Meg Wolitzer Visits Kirkland & Ellis

On Monday, author Meg Wolitzer visited the summer law interns at Kirkland & Ellis, LLP. Meg’s visit was the fourth visit in our Summer Law Firm Reading Series.

Ms. Wolitzer’s visit began with a luncheon, featuring Thai cuisine and conversation between the audience and Ms. Wolitzer herself. Following the meal, Jo talked about Behind the Book and welcomed Meg to the podium to begin the reading. She chose a passage from her latest book, The Interestings, a novel that follows the lives of six teenagers from the beginnings of their friendships in the summer of 1973, through middle age.

After reading, Meg gave the interns some valuable insight into her writing process. “When I write, I try to stay open to what might happen. Suppose I want to kill a character, but they just don’t want to die, I have to leave room for the story to go somewhere else,” she said. This discussion evolved into a question-and-answer session, in which the interns asked about her inspiration and how she chose the cover for her book.

One of the more poignant questions was, “How do you develop such rich characters?” To which Ms. Wolitzer sagely responded, “When you remember a good book, you don’t remember plot, you remember characters. And so with this book, instead of writing lyrically, I focused on character development. I was inspired by the British longitudinal documentary series Up, in which a group of twenty kids are filmed every once seven years. You could see their progression through time and how their lives changed so drastically, and that’s what I wanted for the characters in this book.”

Ms. Wolitzer then signed the law interns’ books, and chatted with them as they stood in line.

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The Behind the Book Law Firm Reading Series is also a gateway for young professionals to learn more about getting involved with our Young Executive Board. The YEB is an opportunity for young professionals to support literacy, meet other like-minded professionals, and gain experience being on a board without having to make the same time or financial commitment as a regular board member would. If you are, or someone you know would be, interested in getting involved with our Young Executive Board, please contact Mica at micaela@behindthebook.org.

If you are interested in hosting a reading at your place of employment, women’s group, parents’ group, or other group within your firm or corporation, please contact Jo at joumans@behindthebook.org.

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Behind the Book Through the Years – Meet CHAH Senior Jose!

Behind the Book has enjoyed a special relationship with the Community Health Academy of the Heights, or CHAH, for many years. It is the school in which we piloted grade-wide programs that followed students throughout their tenure at the high school. So far, the pilot programs have proved to be very successful.

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CHAH senior Jose, pictured above, is one example of the influence we have had on CHAH students over the years. Jose first became involved with Behind the Book programs when he was in ninth grade, and his English classes read Ten Mile River by Paul Griffin. Since then, Jose has worked with two other Behind the Book authors, Matt de la Pena and Patricia McCormick, who visited his 10th and 11th grade English classes.

On Monday, we sat down with Jose, who has taken to writing in his spare time since he became involved with Behind the Book programs.

“I started writing when I got bored,” Jose said, when asked how he’d come upon his creative habit. “I’d be sitting in class, and I’d be really, really bored, and one day I started writing. Then I started asking my friends to give me things to write about before class, and I’d try to write about all of them before the end of the class.”

Jose’s habit has produced several short stories featuring characters with superpowers, or with touches of the supernatural.

“I’m usually inspired by what’s around me,” he said. “I really like stories about superheroes, and I wanted to create something like X-Men, but so that every character with a superpower leads a normal life, and not an isolated one.”

Among the many influences that inspired his writing, Jose cites an assignment given to him in ninth grade by Paul Griffin during a Behind the Book program.

“We were told to go out and take pictures of our neighborhoods, and then we had to write a short story inspired by them. That was probably my favorite program – it was a totally new way to approach writing, and it made it cool.” Jose went on to say that this kind of prompt, where there is no right answer, gives students a freedom to write that they don’t normally have in their structured English classes.

Our discussion eventually moved on to other topics, such as Jose’s and his classmates’ experiences in the grade-wide programs, which led to an interesting insight about our programs. “At lunch and stuff, we’d all get together and talk about what we did in the programs,” Jose told Behind the Book COO Mica Gutierrez. “We’d see who did what things with the author, and try to see if we all did the same things, or if one of us got a more interesting program.”

Jose’s words also demonstrated a level of engagement with the books and the authors among the students that was both unprecedented and encouraging. He recounted his experience in 10th grade, when he and his friends in other English classes worked with author Matt de la Pena. “We all got together at lunch, and we started talking about the writing assignment. Eventually, we all came up with this zombie apocalypse story, and we ended up writing it in five parts.”

Finally, Jose had a few words of advice for other budding writers.

