Capstones II: Our Student Anthologies

Our second installment in our series on volunteer book designers has arrived! Read more about these great people who volunteer their time and skills to bring a big smile to so many faces.

Meg O’Connell
Exploration of New York City Architecture

After “much soul searching and a string of interesting but ultimately unfulfilling jobs,” Meg O’Connell found graphic design and loves that she gets to create every day. She said, “There’s a quote I like from William Morris that goes: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” One thing I like about design is that I get to make things more beautiful, and hopefully more useful, too.”

For the student anthology, Meghan aimed to focus on the students’ artwork and tie together the design elements with the student work. She chose a bright and fun color palette for a younger class and used all the students’ drawings to create a cityscape on the cover. Every student was represented either on the front or back of the book. Meghan was able to attend the class celebration for the book she designed and said of the experience: “It was rewarding to see the kids excited and proud about the books and to even have some parents in attendance for the party. It’s easy to question the effect of work I’m doing when I’m doing it in isolation. Seeing the reaction of the students and hearing their thoughts and the thoughts of their teacher on the program reinforced to me the positive reach of my design within Behind the Book’s program.”


Laura Duffy
Who Are We?

Laura Duffy found book design by accident after a job interview at Simon and Schuster. She eventually became a part of Random House’s art department working on books in all kinds of genres. She found the students’ art incredibly inspiring and felt that the hardest part of designing the student anthology was the cover because ‘there were so many great pieces to choose from.” Her goal was to create something fun, strong, and contemporary that the students would be proud to show to everyone they knew. Most importantly, the design centered the students’ work. This was her first time working with Behind the Book, and she was so happy to help bring the students’ work to life.











Annabel (Belle) Brandon
Let’s Travel to the Roots of Life’s Necessities

Belle studied Design and Art Direction at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, then worked in magazine editorial design until she decided to switch industries. She next worked as a designer at Macmillan Education where she got to sketch covers with a pen and paper (something she never got to do in magazines!) Her process in working on any project involves reading through the content, scribbling down key notes, and then working out measurements. This makes it easier for her to present pieces in a way that the graphic elements complement the content and look polished. She happened upon Behind the Book while looking for relevant work and we consider ourselves lucky. We hope to continue working with her in the future!










David Garner
Spice It Up

David Garner was an artist from an early age—as a teenager, he painted a giant sun on the garage door of his family’s house and even painted a commuter bus in his home town. He studied graphic design at Cooper Union in NYC and Rhode Island School of Design – a career he loves  because “it is a creative way to communicate an idea or a message.” In compiling Spice It Up, he decided to use a square format because of the round shape of the dishes the students drew on. His experience working on the book proved to be slightly daunting; the book was 56 pages, and the artwork made the book a very large format. Yet despite the difficulties, David looks forward to working with Behind the Book again on another (maybe not quite so labor intensive) project.

This guest post was written by Klea Kalia, a rising junior at Barnard, who is sad but excited to return to school after a wonderful summer interning at Behind the Book! 🙂

Happy Summer Reading! – A note from Jo

Dear Friends,

We are still recovering from our busiest and most rewarding year yet. I know that I say that every year but it’s true. I still get excited when I explain the depth of our programs to new principals and when I watch a child eat chicken feet with gusto on a field trip to Chinatown.

We completed the 2016-17 school year with 68 programs consisting of 408 workshops in 16 schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan. We made 1,509 students Behind the Book kids and gave out more than 10,000 books to those kids and their school and classroom libraries. (Our thanks to our new partner – KPMG Families for Literacy – for enabling us to more than double our book distribution this year!) We also created 20 student anthologies making over 700 students published authors.

We added three new schools this year; PS 4 in Washington Heights, Community Life Center Mt. Morris Head Start and Tiano Towers Head Start. We piloted two programs last summer with Head Start and they went so well that we expanded to include a second site during the school year. We’re looking forward to a long partnership with these schools.

We worked with quite a few new-to-us authors this year including Tad Hills, Danette Vigilante, and Daniel Jose Older. And many author who have worked with us before returned including Paul Griffin, Tony Media, Doreen Rappaport and Lesa Cline-Ransome. There is one author who has worked with us every year since our founding and that is Rita Williams-Garcia. She is a delight in the classroom and its been a pleasure to watch her books receive the acclaim they deserve.

