to find books that are relevant to their lives, and sometimes that means content about race, violence, and drugs. Our students are often reluctant readers, but they are drawn in by stories that deal with topics with which they are familiar and to which they can connect.

Rule of the Bone by BtB author Russell Banks explores drug use, sexual abuse, and murder, and has consequently met much opposition. When it is taught in schools, the classroom can become a safe space to openly discuss these matters that may affect the readers. Even if they are not directly impacted, teenagers may encounter such problems in their communities, have friends who are struggling with them, or just hear about them on the news.

Rule of the Bone

BtB author Russell Banks’s book has been banned for mention of sexual content and drugs.

BtB author Matt de la Peña’s Mexican WhiteBoy was banned in Tuscon, Arizona for containing “critical race theory,” thus violating a state law prohibiting the teaching of “racial resentment.” We work with diverse groups of students from different racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds, and we celebrate that diversity. In a NY Times article, Tuscon students explained that the characters in Mexican WhiteBoy were more relatable than those in other books: their race, family and financial situation, educational goals, and career aspirations.

BtB author Matt de la Peña’s book has been banned in Tuscon, AZ for containing “critical race theory”

The bottom line is that relatability gets kids reading.  Because many of our students are familiar with the taboo topics that get books banned, a banned book might just be the reason a student discovers reading!

By Laurie Beckoff, Program Intern

On The Prowl For An Awesome Volunteer Book Design Coordinator

Looking for a way to give back and gain experience in publishing?  Behind the Book is now searching for a new Book Design Coordinator to mandate the process of publishing books written and illustrated by our students. Working with program coordinators, book designers, and digital printing vendors, the Book Design Coordinator will prepare the text and art produced by students for publication.

This role is perfect for someone with an interest in publishing. Responsibilities include scanning student art and text, copy editing, and proofreading text and layouts. Must be well organized and detail-oriented with excellent written and verbal communications skills, and a good eye for design.

Familiarity with InDesign is a plus.

Examples of our previous student books include:

Say it loud and proud How War Affects Us All cover 3rd Grade Autobiographies Scary Fables Cover Our Dreams Cover







For a full list, check out our student art gallery here.

To apply, please send a resume and cover letter to Jo Umans at .

*This position requires one day a week in the office and some time from home. There will be a small stipend,commensurate with experience. However, publishing experience not required.

Behind the Book Staff Take a Field Trip

Instead of heading straight for the office on Monday morning, Behind the Book staff saw our friends Patience and Fortitude: the stone lions in front of the New York Public Library. NYPL currently has an exhibition, open until March 2014, called The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter. We certainly believe that children’s books matter, and we went to discover what the exhibit had to share.

Volunteer Coordinator Bess Rosenfeld and Executive Director Jo Umans settle into the scenery of Goodnight Moon

Alongside original editions of some of the earliest children’s books, including school primers, fairy tales, fables, and biblical stories, the exhibit features some of our more modern childhood favorites: Alice’s Adventures in WonderlandWinnie-the-Pooh, Harry Potter, and The Phantom Tollbooth, to name a few.

The exhibit traces the history of children’s literature and its place in society, from early debates about whether children are better off with stories to teach lessons or being taught straight facts, to the different books that were written for children in various social strata.

Did you know that American public libraries used to have signs declaring, “No dogs or children allowed”? This was before the rise of children’s rooms designed especially for kids to enjoy libraries.

Rad Bradbury’s sentiments regarding libraries are shared by many

We were particularly excited to see several BtB authors featured in the exhibit including Brian Selznick in the graphic novel section and Mo Willems and William Low in the New York City section. Here the exhibit focuses on New York’s “openness to change” leading to a sub-genre about “growing up, venturing out, and becoming one’s own person.” We love bringing books like these to our students living and going to school in our great city.

At the very start of the exhibit, a floor to ceiling sign in bold red declares, “Behind every children’s book is a vision of childhood: a shared understanding of what growing up is all about.” Published literature reflects what society values and believes. And this is why diversity in literature is essential – because marginalization occurs when children don’t see themselves represented in the books they read.

We make it a priority to choose books for our programs that reflect our students’ experiences in some way. It is also why we publish our students’ writing: so they have the opportunity to express their own ideas about growing up and so that they know that those ideas are valued. They have written about their neighborhoodstheir dreams and aspirations, and overcoming fears, all important aspects of childhood.

We had a wonderful time exploring the world of children’s books! The exhibition runs until March 2014, so you still have plenty of time to enjoy it, take your kids, reflect on your own childhood, and remember how the books we love as children shape us more than we may realize at the time.

Behind the Book staff at The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter

By Laurie Beckoff, Program Intern

Creating Our Mission: A Big Thank You To The Design Staff

If you are a dedicated follower of our Behind the Book blog, then you know how proud we are of each one of our students. For the past couple of years now, we have worked with volunteers and designers to create anthologies of all the work our students have done in order to showcase their achievements. Learn more about how our programs have evolved in the video below.