“Don’t be afraid to be bored. If you do get bored, it’s a good thing – you find a creative outlet; you go into something you’re comfortable with. And make sure you’re thinking a lot, that you ask questions. And don’t change your first idea – it will likely be the best one you have.”

You can read an excerpt of Jose’s superhero short story “World of Truix” below.

It was 12:00PM when the council had converged. The growing problems of mischief and destruction was getting out of hand.

“Omartrix, what did you say you found throughout the city?” I said.

‘Status of the city is safe for now, but I did feel a rather heavy storm brewing up north. It does not seem like a normal storm though, it almost feels like it has dark energy in it.” said Omartix.

“You and your dark energy senses. It’s probably a hailstorm,” muttered Jetra.

“Well that should be fine, Omartrix, but now we must talk about the matter at hand – Deathro. He is making a plan, it’s huge. We need to find him and lock him up. We will need to send a search party out to the areas to find him. Everyone will lead their party and keep in contact at all times,” I said.

Everyone got their supplies ready and were off with their parties. Clutrix, with super speed, went through land, racing around with others that had super speed. Omartrix went through sky, jumping from cloud to cloud. He transferred a portion of himself into all the clouds so he can survey the land better. Jetra scanned areas with super sonic sound. Every sound that bounced back to her she would see a clear picture of everything that got touched. I went through the water as an aquatic beast. We were all on the hunt for Deathro.

by Jenna Danoy, Social Media Marketing Intern

Who’s Behind the Book? – Meet Nirav!

This is Nirav Shah, the Advising Chairman on our Young Executive Board.

Nirav has done some pretty incredible things during his three-year tenure as the acting chair of our YEB. Outside of his job as a litigation associate at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLC, Nirav has devoted a great portion of his time to Behind the Book. He originated the role of chairman of the YEB, and helped organize such events as the Behind Brooklyn Scavenger Hunt, which more than surpassed our donation expectations.

On the scavenger hunt, Nirav says that even though it was his idea, its success was due in large part to the enthusiasm of both the other members of the YEB and the Brooklyn bookstore owners who offered up their stores for the event. Nirav’s initial intent in setting the scavenger hunt in Brooklyn was to unite book lovers and the literature-laden culture that saturates much of Brooklyn, and South Brooklyn in particular. Setting it in Brooklyn also allowed Behind the Book to develop important contact with people who share our love of books and passion for literacy.

The scavenger hunt was one of Nirav’s fondest memories of his tenure at Behind the Book. As he says, the event allowed “people to make connections to language and literature” in the same way that Behind the Book builds the connection between the students we work with and the books they read. It was a great way to thematically promote Behind the Book’s central mission.

Nirav also helped institute a shift in the make up of our YEB, from the traditional organization with a single chair and several board members, to a new organization, with co-chairs, chairs-in-training, and advising chairs. Nirav is the first Advising Chairman of the YEB.

In the future, Nirav looks most forward to taking a backseat in the workings of the YEB – as he says, the YEB is filled with a variety of incredible people who work in a diverse array of industries. As they each bring something new and innovative to the table, he is excited to see how the YEB develops and continues to discover new ways of promoting Behind the Book.

His support for Behind the Book extends even farther than his commitment to the YEB Chair position. At [name of event], Nirav pledged to match any and all donations made by his friends, and ended up raising over [amount of money] for us.

In addition to being an incredible asset to Behind the Book, Nirav is an accomplished trivia fanatic – he was a three-day champion on Jeopardy! and won a significant amount of money on Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?

Who’s Behind the Book? – Meet Julia and Kaitlyn!

This is Julia Shullman (left) and Kaitlyn Kotlowski (right), the current co-chairpeople on our Young Executive Board.

Julia has done some very awesome things in her short time with Behind the Book. Not only has she provided us with her insight as a legal advisor, but she has proven to be an exemplary addition to our YEB.

Hailing from a family of book lovers, and as a book lover herself, Julia is highly committed to Behind the Book and our mission. Since her friend and our former YEB chairman Nirav Shah first brought her to a Behind the Book event, Julia has been heavily interested in seeing Behind the Book expand its reach. In addition to her role as YEB co-chair, Julia is a co-chair on the Behind the Book council with Youth INC, a non-profit organization that raises money to support other non-profits with children-centric missions. Julia’s work with Youth INC will help Behind the Book achieve long-term sustainability. As a board member, Julia will learn valuable fundraising skills that will help us innovate our development strategies.

