Giving Voice to Dreams

Our Dreams by Class 2-210 at PS 76


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.


 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.


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


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



Courage to Express Their Fears

Scary Fables by Class 1-157 at C.S. 21

Author Susanna Pitzer was greeted with shrieks and hugs from the first-graders at CS 21. Looks like it’s time for a book release party!


A couple weeks ago, the students read Not Afraid of Dogs by Susanna Pitzer, which depicts a young boy who overcomes his fear of dogs. Then, the class created a collaborative story about a friendly, dessert-eating vampire. But soon it was time to pen their own narratives, all paired with crayon and watercolor illustrations, about characters facing their fears.  Scary Fables is the final outcome of their courageous tales.

At the book release party, Pitzer scrolled through the pages of Scary Fables on the classroom’s Smart Board. The students’ eyes lit up with excitement as they recognized their names.


Each student stood up and read the title of his or her story to the class. Some were shy, some more verbose, but all were very enthusiastic about their published pieces.


Executive Director Jo Umans supports one shy student as she reads her work.

In “Not Afraid of the Dark,” Brianna voices her fears about not wearing glasses in her room at night.


A student named Cassius recalled an illustration from the story “Not Afraid of Frogs,” which demonstrates the power of realistic pictures.


Book release parties allow students to witness their mastery of reading and writing. Clearly, celebrations are effective, because the students were overcome with an enormous amount of self-confidence and pride in the classroom-turned-stage. Whatever initial fears they had about reading aloud were certainly crushed by the end of the day!

Read the whole book on our website!

Building Readers for Life

Architecture in the City by Class 2-202 at C.S. 21

In response to the question, “Why are we here?” a student raised his hand and said, “To celebrate all the work we’ve done!” and indeed, he was right. As we’ve written here before, the second-graders at CS 21 have done some awesome work with author Isabel Hill to learn and write about New York City architecture.


After reading Building Stories and Urban Animals by Isabel Hill, the students ventured through Brooklyn neighborhoods to see what treasures they could find. Sharice, an enthusiastic student, recalled that Urban Animals was about “buildings, and how rough or soft they were. We also learned about shapes.”  The class scrolled through their books on their Smart Board, smiling and shouting in excitement over their and their classmates’ work. Enthusiasm was palpable when the students held their published books in their hands for the first time.


The students reminisced about Ms. Hill’s visit, chattering excitedly about when they photographed and described the different buildings they saw in their neighborhood. When the students saw their final pieces of work in their published book, it was clear that they saw the unity in the projects they’d worked on all throughout the year. They were finally able to understand that their hard work and enthusiasm about the project only made their finished product all the more incredible.


Everyone was very proud to see their blurbs matched beside the different architectural structures they studied. It was cool to learn that their work might someday teach other people.


The kids were evidently glad to see their work. Nayshon exclaimed, “My book is awesome!” Hopefully, their newfound enthusiasm for literature will only grow in the future.


by Camille Adeoye, Program Intern

PS 46 Book Celebrations!

by Danielle Charpentier, Program Intern

A subway ride to Brooklyn with nearly fifty books in tow? Time for book celebrations!

Behind the Book creates published books for all classes that complete programs. Each book includes a table of contents and title, copyright, and dedication pages. But what is the purpose of the published book? Significant research indicates that when students view their own work, their confidence grows. Behind the Book students have achieved mastery in writing and drawing, which motivates them to pursue those activities further.

The book celebrations took place at PS 46 located in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, in Jessica Lischin and Miriam Bowen’s second grade classrooms. A couple of weeks ago, each class welcomed Douglas Florian to present his book Poetrees, which includes an array of poems and illustrations based on plant life. Inspired by his book, the rest of the students composed poems and sketched drawings. One second-grade student gushed, “It was so exciting and so special that he came here.” Another exclaimed, “I had a fun and special day!” Miriam Bowen stated that the students were “so excited to meet the person behind the name on the book.”

Yesterday, as Micaela Gutierrez handed out the books, the students were enthralled to see their own hard work right before their eyes. One student named Destiny explained that the entire experience was “a little bit hard, but fun.” Another student named Dalila explain, “It makes me want to learn more.” Esmerelda gushed, “I learned to rhyme. I like writing now.” Evidently, the book celebration was a success. Hopefully, the students will hone their skills over the summer and embark on the quest of becoming life-long readers and writers.