We went on field trips to the United Nations, Kings County Supreme Court, Central Park Zoo, Statue of Liberty, the African American Burial Ground, and countless neighborhood walks.

The interaction between students and volunteers has become a vital part of our services. They enhanced our research and writing workshops as well as supervised field trips. The teachers appreciate the one-on-one attention given to their students and have continuously credited their help to writing improvement.

This year volunteers donated more than 1,250 hours to Behind the Book.

As we complete our seven summer school programs, we’re looking ahead to September with excitement as we pore over new, delicious books and partnerships.

We work every day to light a spark and sprinkle fairy dust over young people. But we would never be where we are today without your support. Thank you!

Happy Summer Reading!


Deloitte Delights!

This summer, we’re sprucing up our office space. Not to spoil the surprise, but we’re looking forward to some fall public events. We’ve gotten some help as we get our space in shape, including from a group of our friends at Deloitte making a difference:

The group from Deloitte starts their day in matching shirts that are free of paint splatters.







Teamwork gets our walls repainted!
















We love our new chalkboard wall!




Some donated furniture gets new life.


We look forward to sharing the final product of our office upgrade with you all!

Capstones: Our Student Anthologies

We hope you’ve had a chance to take a look at our latest student publications! We’re so lucky to have the help of a number of professional designers who volunteer their skills to help us get our signature student anthologies produced. Here’s some of their stories:

Iris Shih
Dragons Love International Food
Timeless Lessons

When English lit didn’t pan out (after Iris realized you have to not only read but write about what you read), Iris decided to study graphic design. She likes working with other people who have a problem to be solved or a message to convey instead of having to invent content herself. This makes design a good fit. As an avid, lifelong reader, books have always been her favorite thing to design because she gets to “curate the reader’s experience” and likens book design to “giving someone a tour as opposed to handing them a map.” In creating the student anthologies, she was careful not to let the design overshadow the content.

For Dragons Love International Food, the student work is about what makes each student and/or their culture special, so she tried to make each spread feel unique. For Timeless Lessons, she designed the cover like a composition notebook, framed each image, and gave it a plaque with the student’s name and story title to mimic an art gallery. This visual trick highlights the students’ artwork.

She attended the launch party for Dragons Love International Food, saying of the experience, “It was such a pleasure to review the whole process of meeting the author and finding inspiration, as well as handing each person a finished book. I loved that some of their family members came too—a number of parents seemed equally proud and excited to have the student work presented in such a professional way. Having been an avid reader since childhood, and because books have been a huge part of shaping my identity as a person, I love that there is a program that both gets kids excited about reading and inspires them to be creators themselves.”

A.K. Espada
I Made the Wrong Turn

Kate Espada’s primary work is in videography and video editing, but this incorporates design and illustration at times. In volunteering for Behind the Book, she was most excited about reading the stories and seeing the artwork (she said, that part of the process did not disappoint!) With I Made a Wrong Turn, she wanted the design to be fun but also wanted to let the students know their work was being taken seriously. This was her first (but not last) year as a Behind the Book designer and found that “giving kids the support and motivation to develop their voices while creating something from their imaginations is an incredibly powerful way to inspire them early in life, in a way that will stick with them forever.”

Tree Abraham
Stories From the Hood

Tree is a book designer from Canada who studied and worked in design in the United Kingdom before moving to New York a year ago. Book design, for her, is one of the best mediums for “sharing human narratives.” For Stories From the Hood, Tree played off “the dark content of the stories, the gritty concrete backgrounds, and spontaneous lines of the chalk paint” by using analogue processes. This means that she created patterns and type on the computer, printed them out, distressed the paper, and then layered and scanned them back into the computer. This process created a geometric effect reflective of ‘80s and ‘90s style.

Tree attended one of the classes for the book she worked on, and it reminded her of how important the arts and creative writing are in school, saying, “I think art can be very cathartic, and having a final book published helps honor and validate their experiences and hard work. With continuing cuts to art programs, organizations like Behind the Book are essential to help fill the gap.”