With everyone back with their glowing post-vacay smiles, BtB hosted a small party for those who have made the student books possible: our designers.  With some traveling from as far as Chicago, (Fun fact: we even have a designer in London! – he couldn’t make it) our volunteer designers gathered for wine, snacks, and a meet and greet.

Meeting 2

Grateful to have designers who have generously given up so much of their time into helping us construct our 2012-2013 student books, we couldn’t ask for a better group of people to work with, and are proud to display some of their work. (Below)

Scary Fables Cover

Designed by: Amy Wu

Our Dreams Cover

Designed by: Rachel Willey

How War Affects Us All cover

Designed by: Eileen Tong

3rd Grade Autobiographies

Designed by: Lisa Hamilton

Say it loud and proud

Designed by: Cristina Stoll

Working remotely throughout the year, Monday’s meeting was also a nice opportunity for the designers to socialize with the rest of the BtB staff, check out one another’s work, and get fired up about future books and programs for this year. “I really enjoyed seeing the variety of choices different designers made in their books – the fonts, colors, cover designs, and interior layouts – each person brought a lot of creativity,” Sara Reyolds, teaching artist for BtB, had to say about the gathering. If you’d like to see more of our designers’ work, feel free to check it out here.


      Founder Jo Umans along with the Designers

With so much creativity fluttering around us, we know we’ve got our best foot forward this year as we gear up for the start of our C.S. 21 program on September 20th. (More details to come.) But for now, we sing our praises to the lovely designers and volunteers, and thank you guys for continuing to help make Behind the Book‘s mission a reality.

Make It Count: Civil Rights Resources That Go Beyond “I Have A Dream”

How do teachers go beyond “I Have a Dream” in order to make the civil rights era more meaningful to students? Continuing with our mini-series dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s speech, we decided to take a look at the different ways educators have communicated the significance of this historical period to their students.

Here were a few suggestions we found to be the most effective (and creative!):

1.) Interview A Grandparent

Suggested by a teacher in a New York Times post, interviewing a grandparent creates the ability to associate history with a member of one’s family, serves to define the significance behind the civil rights movement, and helps create a personal relationship for the student. Oftentimes, students are under the impression that after slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War, all men were treated fairly and equally. Hearing their grandparents recall events throughout the 1950s and 1960s will help to redefine this misguided idea that the civil rights battle ended with the war and help show how prominent the civil rights movement was in shaping America’s history.


2.) Re-Enact Harpers Ferry

Working well for the history leading up to the civil rights movement, one teacher had her students play out the Harpers Ferry court case in which John Brown was tried and convicted of treason against the state of Virginia. By assigning each student a role in the courtroom including a bailiff, prosecutor, defender, and several jury members, you can have them research the court maneuvers and story from each of the different perspectives. Through this, they can better understand some of the underlying issues of the Civil War.

3.) Getting Lyrical

A method better-suited for the older crew, I had a teacher in high school incorporate the civil rights movement with the popular music and lyrics of that time period and I’ve never forgotten it since. Throw on a little Bob Dylan “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and you’ll have the emotion-ridden teens hooked. After listening to the songs, have them take an evaluative look at the lyrics at hand, asking both how it is relevant nearly 50 years later, and what those words mean to them as they read.

If you feel that Dylan and his raspy ways might be a little too slow for your students, spice it up by throwing on remixes of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” through “Hip-Hop Speaks to Children,” or my personal favorite, found below. Click here for more of the most popular civil rights songs (you’ll be surprised at what you see.)

4.) All Song And Dance

Following in line with the previous suggestion, we read about teachers who contributed to a New York Times post about teaching civil rights that found success through revisiting music as a basis for a unit of instruction. When they shared with their elementary students music from Africa during the time of slavery, and then music of Dr. King’s era, followed by the jazz era, students were able to actively engage with the material while viewing PowerPoints and books on the subject at hand.

Don’t feel like finding the music yourself? No problem, check out Let Freedom Sing: How Music Inspired the Civil Rights Movement, and you’ll find a compelling look into the singers and songwriters who fought for their rights through verse.

5.) “Save The Last Word For Me”

The “Save the Last Word for Me” teaching strategy comes from the Facing History website and engages the whole classroom in a close examination of a text. Hand out copies of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” and three index cards to each student. Ask students to read the speech on their own, highlight three sentences that stand out, and then write one sentence on the front of each index card. On the back of their index cards, students should write about why they chose that quote – what it reminded them of, what in history or today they connected it to, or what it meant to them. Students then divide into small groups of three and read their quotations.

 6.) Redefine “Black History”

What belongs under the heading “black history”? Does it include sports, entertainment, and business? Does it include people with no claim to fame whatsoever? What is missing? These are some of the questions presented from The Learning Network’s article covering black history month.

jackie robinson

Discuss the attributes of “history,” including popular and oral history. Ask students to explore the archives of The New York Times or follow continuing coverage, looking for different stories that fill in our knowledge of the African-American experience. Students can compile a collection of “new history” sources and explain how each contributes to our understanding of the civil rights movement.

Feel free to comment below with more suggestions.