What if there were a program that introduced children to high quality, rich Jewish literature? What if struggling readers had a chance to improve their skills in a setting that was engaging and fun? What if reluctant readers suddenly began eagerly sharing their new Jewish content books with their younger siblings and parents?

These and more were the outcomes we achieved in the Children of the Book program that was generously funded by The Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated. With a total of twenty-seven children participating during July 2021 and July 2022 the benefits the children experienced were far beyond what we originally conceived. Using books that depicted Jewish images and characters that they could relate to, helped build background knowledge, an important strategy for improving comprehension but also enhancing their Jewish identity. Children entering kindergarten reviewed their letter names and sounds through multi-sensory activities using shaving cream, rice bins, and modeling clay. They were excited to play sound games to improve their phonological awareness, a prerequisite for reading and spelling. Rhyming, identifying beginning and ending sounds, blending, and segmenting sounds in words are all skills that children need to learn how to read. They enjoyed listening to stories and practiced answering a variety of “WH” questions ensuring comprehension. Parents of these children reported that they felt their child was more prepared to enter kindergarten because of their participation in the book club. First and second graders practiced their reading, blending and segmenting sounds in words, spelling words containing blends and using sight words in sentences. Using art as a vehicle for reviewing not only phonics but the story line as well, allowed the students to display what they know in a low pressure and informal atmosphere, so different compared to what they experience in the school setting. “She loved the art activities.” one parent commented. Another said, “Linking the activities to the book gave us the opportunity to talk about what he did in book club. He was so proud to share.” In July 2021, our older students read stories about Jewish children their own age. Even our reluctant reader admitted: “I can’t wait to find out how it ends.” The students practiced identifying character traits, identified, and used new vocabulary, learned idioms, and wrote diary entries of their own. In July 2022 we were thrilled to have our oldest group consisting of four young women with Down Syndrome. They too, practiced their reading and comprehension skills, but what they enjoyed most was the opportunity to socialize and engage in an age- appropriate leisure activity that also increased their Jewish learning.

Here is what parents had to say:
“Adina enjoyed the relationships with the facilitators. She enjoyed feeling independent with her reading and ownership of her extra learning. She loved going and was sad when book club ended.” “The hands-on approach, love the projects, the creative teachers, and the social part. Thank you for making reading fun!” “Learning with other kids was a bonus!” “Jordan doesn’t have a ton of inherent motivation. I think that the group helped him for sure.”

Book Club facilitators expressed great satisfaction in facilitating the program. Chumi Millman, a Speech Language Pathologist running one of the groups said, “It was so wonderful introducing the students to Jewish characters and stories. I was so impressed with how hard the students were willing to work even at the end of the day. The expression on their faces when we gave them the books to take home was priceless. I know they just loved getting their very own books to read repeatedly!” Adina Levinger, a Pre-K teacher at Beth Tfiloh facilitated our youngest group and said, “It was so wonderful meeting the children and spending the time with them.” A seasoned and creative teacher of young children, Adina knew that the best way to engage them was through a variety of theme-based activities.

What worked:
*Children were introduced to books with Jewish content and were thrilled to have their own copies to take home building their own personal Jewish library. Program fostered connection to Judaism as children talked about what was familiar and recognizable to them from the stories and pictures as well as new learning and information.
*Activities that promoted growth in reading skills were designed to be engaging and motivating
*Parents reported that their children enjoyed participating in book club, and were eager to come each week
*New relationships were established as book club participants were introduced to and got to know each other further enhancing their Jewish identity

What was challenging:
*Recruiting children was the most challenging. In Year 1 (July 2021) we thought that the reason it was so challenging was because we only started promoting the program in late May. We resolved to promote it earlier this year and did so, beginning in early March. We had a lot of interest and inquiries but sadly, we had fewer children participating this year than last year. Most parents stated that it was the wrong day or that it was too early or too late for their children who were in other programs (day camp, backyard playgroups). Our conclusion is that there probably would be no day/time that would work for everyone and that our best option would be to have an itinerant book club that could visit camps and work with the children already there as a potential elective or special and part of the camp day. This would alleviate the scheduling challenge.

Despite the scheduling challenge, all of us involved in the book club, the parents, and facilitators, are so grateful to have had the opportunity to implement The Children of the Book program over the last two years. Funding from the The Jacob & Hilda Blaustein Fund of The Associated allowed us to bring our initial concept of introducing Jewish literature to struggling and/or reluctant readers to fruition and we couldn’t be more pleased with the results. We are hopeful that for the next summer season we will be able to partner with camps to bring this most valuable program to the children, without the complications that after camp programming poses.

We think the photographs below are the best way to capture the excitement and joy our children experienced as they participated