Ginnefine Jalloh
Don’t Cry Be Happy

Ginnefine is a graphic artist originally from the Bronx who is currently based in Northern Virginia. She studied graphic design at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, and is now pursuing a Masters in Publishing at The George Washington University. To complete the Behind the Book student anthology, she reviewed the students’ work and chose to focus on the fact that the book motivates readers to be happy; the layout was designed to reflect happiness. She came up with a color palette that blended with the student work and made it brighter and larger, so that the work is vividly highlighted and featured. For the cover, she wanted to create a scene with various “happy” elements from the students’ artwork rather than repeat images as seen in the book. We’re happy when we look at it, so it must be working!

This guest post was written by Klea Kalia, a rising junior at Barnard, who is spending her summer Behind the Book instead of on the beach!

The (Successful!) Plot to Keep Learning

We love watching students connect with books – and nothing is better than a whole class full of students coming together around an amazing book with a challenging topic.

Ms. Mapp’s 9th-grade class at the Collegiate Institute of Math & Science began their study of Patricia McCormick’s book The Plot To Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero like many other 9th-graders: a little wary of biography, but excited for an opportunity to meet the author nonetheless.

Lucky for them Patty McCormick is particularly adept at choosing interesting perspectives from which to explore history. The story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a religious person and a pacifist who eventually decided that ridding the world of Hitler was the greater good, fueled discussion around the concept of whether (and when) violence is justified. After Patty’s visits, the students were captivated by the story and immersed in their Behind the Book program. Though they were already scheduled for two field trips – to the Bronx DA’s office and to the United Nations – they went one step further and asked to stage mock trials in their school library.

Over the course of three days, students took turns playing the roles of defense and prosecution attorneys. Patty visited the class once more for the trials, to watch as the students debated, defended, or denounced Bonhoeffer’s choices. Many argued their perspectives eloquently and passionately.



The trip to the UN was also a huge hit with the students. The Chair and Vice Chair of our Board of Directors, both attorneys, took the opportunity to chaperone. After the tour of the chambers one 9th-grader, Salsabeel, said “I was surprised at the diversity. Everyone is equal there.” While that may not be her personal, current experience of the world, the visual representation of equality that the UN puts forth is a strong motivator for students to continue to believe in its power and achievability.

Our Program Coordinator, Chris Fleming, was certain that the program was a success in her final class, when one student raised his hand to say, “This is the first time I knew a book by heart, cover to cover. And I know I’ll remember it – until at least the 11th grade.”

Photo credit for mock trial photos – Kelsey Dickey

Meet the Authors: From the Book to the Classroom

At Behind the Book, the key to our programs is bringing authors and their books into classrooms. The author workshops – those visits in which the author interacts with with the students – are opportunities for students to engage with the book on a deeper level. Authors bring their book to life in part through writing exercises and discussion of their own personal writing process. To give you a front-row-seat, we’ve compiled two videos spotlighting four separate author visits to kindergarten, elementary, middle, and high school classrooms.

Meet the Authors: Levis and Maldonado

In this video, author of Stuck with the Blooz, Caron Levis, leads a kindergarten class on how to help a friend in need. This is juxtaposed with Torrey Maldonado, author of Secret Saturdays, leading a class of seventh-graders in a writing project about perception (and self-perception.)

Meet the Authors: Budhos and Ortiz

In this next video, author Raquel M. Ortiz, author of Sofi and the Magical, Musical Mural leads first-graders in a musical exercise with a handheld drum and author of Watched, Marina Budhos, leads a discussion with high school seniors about the book’s theme of identity and growing up in an age of surveillance.

And a special thank you to Brian Bonilla for filming and editing!

Start Your Day Right: Group Volunteering

Volunteers are a vital part of Behind the Book programs. Joining our Program Coordinators in the classroom, volunteers give kids the extra attention they need as they work on complex research and writing projects. This school year, we expanded our relationships with corporations seeking group volunteer opportunities during the workday. They provide us with much-needed assistance, while their team members have the opportunity to get out of the office and work with kids.

