Started as a way of honoring a Belvidere mother’s late son, Andy’s Books for Kids has become a fixture in classrooms all over our region, and beyond. This is the real power of books.
Meg Hodge has two goals: to create lifelong readers by getting books into the hands of as many kids as possible, and to honor the memory of her son, Andy, who died of a brain tumor in 2006 when he was just 22. She’s merged them into a single mission.
“Andy didn’t want to be defined by his brain tumor,” Hodge says, “so I decided to focus on something he really loved: books.”
A bookworm like her son, Hodge held a book drive to benefit all seven of Belvidere’s public elementary school libraries. She chose the beneficiary because all of her children were products of the Belvidere school system. The response was heartening, so she began wondering how she could build on that success.
“It gave me something to focus on instead of my grief, and it gave me a way to keep Andy close to me and part of my everyday life, without it feeling devastating,” says Hodge, who along with her husband Rob, a physician, has three surviving children – James, Liz and David, all now adults.
Starting when Andy, her eldest, entered kindergarten, Hodge volunteered in classrooms and served on booster clubs, so she knew a lot of teachers. She also knew they needed support.
“We have incredible teachers within our school systems,” she says. “They’re so focused on teaching kids and giving kids more opportunities, but they don’t necessarily always have the tools they need – particularly in the way of books – because there’s not money outside of the curriculum to get those things, and books are expensive.”
Worse yet, many lower-income students don’t have books of their own at home, often due to the cost.
Knowing the advantages that reading, and being read to, offer children, Hodge decided to help provide books for students. Not just any books. Brand-new books about topics that can educate, inspire and entertain the young readers. Books of their own that the kids could keep.
She created a nonprofit, Andy’s Books for Kids, to do just that.
“I let the teachers or literacy leaders tell me what they need, then I provide it,” Hodge says. She’s worked deals and discounts with bookstores, distributors and publishers alike, but it’s still an expensive endeavor. “I spent $50,000 this year for books, but the retail value was probably closer to $90,000.”
Educators tend to learn of Andy’s Books for Kids through word-of-mouth, but Hodge has worked with preschoolers, grade schoolers and high schoolers throughout northern Illinois, primarily in the Rockford and Machesney Park areas.
“For a number of years I have worked at the two kindergartens at Kishwaukee School,” she says. “Every month I give them a hardcover book. I go in one day and read to the kids and give the books to them, then the second day we do an activity that reinforces what’s going on in the book.”
A few recent schools she has worked with are Lathrop Elementary, Jackson Charter School and East High, in Rockford, Machesney Park’s Olson Park Elementary School, and Durand Elementary, in Durand, Ill.
When some Lathrop students were intimidated advancing to chapter books, they decided to try graphic novels. One student read 90 books. But “Rhyme Schemer” by K.A. Holt, a novel written in verse, proved incredibly popular.
“It was a book Meg purchased,” says Jen Wood, who worked as a reading coach at Lathrop for several years. “It really resonated with some of the kids. They ended up making a rap video that we entered into a book commercial contest. They made it into the top eight – and the entries were from across the United States.”
Hodge has also worked with schools as far away as Vermont and Texas.
“I couldn’t let go when I left Lathrop,” says Wood, who moved to Texas where she taught fourth grade at Forest Lane Academy, located in what she describes as a high-poverty area of Dallas. One of the books Hodge sent to Wood’s new school was the first book from the popular “Monster Juice” series by M.D. Payne.
“We picked it because it’s a little lower reading level than fourth grade,” Wood says. “I had a lot of struggling readers, and a lot for whom English wasn’t their first language, so we were trying to pick something their parents could get through with them or I could do as a read-aloud.”
Her students loved how Payne turned burping, belching and barfing into kids’ special powers.
“I think Meg bought 130 books. Every fourth grader went home with a book,” Wood says. The author even spoke to the class via Skype. “He hammed it up with the kids and had them laughing and talking about writing and what they can do with it. When they hear from an author how long it takes to be really good at writing, it motivates them a little bit more.”
A few years ago, Hodge saw an opportunity to connect fifth graders at Olson Park Elementary School with fifth graders at a school in Barre, Vt., where her brother was then principal. Each student was given a copy of the same book and encouraged to discuss it with the other class via Google Hangout and Skype. That’s now a tradition Olson Park teacher Christine Franklin continues.
“The kids in Vermont that we do this shared experience with are from a lower socio-economic area than the kids I teach,” Franklin says. “Their teachers have talked about how they don’t have someone to read with at home, they don’t have books in their hands. They’re getting higher-level thinking skills just from having a three-dollar book in their hands.”
Each year, Hodge does a One Book, One School event with Machesney Park schools, where everyone in the school – students, teachers, and staff – receives a copy of the same book to read. Franklin appreciates it both as an educator and a parent. When her son attended Olson Park, she would read the book with her students at school and as a family at home in the evening.
“It’s a complete building buy-in,” Franklin says. “A lot of families stop reading together once the kids can read. But this type of experience really encourages the whole family to read together.” She says having parents involved often motivates kids to read more challenging books they might not try reading on their own.
Each day during the school-wide book club, there’s a new question, usually prepared by a reading specialist, based on the previous day’s reading, giving students opportunities to earn small prizes. Because students and staff are literally all on the same page, it becomes a bonding experience. “It builds the community, and at the end we have a big literacy night and Meg usually donates prizes for that,” Franklin says.
Andy’s Books for Kids works with other organizations, too, like the Salvation Army’s Cops ‘N Kids program. And through her son David, a third-year pediatric medicine resident at the University of Illinois in Chicago, she learned about a program that gives books to young children coming in for well-child checkups. “They were running low on books, so I brought a slew of books to them,” Hodge says.
Andy’s Books for Kids buys and distributes 6,500 to 7,000 new books each year, and the number of requests is growing. The organization is funded mostly by donations and small grants – and sometimes by Hodge herself – since most larger grants require applicants to provide quantifiable statistics proving the success of their program.
“Being able to quantify how you’re increasing reading scores is just about impossible,” Wood says. “The No. 1 way to grow a reader is to read.”
“So far I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to say yes to all of the requests,” Hodge says. “This coming school year I’m not sure I’ll be able to because we’re not taking in as much as we’re giving out. This year the pool of money is low enough that it won’t get us through the year. I’m trying to find other ways to fundraise, but it’s a challenge because everyone is trying to raise funds – and I’m not good at asking people for money.”
Hodge hates the idea of having to decline requests when she’s seen firsthand the positive impact Andy’s Books for Kids has had on so many children.
“I can’t say how grateful we are,” Franklin says. “As a parent and as a teacher, I really appreciate all of the opportunities for reading and learning she’s given all of the children in our community. She’s incredible.”
Hodge recalls a student approaching her as she walked toward a classroom at Olson School. “I heard ‘Ma’am? Ma’am?’ behind me. I turned around and it was a girl I recognized because she’d been in one of the fifth-grade classes I did the program with. She said, ‘Aren’t you the lady who gives us the books?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ Then I told her why I was there and she walked me all the way to the classroom, talking all the way about the books I had given her. It’s that kind of thing that makes me so glad I do this. It touches kids’ lives.”
To learn more, make a donation or sign up to volunteer, visit andysbooks.org.