The National Education Association has been presenting Read Across America, which is billed as the nation’s largest celebration of reading, since 1998. It is, according to the Association’s website, “a year-round program focused on motivating children and teens to read through events, partnership and reading resources that are about everyone and for everyone.”
But Cicely Lewis, a Georgia high school librarian, did not feel that “everyone” was appropriately represented by the effort.
“Read Across America is an exciting time for students and teachers across the world,” Lewis posted on her blog, cicelythegreat.wordpress.com. “Many schools have used this opportunity to also celebrate Dr. Seuss and his contribution to literature. In light of recent news about blackface and minstrel caricatures found in Dr. Seuss’s work, many people are frustrated and looking for ways to diversify Read Across America. I started the Read Woke challenge at my school for high school students.”
That school, Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, Georgia, has approximately 2,600 students and 240 teachers. And Lewis, who started Read Woke three years ago, was named Librarian of the Year for 2020 by School Library Journal.
Lewis started Read Woke as a reading challenge for her students.
“I curated a list that reflected current events in our society,” she explained. “This list featured characters that looked like my students. From African Americans to LGBTQ protagonists, Read Woke books cover a variety of topics and deal with many issues plaguing our society.”
According to Lewis’s strict guidelines, a Read Woke book must challenge a social norm, give voice to the voiceless, provide information about a group that has been disenfranchised, seek to challenge the status quo and have a protagonist from an underrepresented or oppressed group.
“You are never too young to learn more about other people’s cultures, struggles and dreams,” Lewis said. “There are so many picture books with powerful messages about immigration, racism and other social justice issues. Also, picture books can be used with high school students, too. From English Language Learners to students with learning disabilities, all students can benefit from picture books.”
Here in Michigan, the Capital Area District Libraries in Lansing is participating in the Read Woke challenge now through Oct. 31. Participants can read titles in categories such as social injustice, diverse abilities and Hispanic American voices. These books have been selected by CADL to reflect a wide variety of cultures, places and experiences that promote dignity and respect for all.
To date, Read Woke, which has truly become a movement, has reached schools and libraries across the country as well as in Canada, the United Kingdom and Norway.
“I started Read Woke to help empower my students,” Lewis said. “I never in my wildest dreams imagined it would take off like it has.”
Children, teens and adults who are interested in participating in Read Woke can sign up for CADL’s Read Woke Online Reading Challenge by visiting cadl.org/woke now through Oct. 31.