Elsevier recently sponsored their first corporate volunteer day with Behind the Book, working with first and second graders at PS 154 in Harlem. Heather Luciano, a Publisher at Elsevier and her office’s corporate social responsibility “Champion,” helped to coordinate this event. She is currently Behind the Book’s Young Executive Board co-chair, and wanted to share her experience volunteering in a classroom with her colleagues. Heather sees the two organizations as “the perfect marriage” and hopes to develop the relationship between Behind the Book and Elsevier through long-term volunteer commitments and funding opportunities.

Heather and the rest of the volunteer team from Elsevier helped Ms. Jay’s first and second grade class work on their writing, as they transferred research notes into full sentences. The program was centered around We Dig Worms! by Kevin McCloskey, a book that provides kids with information on how worms are important to gardens. Each student had chosen a “garden helper” (bee, worm, butterfly) to research, and then wrote informative essays. The class was thrilled to meet the new volunteers and a buzz of excitement filled the room as they wrote their ideas into full sentences.

Unza, one of Heather’s coworkers, is actually a PS 154 alum. From the moment she walked through the doors of the school, she was brought back to her childhood. After working with her student, she reflected on the experience of serving as a writing coach in her alma mater, noting a feeling of pride associated with the students’ enthusiasm. To Unza, the experience was a great opportunity to engage with students that sat where she once did, “I appreciate the values that the children are learning, not just the education but the complete experience of learning at this age.”  She was overwhelmed by how politely and appreciatively the students in the class were—a product of both the learning experience and our amazing Program Coordinator Myra’s ability to engage every student on a personal level.

Although our volunteers mostly focus on the development of the students’ writing ability, they can also learn from the experience of working with children.  As Unza reflected, it is exciting and infectious to see the enthusiasm of the students. Behind the Book’s own investment in the next generation would not be the same without the dedication and time of our volunteers.  We look forward to cultivating relationships with corporations and more group volunteer days to come.  As Heather noted: “the impact of this type of relationship is significant, both for us and for Behind the Book; we are both getting something great out of it if we leverage the relationship optimally.”

This guest blog post was written by Charlie Stephenson. Charlie just completed his Development Internship with Behind the Book.  He also recently graduated from Fordham University with a BA in English with a double minor in French and Sustainable Business.

This class and volunteer group was beautifully photographed by Karen Smul.


The Door To The Neighborhood – Bab El Hara

It was not just another Monday.  This Monday was special.  I volunteered for an organization called Behind The Book to translate from Arabic to English for an eight year old  boy from Syria. Disclaimer, I’m a busy mom and comedian so I rarely volunteer. In fact I always complain that I don’t get paid for housework, childcare, or comedy and I refuse to take on one more thing that does NOT pay. I only volunteered because I am obsessed with getting my kid to speak Arabic. As my friend Mariam says, I am held emotionally hostage to the task of transferring my language, and I’m failing. I wake up every day and tell myself that I will only speak to him in Arabic.  I think about this all the time but all my thinking is in English!

So when I heard about this opportunity to use my native language with a kid my son’s age, I jumped on it.  I took the subway from the Upper West Side to Harlem, about fifty blocks, and entered a different world.  At the entrance of the public elementary school, I met Myra, a beautiful woman of Mexican origin who works for Behind the Book. She took me along with the author Jake Perez to the second grade classroom. She introduced us to our boy, Tarek, a skinny little man with brown hair and eyes the color of good olive oil. As soon as I met him, I understood why Myra launched a social media campaign to find him a translator. Before he uttered a word, I could tell he was curious and hungry to learn. I sat next to him on the floor, and we got to know each other.  I was so happy to hear a kid answer me back in Arabic.  As Jake read, I translated every word.

Jake’s book is about a little girl named Coco who learns how to make a treasured family recipe, flan. In the process, Coco also learns about her Cuban heritage. When I explained to Tarek that the reason Jake decided to write this book is because he wanted to learn more about his culture, he asked the simplest of questions and I didn’t have an answer.  “Well, if he misses his culture, and there is NO war there, why doesn’t he just go back to his home in Cuba?” Then when Jake showed us on the map where Cuba is, Tarek noticed the proximity to the United States and he asked me: “Why doesn’t he establish a home there and go back and forth?” Such a grown up question from a kid.  My own eight year old  would never ask that.

