Cultivating Young Readers' Passion for Books

May 09, 2022 Scott Evangelist

Written by Mary Thomas

Lauren Beek’s passion for books started early: she remembers the excitement of being able to read a beloved Berenstain Bears book on her own for the first time. This enthusiasm grew, leading her to major in English, and become a nonprofit Communications specialist.

As Project Lead for Start Reading Now (SRN), Lauren’s passion intertwines with a commitment to help kids of all backgrounds develop their own love of reading through SRN’s book fairs that provide first-third graders with ten free books each year over the course of three years. Through her work with SRN, Lauren supports young readers not only to build their own libraries at a pivotal time in their education, but to develop a lifelong relationship with reading as a fun and empowering activity.

Lauren Beek and Clifford at an SRN book fair.

Lauren, tell us about Start Reading Now – what is it and how is it helping the world?

Start Reading Now is a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that aims to improve literacy by encouraging summer reading. We do that by hosting and funding free book fairs for kids in first, second and third grade right before summer break. Our book fairs help kids create their own library of 30 books. They select ten books of their choice each year – and it only costs $50 per year, per student. 

Start Reading Now is helping the world by creating more life-long readers! When you give kids the power to choose the books they want and give them a sense of ownership through the shopping process, they’re instantly more invested and excited about reading. We also focus on high-need schools (in our case – schools that have 55%+ of their student population enrolled in food assistance programs), and a lot of the kids we serve have few books at home. When you don’t have books, summer reading is hard to do! 

We also partner with Hennepin County Library and host a librarian at each of our book fairs. This allows the librarian to talk about the neighborhood library and encourages kids to visit over the summer. 

Lastly, one of the most important predictors of graduating from high school is being able to read proficiently after third grade. This is when kids are making the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” If kids don’t have a strong foundation in reading after third grade, it’s very easy to fall behind in every other subject. 

“As a kid, sometimes it’s more about the getting than it is about the thing itself, and much like the book fairs, it gave me a sense of pride and ownership in books.”

Tell us how you found SRN and what attracted you to it.

Start Reading Now actually found me! I met one of the founders at a conference for nonprofits – when I was working at The HealthStore Foundation – and we had a great conversation. We kept in touch and they called me when they knew my maternity leave was ending. They offered me a flexible position to run Start Reading Now and have time to be with my family. As a new mom, this was very attractive to me. I was also an English major and a life-long lover of books, so a nonprofit that revolved around kids and books was a perfect fit for me. 

Growing up, when I would be out shopping with my mom, I would ask for toys, and she would usually say no. But she also told me that she’d never say no to a book. It felt great to be able to get something. As a kid, sometimes it’s more about the getting than it is about the thing itself, and much like the book fairs, it gave me a sense of pride and ownership in books. 

What role has Atomic Data played in the story of SRN?

Atomic Data has been a longtime financial and volunteer supporter of Start Reading Now. One of our founders met Jim Wolford through work and once he learned of the mission, Jim was on board to support SRN however we needed help. They’ve donated hundreds of thousands of dollars since the inception of SRN and are always supplying us with a ton of wonderful employee volunteers. The money is absolutely important and allows us to purchase books for kids, but supplying the volunteers – during the workday – means a lot to me. The fact that they promote SRN’s cause among their workforce and encourage their employees to take time to volunteer is admirable and something I wish more companies did. I feel like there is a culture of genuinely wanting to help and give back—Jim does, and so he encourages that amongst his employees, and it shows.  Atomic has made such a positive impression on me – I love them! 

How has the program grown since you joined SRN? 

I started working for SRN in 2016, which is when my daughter was born. My first round of book fairs was in 2017. We started with 20-something schools and just first graders, and from there we went to first and second-graders, and then we added third graders, and it just kept growing. 

The pandemic kind of knocked us over, as it did for a lot of people. We almost threw in the towel. We couldn’t do anything in person, and there were just so many unknowns with COVID. We wanted to do a book fair, but we didn’t know how, and there was a lot of coming up with ideas, waiting, coming up with another idea, that kind of thing.  We found a vendor that could do an online book fair for us, and we did two online book fairs, one in 2020, and one in 2021. I’m proud of this accomplishment!

The first year we did it, our vendor couldn’t ship to students and they couldn’t ship to schools because schools were still closed. We were like “we’ll do it!” And it turned out to be weeks and weeks of work. Atomic Data donated a warehouse space for us to use and a ton of volunteer time to help package books and print labels. It was crazy and fun. Then, the next year the schools were open so the orders were sent to the schools in bulk. But, this year we’ll be back in schools–Yay! 