Check out our Facebook page for more photos!

We’re all authors! BtB students celebrate their first published book

student author, literacy

A student reads his work to author Susanna Pitzer

As author Susanna Pitzer entered the second grade classroom at PS 46 in Fort Greene, the seven year-old students instantly lit up and rushed to give her a warm welcome. Susanna’s book, Not Afraid of Dogs, was the centerpiece of a several part program where students wrote short stories based on their personal experiences with fear. Last week, BtB and PS 46 hosted a publishing party for the class’ finished book: Tales That Make You Afraid to Read.

The eight students in Mr. Braverman’s class have each been diagnosed with a learning disability, however, this obstacle didn’t stop them from producing strikingly creative work.

At the party, each student read their story out loud to the class and displayed their watercolor illustrations. Carli, a bubbly young girl, shared her story about being scared of wolves and how she overcame this fear by letting a wolf lick her hand. Several parents were also in attendance.

Once students shared their stories, Susanna invited the class to autograph all the copies. After all, everyone is an author! We even got our copy autographed!

BtB founder Jo Umans with her signed copy of "Stories That Make You Afraid to Read"

BtB founder Jo Umans with her signed copy of “Stories That Make You Afraid to Read”

To wrap up the party, each student received an personalized card from Susanna showing appreciation for their hard work and creativity. Refreshments, including apple juice and cookies, were enjoyed by all.
BtB is looking forward to our continued partnership with PS 46 and all of the talented young students there! Check out all the photos from the party on our facebook page.
Special thanks to our guest blogger, Steven Pastores from Columbia University and to Kelly Blose, one of the many volunteer book designers who help us create beautiful student books.

On the Road with Mark Leyner by Jürgen Fauth

In April, Jürgen Fauth read from his debut novel, Kino, in our reading series at the KGB Bar alongside Mark Leyner, an author he liked to read when he was a creative writing student in America.  Whether you’re an experienced writer, or you’re just beginning, meeting an author will never cease to be a special experience. As Jürgen Fauth writes about the ties between writers and readers, we hope that our students will also be inspired by the authors they meet through Behind the Book.

I was born and raised in Germany and came to the U.S. as an exchange student in the early 90s. There, I discovered creative writing classes, which were relatively unknown in Germany at the time, and decided I wanted to be a writer.

Through the luck of the draw, I spent my exchange year at Mississippi College, a small Baptist school outside of Jackson, MS, and I was making interesting friends – the slackers and outcasts, the people who enjoyed skipping chapel and staying out past curfew (which only existed for the female students.) At home, university students were considered adults, with all the rights and responsibilities that came with it, but here, there were rules to break and hall monitors to dodge. It was easy to imagine myself a rebel, and the books we were reading reflected this. The beats were our favorite because even if Mississippi College wasn’t exactly like the fifties; it had more rules and regulations than any place I’ve lived before or since.

With my love for Kerouac and Ginsberg came the siren song of the open road. My Mississippi friends weren’t of drinking age, but they had cars, gas was cheap, and the roads that started behind our dorm led to I-55, which connects Jackson to New Orleans and Memphis, and goes on from there to St. Louis and Chicago. Whenever we got the chance, we drove – Florida, New York, Denver, San Francisco, it didn’t matter. We drove and drove, and I must have crossed the country four or five times that year, coast to coast, north and south, any which way between.

On these trips, no matter how impulsive or spontaneous, we always brought books with us: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon was the first in the trunk every time, along with an actual copy of Kerouac’s On the Road, the collected poems of Allen Ginsberg, Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar — revolutionary books that allowed just as much youthful, exuberant exploration as the wide country stretching before us. We would sleep in the car; we parked at Bryce Canyon waiting for the sunrise, reading poetry. Outside of Williams, Arizona, the axle broke, and I remember sitting on the curb — the actual curb, not the air-conditioned waiting room — reading our favorite Pynchon passages out loud.