I visited Tarek in his classroom four or five times. After every visit, he remained in my thoughts.  I got to know some of the other kids.  Out of twenty four kids, seven are refugees from Yemen, about a third.  As a mom, I could not help but compare this school which is supposed to be an “underprivileged school” to my son’s school which is a “private public school”.  Other than the fact that all the kids in Tarek’s classroom are brown and all the kids in my son’s school are white, there is no difference.  This school might have lower test scores but in my opinion, it scores higher on love, immigrant hunger, and other things you can’t quantify.  I immediately wanted to put my son with Tarek.  I was envious that my own kid was not that curious and didn’t have the empathy and maturity that Tarek had. I insisted on meeting his mother. I gave him my number. She called the same day. She invited us to lunch.

Zidane and I went to Tarek’s house in Harlem one Sunday afternoon. They had a huge spread. A biryani type dish, a salad, and a specific roux type regional dish S-houq which I had never had before, followed by two types of dessert. I brought them some donuts from Dough and as soon as I saw her spread I felt silly and pretentious.  I immediately remembered my childhood, how my mom’s distant cousins would come to visit from America.  We would go all out and slaughter a lamb and they would bring us something silly like a tiny box of cookies from Trader Joe’s.  The lamb would side eye the cookies on the dining table.

As soon as I met his mom and sister, I noticed their accents were unlike Tarek’s, they sounded like they were from Yemen.  I asked:  it may be that you guys are not from Syria?  The sister moved Tarek in front of her, put her arms on his shoulders and asked him:  “did you tell them we are Syrian?”.  The cutest most mischievous smile gave his lie away.  Apparently, while they were waiting in Yemen to get their entry documents to America, he had spent an entire school year watching a very popular Syrian show Bab El Hara. He perfected the accent.  He was immediately worried that I would stop working with him.  I reassured him by letting him know how amused I was.  I thought to myself:  this kid is really smart, at such an early age, he learned to take advantage of the oppression olympics.  He realized that being Syrian got you way more attention than being Yemeni.  

While we were there, an accident happened. Tarek was so excited that he fell and hurt his eye lid. Blood was gushing. It left a deep wound. I could see the bone. I knew the mother and sister did not speak any English. I quickly looked up an Urgent Care nearby. I naively thought they would take their insurance. That’s where I took my son when he hurt his eye in the same place last summer, so I figured it would be ok. I was wrong. When we got there and they saw their insurance, they promptly sent us to to the ER. It was such a long ordeal. I stayed as long as possible. Luckily, we found a nurse who spoke Arabic and so after that, I left her in charge.

Zidane and I got on the subway home from Harlem. He started complaining that it was the worst playdate ever. I patiently tried to explain to him that everything would have gone smoothly if the Urgent Care had accepted their insurance. Try explaining America’s healthcare system to an eight year old. My husband is an artist and Creative Director in advertising and so we are blessed to have great insurance.  Tarek’s dad works for a grocery store seven days a week. Not only does Tarek barely see his dad, he has to go the Emergency room if he needs a doctor at odd hours. How do you teach kids that with their advantage comes a responsibility? There is no system in America to teach that. Community service here is something you have to do when you get in trouble with the law.

I got an idea to create an afterschool peer to peer homework and play space for new immigrants and first generation kids to integrate and learn from each other. Tarek and Zidane would not just learn languages from each other, they would get different perspectives.

This volunteer experience was not only extremely gratifying but it taught me a lot.  I went back recently for Tarek’s publishing party and met some of the moms.  One mom said to me:  “I want to write my story”.  I encouraged her to take a workshop, gave her my number and promised to take her to a Moth story slam.  Behind The Book inspired not only the kids but the moms as well.  As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi , author of Americanah says “there is danger of the single story”.  Behind The Book is inspiring kids to write their own multiple stories.

We consider ourselves extremely lucky to have Suzie Afridi as a volunteer in our classroom workshops, and are honored to have her guest blog about her experience!