Kaitlyn has also been an incredible asset in her tenure on the YEB. She used her experience in the PR industry to help Behind the Book develop its very first strategic marketing plan, which allowed us to advance our reach to target audiences, and make better use of their time.

Last December, Kaitlyn hosted a fundraiser for Behind the Book at New York Beer Company that raised $1200. The money was used to purchase almost 500 books for our section of the Community Health Academy of the Heights’s new library.

Together, Julia and Katilyn will certainly prove a formidable fundraising and leadership team! We’re very much looking forward to watching them grow and learn, and in seeing what their efforts do for Behind the Book.

Programs Without Student Books – DeWitt Clinton High School

While a large part of our programs are centered around the process behind the creation of a book, we also do several programs where student work is not published in anthologies, but is instead celebrated in other ways.

This year, twelfth graders at DeWitt Clinton High School read author Amy Waldman’s book The Submission, a novel about an anonymous contest to design a memorial at Ground Zero, and the uproar of journalists and politicians when they learn that a Muslim architect wins. The book helped the students answer the question, “How do you decide how to memorialize an event?” which was an important part of their curriculum.

After reading the novel, the students held an ethical discussion with Amy, which included questions about why she chose to write the book and how she came about its topic. Then, the students visited the 9/11 Tribute Center.

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On their visit, the students learned a lot about what it takes to build a memorial, and how architects go about constructing them. They learned about writing memorial proposals, and then they were tasked with composing their own 750-word proposals to commemorate an event in history of their choice.

BtB organized a group of DeWitt Clinton alumni to volunteer in the classroom to aid students in revising their works, and discuss their projects’ merits and strengths. The students were highly appreciative of the alums’ visit. When they finished their work, the students presented their proposals to the class. Overall, the project emphasized the significance of history, writing prowess, and public speaking skills, all of which the DeWitt seniors will continue to build upon in the future.

Even though they did not produce a published book, the seniors at DeWitt Clinton High School were still able to develop a deep appreciation for books, authors, and writing. They were able to sharpen their skills and build mastery experience, which is invaluable to a reader’s self-confidence level.

Of the program, one student said, “It was nice to meet someone with such experience, and who has had such an influence on our society.” Another said that hearing Ms. Waldman present her ideas to the class added some “inspiration that I could not get just from reading the book.”

After the students had finished their work, their teacher, Mr. Ray Pultinas, submitted his lesson plan and the work his students had done during the Behind the Book program to the 9/11 Tribute Center, and he won their Teacher Award for helping create an exemplary educational project that sustained the memory of the 9/11 attacks.

The students’ work was definitely a great success!

by Jenna Danoy, Social Media Marketing Intern

Torrey Maldonado Recommends Books for Middle and High Schoolers

With summer in full swing, it’s possible you’ve already exhausted your reading list. Never fear – Behind the Book author Torrey Maldonado has some recommendations for you!

 After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson, a Behind the Book author

The day D Foster enters Neeka and her best friend’s lives, the world opens up for them. Suddenly they’re keenly aware of things beyond their block in Queens, things that are happening in the world—like the shooting of Tupac Shakur—and in search of their Big Purpose in life. When—all too soon—D’s mom swoops in to reclaim her, and Tupac dies, they are left with a sense of how quickly things can change and how even all-too-brief connections can touch deeply.

America by E.R. Frank, a Behind the Book author

Fifteen-year-old America has been nowhere, has been nobody. He is separated from his foster mother. He is a runaway, a patient. Without love. Without hope. And, eventually, without the will to live. Until Dr. B. steps in. To listen, to explore, and to find within America both the story and the boy who are lost.

The Hammer and the Anvil by Dwight Jon Zimmerman

In The Hammer and the Anvil, the award-winning author Dwight Jon Zimmerman and the renowned artist Wayne Vansant vividly depicts the tumultuous time through the lives of two men who defined it: Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

This book reveals that both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln each wrestled with the question of slavery from a young age. Douglass, a slave who was spared no brutality, once fought an especially cruel master and escaped north to freedom. Lincoln, who was hired out by his father to do manual labor on neighbors’ farms, found this harsh life intolerable. As a senator, Lincoln sought ways to end the westward spread of slavery, believing that adding free states to the Union would diminish the power of the Southern states and lead to the gradual disappearance of the “peculiar institution.” Douglass was less patient. He had become a skilled orator and an influential editor of Northern abolitionist journals, and called on white Americans to honor their nation’s founding commitment to liberty.