I made a great many discoveries during that first year in America, and one of them was the work of Mark Leyner, which I immediately added to our traveling cross-country library. Unlike many of the books I cherished most, his novels – Et tu, Babe and My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist – had only come out recently, but in their wild play with language and pop cultural references, I saw them coming from a clear tradition of writers storming the heavens, afraid of nothing. They were also unmistakably contemporary, and that gave them an additional edge. They were hilarious, outrageous, yet somehow deeply felt, and more than the other books that somehow belonged to a time before mine, they seemed to give me the license to try this for myself. You can write this kind of thing right now, Mark Leyner’s books said to me. You can do anything you like.

And I did. After my exchange year was over, I returned to Johannes-Gutenberg-University in Mainz, but it was no longer what I wanted. My German professor greeted me with “ah, the creative writer,” the slightest hint of a smirk on his lips, and I knew I’d have to leave. I had to get back to America, where I had found encouragement. I applied to the graduate program at the Center for Writers, not far from where I’d spent my exchange year, and took the first serious steps on the long path of becoming a writer.

Decades passed. I wrote stories, I wrote books, I threw half-finished books away. I moved to New Orleans, I moved to the Caribbean, I moved to New York. I wrote and wrote. I got married, I had a daughter. I submitted stories, edited magazines, started a literary community. I got an agent. And finally, nearly twenty years after I had taken my first workshop, I published a book, my novel Kino, which is, among other things, the story of an immigrant who moves between continents so he can keep making art. And when it came time to read from the novel, Behind the Book was kind enough to invite me for an event at KGB Bar. Tom Perrotta, a writer I admire, would read with me – exciting enough, until, a week before the event, one other name was added to the line-up, somebody who hadn’t published fiction in many years but was now celebrating his return: none other than Mark Leyner, who’d read from his new book, The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack.

I was glad to be the first reader because I certainly didn’t want to follow the others. I read a section from Kino called “Lang’s Dragon” that was also excerpted in the online magazine Guernica. Tom Perrotta read, then Mark Leyner read, and as expected, his performance was sharp, over-the-top, loaded with word play and whiplash cultural references. He was outrageously funny. When I came over afterwards to ask him to sign a book for me, he asked me to sit, graciously told me how much he’d enjoyed my reading, and we chatted: about the movie War, Inc., which he’d written, about Gerhard Richter Painting, a documentary we both admired, about vanishing advances and making it as a writer.

I left KGB Bar feeling that something had come full circle that night, a long story that had begun in Jackson, Mississippi, led all over the country and the world, and had finally reached its long-awaited pay-off. It was a wonderful reminder about how writers speak to other writers, in ways they can never know or predict. Every book ever written doesn’t just tell its story, it also secretly gives license to its readers to try and write something like it themselves. I can only hope that someone might one day pick up a book of mine, Kino or the next one, and that it nudges them a little closer toward saying, hey, maybe I can do this too.

Digital Literacy Pilot in East Harlem

Last year, Sheryl Mayers, a middle school teacher at a Behind the Book school in East Harlem, mentioned she was interested in learning how to incorporate e-readers into her reading engagement strategy.  She figured that some of her students would be more likely to read and to read more if they could do so on an e-reader.

Behind the Book is always game to try new ways to engage students in reading and writing and prepare them for the challenges of the real world.

Thus, an idea was born:  A Behind the Book program focused on digital literacy, using kindles to read and blogs to write. Perhaps it was an idea whose time had come because shortly after that conversation we met author Jewell Parker Rhodes at the Brooklyn Book Festival.

We’d had her book Ninth Ward, about a young girl in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, on our bookshelf for several years, and we’d admired her from afar for some time (she lives in Arizona).  Jewell mentioned that her book was available for kindles, that she’d be willing to fly into NYC to work with us and that she and her husband would lobby their friends to buy a kindle for a student so we could get a class set.  Destiny?

Fast forward several months to today.  We’ve already delivered both kindles loaded with Ninth Ward and a hard cover version of the book to Ms. Mayers’ class.

The students have read the book, alternating between the kindle and the book version, and have logged how much they read on each. They also wrote short blog posts about whether they liked reading on a kindle or the book better.  Read their posts here and join the kindle vs. book debate!