Helping Kids Learn to Love Reading: My Own Book's Burton Freeman Talks to

For many inner-city children, the concept of book ownership is totally foreign. Recent studies have shown that in certain neighborhoods of New York City, homes average as little as two books apiece. Retired lawyer Burton Freeman's working to combat those troubling statistics with My Own Book, an organization designed to get kids owning books and ultimately reading more.

By Eric Garneau

Burton Freeman

Burton Freeman

Burton Freeman worked as general counsel of a major financial institution in New York City before turning his sights towards promoting literacy with the charitable My Own Book. Under the watch of Freeman and other volunteers, selected New York City third-graders are given $50 to begin building their personal libraries. For over a decade, My Own Book has given inner-city children an unprecedented chance to embrace a love of reading. This year, the organization received an Innovations in Reading prize from the National Book Foundation, throwing a bigger spotlight on this impressive institution. Can you briefly walk our readers through the process of My Own Book?

BF: Our volunteers meet with each third grade class, and during a 45-minute session they explain to the children what bookstores are all about. They talk about what the children are allowed to do with their $50 allowance. We also talk to them about book ownership and how wonderful it is, and about the fact that they should prepare to go to the bookstore, because the visit is going to be very overwhelming.

We know from a survey we've done that approximately 90% of the children we're taking to a bookstore have never been to one before. They live in neighborhoods where the poverty level is very high.

We've devised an outline to give our children a little advantage when they come to the bookstore. We insist that they prepare lists, and the teachers use that exercise as a learning tool. We talk to them about sampling and browsing and urge them not to just buy the first book they see because somebody made a movie about it, but to actually sit down and start reading a book before they decide to buy it. We talk to them about the difference between hardcover and softcover, so they can get the most for their $50. We talk about variety, about the fact that they're going to be starting a home library and they should want different kinds of books. We talk about different genres, and so on.

Those same volunteers come to the bookstores with the children, helping them make their choices, sitting down and reading with them to make sure that they're not buying books that are too challenging. We let the kids buy a couple challenging books, but we want them mostly to buy books they can presently read and comprehend. When the children leave, we tell them 'these are your own books, write your names in them.' Usually three weeks later, sometimes two, those same volunteers go back to those classrooms and listen to the children do book reports and poetry readings. Sometimes they write a little play based on a book… that sort of thing. It all reinforces the experience. What gave you the idea to start My Own Book?

BF: I retired in 1998, and my son knew that I had a charitable bequest. He suggested we form a family foundation with the funds that I put aside for the bequest, so that I could have the fun of doing it. The four of us - my two children, my wife and me - had meetings. Geographic focus was first hit upon because when you look outside our apartment you look over East Harlem. My daughter, who was then a school librarian, suggested computer literacy for inner-city children.

I belonged to an organization called the NYRAG - New York Regional Association of Grant-makers - and I was somewhat friendly with the President of that organization, so she put me in touch with an organization in East Harlem that was about to start a computer laboratory for their after-school program. I spent three days at that program, and during the course of those three days I'd ask the younger children 'what's your favorite book? What are you reading now? What books do you have at home?' And it became quite evident that almost none of the children I talked to had books at home.

We decided to make a grant to East Harlem, but we specified that $6,000 of it had to be used for the pilot program of taking children to a bookstore and letting them buy books that they would own. Ownership was a key concept, of course, and that's why we call it My Own Book. That pilot program worked very well; I thought it was very valuable. So in the fall of 1999, I went to the Board of Education with the idea, and the rest is history. How did you pick third graders as the right age for the program?

BF: When I originally went to New York's Board of Education, we had a series of meetings in which we outlined how we were going to do the program. During the course of those meetings the people at the Board brought in a reading specialist that told me my original idea - which was to have this as a program for second graders - was not really sound, that second graders were not quite mature enough to appreciate the program and benefit from it, but rather that it was ideal for third graders. What do you think it is about owning a book that's so important for these kids?

BF: I intuitively believe that ownership of books by these children, particularly books they've chosen and want, will give them a vested interest in literacy that they would not otherwise have. Additionally, studies done by the Casey Foundation and others have indicated that there's a strong correlation between the presence of books in the home, particularly children's books, and school performance. Another reason is that I think the children are proud to own books; it gives them a sense of self-status they wouldn't have had otherwise. How do you pick the schools that become involved with My Own Book?

BF: We add a school if it meets three criteria. First, 90% or more of the children in the school have to be on the federal food program, which is our poverty proxy. The second is that the school not be near a good children's bookstore. The third is that I visit the school with another volunteer and we observe the third grade classes. We talk to the principal, other administrators and third grade teachers to conclude it's a school that would benefit from the program and would give us the degree of cooperation we need to make the program work. Do you have any thoughts on how winning the National Book Foundation's prize might impact My Own Books' activities or its future reach?

BF: The award did a lot for the morale of our volunteers. It validated what they knew, that they were doing something important and valuable. We've had some donations as a result of that, and we'll use it as an additional talking point when we do our fall solicitation. Is there anything else you'd like our readers to know about My Own Book?

BF: I think it's important to mention that this program has some by-products. We're providing an activity for a whole host of retired and semi-retired people who're getting huge satisfaction from doing this work. The people who work with me are very grateful that we have this program, because they love being with children. The fact that gray-haired people from outside their community are coming in and talking to these kids about literacy and are interested in them and their futures is a huge benefit to them.

We want to expand the program. We have schools in all five boroughs of New York. Partly as a result of all the publicity we've gotten, there are more demands on us. We'd love to add schools, but we do need additional funding. People can help us financially by sending money to the Fund for Public Schools, Inc., earmarked with some kind of note that it's for My Own Book.

Check out another Innovations in Reading prize winner, Scott Lindenbaum of Electric Literature.

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