Cheer for a Volunteer—It’s National Volunteer Week

National Volunteer Week, established in 1974 by President Richard Nixon, is a time to acknowledge and celebrate people who donate their time, skills, and energy in service to their communities. From April 23rd through 29th, you can share why you volunteer and what it means to you, while encouraging your friends, co-workers, and family to find a cause they want to give their time and talents to.

Behind the Book is giving a spirited shout-out to its own incredible volunteers, as well as everyone else who lends a hand all over the country. Our team of more than 1,000 people—three times the number from just a few years ago—play an active, vital role in our classroom literacy workshops.  We count on each of them to make each program a success.

As research, writing, and art coaches, our volunteers provide Pre-K to 12th grade students with individualized support, encouragement, and guidance that makes a huge difference in the outcome of their projects. In fact, we’re able to design more complex projects because we can count on volunteer support.

The impact they have was described perfectly by one of our Brooklyn third-graders: “I knew I was talented, but now I know how much!” She’s not alone. Students of all ages love working with their adult mentors, often asking them to come back another day, and distributing  generous hugs of happiness. As a result, we’ve yet to see a volunteer leave a classroom without a wide smile.

Working with volunteers is also an opportunity for students to get to know new people. Journalists, attorneys, finance professionals, tech experts, and people who work in fashion, theater, and the visual arts have all participated in our classroom workshops.

That’s not all they do to help make Behind the Book flourish. Volunteers regularly lend us their professional skills and experience by designing student books, photographing and videotaping workshops and events, copyediting, and helping to plan events. Their enthusiasm for our mission shows in the tremendous quality of work they do.

Want to share your love of serving your community? During National Volunteer Week, join the #ivolunteer campaign mounted by Points of Light, an organization that helps millions of volunteers make a difference. Simply download their signboard (or design your own!), and write in why you love being a volunteer.  Take a photo of yourself with your sign to share on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter with the hashtags #ivolunteer, #NVW, and #behindthebook. We’ll be looking for you!

On any week, you can find current dates to be a coach on our volunteer opportunities page. To join our team and receive notice of new dates as they’re posted, please complete our brief questionnaire.

Happy National Volunteer Week!

This guest blog was written by our Volunteer Coordinator Emily Rosenberg, who loves working with all of you amazing volunteers!

Meet the Supporter: Pat Levenson

We thought you’d all like to learn about a supporter who has been with us from the start – not only as a donor, but initially as a teacher at one of our partner schools. Claire Strickland, an English major at NYU, profiles our long-time friend Pat Levenson:

The gift of inspired readers comes from experiencing the difference between simply getting through books, and allowing books to get through to the reader. Behind the Book donor Pat Levenson has seen the power of this gift for herself.

For more than 30 years, Levenson worked in a “high-poverty, funding-strangled” NYC public school where she witnessed the daily hardships wrought by under-resourced reading programs. Struggling with writing and reading comprehension, students would often grow discouraged by books and set them down before getting halfway through.

When Behind the Book launched a partnership with her school, Levenson was overjoyed by the transformation under Behind the Book’s “vision, creativity, and resources. The partnership with authors and illustrators was unexpectedly and wonderfully inspiring to the entire staff and empowering to all the students.”

“Reading is vital to our ability as human beings to understand other places and people,” Levenson said. “It gives us insight into our own nature as we silence all the outside noise and let another’s language become our own.”

Now retired, Levenson continues to nurture her passions for social reform and education as an active member of her local Democratic club and a part-time course instructor at an adult education program. In her free time, she volunteers in her residential development’s tenant organization. She loves to travel whenever possible.

If Levenson were to write a book about herself, she jokes that with her packed agenda, she would title it, “So, Do You Think She’ll Ever Learn the Meaning of the Word ‘No’?” Despite having a full schedule, Levenson enjoys keeping herself busy and finds it rewarding to further causes for which she feels strongly.

Her favorite book is Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” which a “brilliant JHS teacher” guided her through one semester. She discovered how to “reflect on the setting and development as sign-posts of relationships and plot, and not be seduced or misdirected by the words characters are speaking. And it has one of the greatest opening lines ever!”

