Amanda Nowlin-O'Banion, writer and educator, interviewed about BookUpTexas
Started in 2011 in Huntsville, TX, BookUpTexas is one of our longest running BookUp sites, facilitated by writer and educator Amanda Nowlin-O’Banion. Amanda took the time to chat with BookUp about how the program has helped the community, the books her students loved, and the success they’ve had as readers.
BookUp: What drew you to the BookUp program?
We know reading improves literacy and stories take us away from our problems, but they can also show us new, different, hopeful versions of the world.
Amanda Nowlin-O’Banion: I had a difficult time reading in middle school. A program like BookUp would have introduced me to a wider variety of books, and maybe I would have fallen in love with one. The fastest way to turn a struggling reader into a fluent reader is to give that person a book s/he can’t put down, even when the process of moving from sentence to sentence is excruciatingly slow.
BookUp: Huntsville is a town that seats the Texas Criminal Justice Department, including five prisons within the city limits and two more in the county. How has BookUpTexas been able to help this unique community?
ANO: It’s also the town where I grew up. Many, many of us in this community know someone who is locally incarcerated. To make visitations easier, families often move here to be closer to loved ones who are locked up. BookUp can be especially useful for these kids. We know reading improves literacy and stories take us away from our problems, but they can also show us new, different, hopeful versions of the world. I’ve taught in most of the prisons in Huntsville, and I can tell you, books provide the same service to the men inside.
BookUp: Diversity plays a huge role in how BookUp can reach students. Can you talk about the diverse titles that BookUpTexas students have responded to?
ANO: Last year’s BookUp group picked [National Book Award winner] Brown Girl Dreaming as their favorite book. That group was made up mostly of Hispanic and African American girls. Regardless of their backgrounds, each saw her reflection in Jacqueline Woodson’s images. In January, we’re headed to Houston on a field trip to see Ms. Woodson read. The students are beside themselves. Other beloved books are Confetti Girl, One Crazy Summer, and The Skin I’m In.
BookUp: A unique part of BookUp is making reading interactive. What have been some ways BookUpTexas has made reading interactive for their students?
ANO: Lately, we’ve been using readers’ theatre, art projects, and cork board Instagram and Snapchat posts. In the latter, bulletin boards represent social media portals, but kids have to use paper and markers to draw what they want to post. Sometimes they take on the persona of the author or a character. Other times, they post as the fantastically curious readers they really are.
BookUp: The blog Disability in Kidlit recently published a piece about how we need more disabled heroes in stories. You mentioned your students loving El Deafo by Cece Bell for featuring a special needs character. What was the experience of reading that like?
ANO: This semester we’ve read three books about kids with special needs. El Deafo was one of them. Adults sometimes focus on the defining vulnerabilities of special needs children. Average-needs kids, I’m finding, don’t recognize these vulnerabilities because they aren’t socialized to see and interact with children who have special needs. El Deafo, Wonder, and Out of My Mind have created personal connections between characters and readers, which help BookUp kids recognize that the emotional vulnerabilities of a special needs child are very much like all kids’ emotional vulnerabilities, only amplified in some cases. After El Deafo, BookUp students could say, “Hey, me and Cece, we are the same. We have the same fears about being accepted and liked.” Kids bond when they can be vulnerable together in a safe space, and there is no safer place to process insecurities than with a book.
BookUp: Is there a BookUp experience that stands out to you?
Kids bond when they can be vulnerable together in a safe space, and there is no safer place to process insecurities than with a book.
ANO: One BookUp student’s teacher recently wrote to me about the great strides the student is making in Language Arts. He asked this teacher to email me a picture of him holding a reading assessment with a red 100 circled at the top. He is so happy in the picture, the kind of stunned happiness you see in the faces of people who’ve won the lottery. But this kid earned it, and he directly connected the achievement to his new interest in reading fun books. This assessment, he told me later, was one of the few he had passed and his first A.
BookUp: How has working with BookUp affected you?
ANO: BookUp is a reliable source of joy. I’m tapped into something good, something pure and helpful. It’s taught me how to be a better parent. How to be a better teacher and a better writer. It’s made me hopeful about the future of the human race. These kids are damn smart.
Amanda Nowlin-O’Banion is a prose writer whose work has appeared in Callaloo, Gulf Coast, Vandal, Liars’ League NYC, and The Dallas Morning News, among others. Awards include a Barbara Deming Award for feminist artists and the TEX Emerging Writer Award. Amanda has a MFA in Fiction from New York University and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. She currently teaches creative writing at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas where she is also a reluctant beekeeper. She is completing a collection of essays on beekeeping and motherhood tentatively titled, The Queen.
Photo credit: Matthew Lahey