Interview With Emily Moberly, Executive Director & Founder Of Traveling Stories, Honorable Mention, 2016 Innovations in Reading Prize
Honorable Mention, 2016 Innovations in Reading Prize
NATIONAL BOOK FOUNDATION: How did Traveling Stories get started?
EMILY MOBERLY: Right after college I moved to Honduras, where I taught high school, and I realized that my students had never had a chance to fall in love with reading. They didn’t have books. They didn’t have a library. They didn’t have a bookstore. The only reading they had done was textbooks for school. No one had ever suggested that they read for fun, and that was a very weird foreign concept to them. I was able to bring books to my students, and then I got to watch them fall in love with reading for the very first time. It just took finding a book that they loved to ignite that love for reading.
When I came back to California, I started getting messages from my students talking about how much they still love reading and what they were reading now. That inspired me to start Traveling Stories. I felt like it had changed my students’ lives in such a meaningful and ongoing way, and I realized that it hadn’t been that difficult. All I did was share my love for reading and put books into kids’ hands.
We purposely look for places where families are already going. If we had a permanent facility, everyone would have to come to us. But because we go out into the community, we eliminate a lot of the barriers like transportation and time. It also lets us reach families who may be embarrassed about reading and would never come to a program, but they’ll come to the farmers market.
NBF: Why have you chosen to set up the StoryTents in places like farmer markets instead of someplace more permanent?
EM: Some people assume that we have to do the StoryTents that way, but we purposely choose to do pop-up programs at places like restaurants, rec centers, and farmers markets in low-income neighborhoods. We purposely look for places where families are already going. If we had a permanent facility, everyone would have to come to us. But because we go out into the community, we eliminate a lot of the barriers like transportation and time. It also lets us reach families who may be embarrassed about reading and would never come to a program, but they’ll come to the farmers market.
For us, the StoryTents are about more than just reading. They’re about creating an awareness of the fun side of reading. If you come on Saturday to our StoryTent, we’re at the front of the market with two tents, and we’ve usually got 40 or 50 kids. Anybody who walks by usually slows down to see what we’re doing, and they see kids reading. It’s really awesome because it’s making reading a very visible part of the community.
NBF: How do you make reading fun for kids who might not normally interact with books in a “fun” way?
EM: In the StoryTent, we try to make an experience that’s kid-friendly. For us, the StoryTent is purposely not associated with school. We try to take off any of the pressure that kids might have in terms of performance or obligation, and we focus on fun. So, if a child finds a book that they don’t like, we don’t tell them they have to finish it. We want them to find a book that they love. We also don't talk about levels or grades because a child might be embarrassed of what their reading level is. At the StoryTent, the emphasis is on fun and practice instead of doing a good job. We also create a kid-friendly environment. We have comfortable carpets and chairs so kids can sit down, lie down, roll around. We have a lot of different books. It’s an environment designed with the kid in mind to make them feel comfortable. Last but not least, we pay kids to read with the book bucks.
NBF: What’s the motivation for that kind of reward?
EM: The book bucks make reading into a social activity. Normally one book is worth one book buck, but if a kid thinks a book is more difficult, they can negotiate for more bucks. Then, they can use their bucks to pay for prizes, which we pick based on the feedback we get from kids. We don’t give books as prizes for reading because that’s not going to work for a six-year-old who thinks reading is boring. He’s not going to come to our program and read books to buy more books. But he is going to see the basketball, read 20 books so he can get it, and then slowly but surely find books that he likes and fall in love with reading itself. Gradually, it becomes more about liking the reading and less about the prizes.
We’re so passionate about reading because we see it as a tool to open up doors for all of us.
NBF: Your target group is kids younger than fourth grade. Why is it important to reach this group in particular?
EM: A lot of statistics talk about the importance of reading, especially for young children. They say if a child is not reading at grade level by the fourth grade, they’re going to be 15 times more likely to drop out of school, which could leave them unqualified for about 90 percent of jobs. But if children are reading before the fourth grade, they’re going to have much better chances of succeeding in high schools, in college, in work. We’re so passionate about reading because we see it as a tool to open up doors for all of us. So much of what I’ve done in my life has been possible because of reading. Plus, it’s a lot easier to create an experience reading Dr. Seuss or the Clifford books with a six or seven-year-old than it is with a teenager.
NBF: What was your experience with reading like as a kid?
EM: I have been a book nerd pretty much my entire life. As a child, before I could even talk, my grandma gave me a book club membership where I would get a book every month. Growing up, I think I was drawn to so many characters, strong women like Nancy Drew, and it made me want to do something big with my life and to have adventures. My favorite time of the day was bedtime because my parents would read to me every night, and a lot of kids today, especially in low-income neighborhoods, grow up without having that. So many things that I took for granted like going to the park and reading or going to the library every week to pick out new books— those are experiences that not all kids have. For a lot of kids that come to the StoryTent, the only reading experience they have is school, and I think that’s only half the experience of what reading can be.
NBF: What kind of books do you fill the StoryTents with?
EM: We try to have at least 400 books at each StoryTent all the time. We’re really fortunate to have a lot of books donated. We try to have multiple reading levels (from super easy all the way up to chapter books), and we try to have a lot of variety: animal books, space books, princess books, basically everything you can imagine. Then we also have different language books. On Saturdays, we have over 14 languages represented by the kids who visit. We don’t have books in all those languages, sadly, but we do have books in Vietnamese, Urdu, Arabic, Spanish, and French. We’re very attentive to our population. If kids or parents ask for something, we’ll put a post on Facebook or send an email to our donors to share our wish list. Basically, we have almost everything, and we rotate the boxes between programs so kids don’t get tired of them.
Our StoryTents happen every week, the same day, the same time. The reason we do that is because we want to build relationships. We believe that putting books in kids’ hands is only part of it. The other part is having that person that they know and they trust to encourage them, and say, “Great job!”