When the Civil War erupted in April 1861, Douglass hoped that the conflict would mean the end of slavery. But Lincoln delayed emancipation, and Douglass despaired—until he met the president face-to-face and recognized that their causes were one and the same. Featuring evocative and dramatic scenes of this seminal time, The Hammer and the Anvil will engage both Civil War buffs and young people new to the study of American history.

The Hole in My Life by Jack Gantos

In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he recklessly agreed to help sail a sixty-foot yacht loaded with a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, where he and his partners sold the drug until federal agents caught up with them. For his part in the conspiracy, Gantos was sentenced to serve up to six years in prison.

In Hole in My Life, this prize-winning author of over thirty books for young people confronts the period of struggle and confinement that marked the end of his own youth. On the surface, the narrative tumbles from one crazed moment to the next as Gantos pieces together the story of his restless final year of high school, his short-lived career as a criminal, and his time in prison. But running just beneath the action is the story of how Gantos – once he was locked up in a small, yellow-walled cell – moved from wanting to be a writer to writing, and how dedicating himself more fully to the thing he most wanted to do helped him endure and ultimately overcome the worst experience of his life.

Stay With Me by Paul Griffin, a Behind the Book author

Fifteen-year-olds Cece and Mack didn’t expect to fall in love. She’s a sensitive, straight-A student; he’s a high school dropout. But soon they’re spending every moment together, bonding over a rescued dog, telling their secrets, making plans for the future. Everything is perfect. Until Mack makes a horrible mistake, and in just a few minutes, the future they’d planned becomes impossible. In this stark new reality, both of them must find meaning and hope in the memories of what they had, to survive when the person they love can’t stay.

From award-winning writer Paul Griffin, Stay with Me is both heartbreaking and uplifting, filled with characters (both dog and human) that will forever change the way you look at the world.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

August Pullman was born with a facial deformity that, up until now, has prevented him from going to a mainstream school. Starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, he wants nothing more than to be treated as an ordinary kid—but his new classmates can’t get past Auggie’s extraordinary face. Wonder, now a #1 New York Times bestseller and included on the Texas Bluebonnet Award master list, begins from Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include his classmates, his sister, her boyfriend, and others. These perspectives converge in a portrait of one community’s struggle with empathy, compassion, and acceptance.

Yummy by G. Neri, a Behind the Book author

Eleven-year old Roger is trying to make sense of his classmate Robert “Yummy” Sandifer’s death, but first he has to make sense of Yummy’s life. Yummy could be as tough as a pit bull sometimes. Other times he was as sweet as the sugary treats he loved to eat. Was Yummy some sort of monster, or just another kid? As Roger searches for the truth, he finds more and more questions. How did Yummy end up in so much trouble? Did he really kill someone? And why do all the answers seem to lead back to a gang – the same gang to which Roger’s older brother belongs? Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty is a compelling graphic dramatization based on events that occurred in Chicago in 1994. This gritty exploration of youth gang life will force readers to question their own understandings of good and bad, right and wrong.

If your book appears on this list and you are interested in becoming a Behind the Book author, please contact us at info@behindthebook.org.

If you’re looking for other recommendations, feel free to check some out here, here, and here.

And as always, you can browse our shelves on Goodreads.

All book summaries were taken from their respective pages on Amazon, and may have been altered for our purposes.

Happy reading!

Giving Voice to Dreams

Our Dreams by Class 2-210 at PS 76

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Time for a book celebration!

Recently, the second-grade students at PS 76 worked with Renée Watson, author of Harlem’s Little Blackbird, to write their own stories about their dreams and aspirations. At first, the students were nervous to read aloud to the class, but with gentle encouragement from Behind the Book founder Jo Umans, all of the students faced their fears and expressed their dreams. After working with Watson and the Behind the Book staff to revise their stories, the student created illustrations corresponding to their written work. Our Dreams is the final product of the second-graders’ hard work and creativity.

But what’s a book celebration? Behind the Book strives to not only improve the students’ literacy but also boost their confidence. The process of publishing a book demonstrates mastery in reading and writing, and book release parties instill a sense of accomplishment in students. As a result, students are more likely to continue reading and writing in the future.

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 The second-graders were thrilled to view their work. Each piece was completely unique. Some students wanted to be teachers and veterinarians, while others opted for riskier routes (think ninjas!).

Students compared their original work to the published book and noted how professional it looked.

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One student slid into the “Author’s Chair” and flipped through the anthology.

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Congratulations to the second grade class at P.S. 76! We know your new found love for reading and writing will carry you far!

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