“I feel like there is a culture of genuinely wanting to help and give back—Jim does, and so he encourages that amongst his employees, and it shows.  Atomic has made such a positive impression on me – I love them! ”

What is one memorable moment you can share with us when you realized that SRN was making a true impact?

We have a lot of great stories about kids and books, but one of my favorites is when I was able to help a sweet little first grader. Every year there will be a very popular book – whether it’s Captain Underpants, Ninjago or Shopkins – these books fly off the shelves and every kid wants them (Yay! Excitement about books!).

This particular year, there was this certain Pokemon book that everyone wanted and toward the end of the day, stock was getting low. In the final class to go through, I noticed one little boy crying and his teacher comforting him. I walked over to see if I could help and the teacher explained the issue. He missed out on the coveted Pokemon book – they were all gone. Seeing his tears was heartbreaking to me! As a parent, I know it’s good to teach kids that sometimes things don’t always go your way. But—oh my goodness—in this moment, I had to help. I explained to the teacher that I had just closed up another fair at a nearby school, and I knew there were more Pokemon books left over there. I said I’d be happy to get him one and leave it at the front desk if she was ok with that. 

She was a little hesitant, I think because she didn’t want to put me out, but I was honestly so happy to help this kid! She agreed and I let him know that after their fair was over, I’d get him that book. His tears instantly dried up and he was thrilled. Just to see that pure excitement for a book — there’s nothing better! A few weeks after the fairs were over, I received a handwritten thank you from the little boy and my heart nearly burst. It was the cutest thing ever. The Pokemon book made his day and helping him made mine. 

“Now that I’m a parent, I see the importance of letting kids lead. There’s just so much to be said about empowering kids and being there almost more as a guide who helps them to build their confidence.”

It is really incredible to learn how SRN supports young readers over multiple years during such a pivotal moment. How do young readers’ relationships to books change during that time, as a result of the fairs that SRN hosts? 

It’s really fun to see kids year after year. The first graders will come in and they’re a little overwhelmed. They’re asking, “What’s going on?” “Ten books, oh my gosh!” “Will you help me hold these?” They’re just so sweet and little. 

They’ll go for easy reader picture books, mostly. Then, as the older kids come in, the second graders know what’s happening. They’re saying “We know, we know what’s happening! We get 10 books!” Sometimes, they’ll still get picture books, and they’ll tell us:  “I picked these for myself, but I picked this one for my baby cousin and this one for my little sister, because she’s in kindergarten and can’t come yet.” By third grade, they’re reading chapter books, and it’s so cool to see that growth. Some kids are still picking picture books, and that’s good, too. That’s what I love about it—we’re letting them choose, and we’re not saying that they’re at a certain reading level and that they need to choose those books, because this isn’t a school thing, this is a fun thing. We’re helping make books a fun thing and shifting the perspective. And I think the kids like the shopping aspect, too. We give them a voucher that looks like a $50 bill. That’s exciting to kids, who realize “Ooh! We get to spend money on books.” For a lot of these kids, they might not get to do that otherwise. 

Now that I’m a parent, I see the importance of letting kids lead. There’s just so much to be said about empowering kids and being there almost more as a guide who helps them to build their confidence.

What is your hope for the future?

Oooh, this is a big one! My hope for the future as it pertains to SRN is that we can serve every first, second and third grader in Minnesota, and eventually take it to other states. It’s such a simple and smart solution – based on research – that improves literacy and helps kids succeed in school and life. Who doesn’t want to give away free books!? Not only give them away, but allow ALL kids to enjoy the magic of a book fair. Scholastic is our vendor – so our fairs look exactly like a Scholastic book fair, except that every kid gets to shop and buy ten new books!

What are you most excited about with this year’s return to in-person book fairs? 

Being around kid excitement again! It’s so fun and they’re exuberant—you can’t stop smiling. Sometimes, if we run out of a specific book, kids can get sad, but we can always solve the problem. At the end of the day, if there are tears being shed over books, that’s a good thing! It’s also such a fun experience for volunteers. They get to see how the kids shop, help them pick out their books, and “ring up” their books. Everyone is so excited and having a great time. 

How can Passionados get involved?

Volunteer with us at the book fairs in May and June! We’ll be hosting 19 book fairs across Minneapolis during the weeks of May 23 and May 31! If you can’t volunteer, financial support is always welcome and goes a long way. Like I mentioned earlier – $50 pays for 10 new books for one student. Plus a backpack, a pen and “This book belongs to” stickers. You can also get involved by telling our story and getting more people excited about the work we’re doing. Thank you! 

Republished with permission from Passion Collective:

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