Meet the Teacher: Brenda Changkit

Literacy is an important part of any child’s education. Brenda Changkit, a kindergarten teacher who has worked with Behind the Book for five years, believes “the earlier, the better” when it comes to exposing kids to books.

“I believe even in the womb kids are able to hear,” she said. “So even with my own children I read to them before they were born. More so with my second son – he has such a love for reading and books now.”

While all parents may agree that reading is essential for their children, not all parents are able to provide the resources that a young mind requires. Changkit sees the effect of this first hand in some of her own students.

“I notice that students who aren’t exposed to a wide variety of reading early on have a challenge with comprehension,” she said.

Changkit suggests parents find websites that provide free reading material, and if access to the internet is an issue then going to the library is also helpful. Our Executive Director agrees, underlining the point that variety in materials is the best way to keep young children engaged in reading.

“I also tell parents to have as many outdoor experiences as they can.” Changkit said. Take them to the Botanical Gardens or even a park.”

Early Literacy is a city-wide focus – one of Mayor DeBlasio’s most successful initiatives was establishing Universal Free Pre-K in New York. And elementary schools are getting more resources. Changkit’s school, for example, provides an online reading program called Raz-Kids for their students.  The program allows students access to reading material that corresponds with each student’s reading level.

Behind the Book is growing our programs that promote early literacy. In addition to early elementary school programs like Ms. Changkit’s class, we’re developing more partnerships with Head Start programs in the city. Because we get to work with faces like these:

April Reading at KGB

Spring is finally here! And so is Behind the Book’s April reading at KGB Bar. Join us on Thursday, April 13th at 7pm to hear these two talented ladies, Min Jin Lee and Cara Hoffman, read from their latest works.

Min Jin Lee’s profoundly moving and gracefully told tour de force, Pachinko, follows one Korean family through the generations, in exile from a homeland they never knew and caught in the indifferent arc of history.  A national bestseller, Pachinko is a New York Times Editor’s Choice, an American Booksellers Association’s Indie Next Great Reads, and a February Book of the Month for Amazon.  Her debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, was named one of the Top 10 Novels of the Year by The Times of London, NPR’s Fresh Air, and USA Today.  Her short fiction has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts.  Her writings have appeared in The New York Times, Condé Nast TravelerThe Times of LondonVogueTravel+LeisureWall Street Journal, and  Food & Wine.  Her essays and literary criticism have been anthologized widely, and she has served as a columnist for the Chosun Ilbo, the leading paper of South Korea.  She has received the NYFA Fellowship for Fiction, the Peden Prize from The Missouri Review for Best Story, and the Narrative Prize for New and Emerging Writer.  She went to Yale College where she was awarded both the Henry Wright Prize for Nonfiction and the James Ashmun Veech Prize for Fiction.  She attended law school at Georgetown University and worked as a lawyer for several years in New York prior to writing full time.  She lives in New York City with her family.

“In 1930s Korea, an earnest young woman, abandoned by the lover who has gotten her pregnant, enters into a marriage of convenience that will take her to a new life in Japan. Thus begins Lee’s luminous new novel PACHINKO—a powerful meditation on what immigrants sacrifice to achieve a home in the world. PACHINKO confirms Lee’s place among our finest novelists.” – Junot Díaz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and This Is How You Lose Her

Cara Hoffman is the author of the newly released, Running, a dark and breathtaking novel of love, friendship, and survival set in the red light district of Athens in the 1980s that Garth Greenwall calls “a ferocious, brilliant book.” She is also the author of the critically acclaimed novels RunningSo Much Pretty, and Be Safe I Love You.  She has written for The New York Times, The Paris Review, Electric Literature, Marie Claire, SalonLitHub, and National Public Radio, and is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades including a Folio Prize nomination, and a Sundance Institute Global Filmmaking Award, and a MacDowell Fellowship. Originally from Northern Appalachia, Cara dropped out of high school and spent the next three years travelling and working in Europe and the Middle East. She did not go to college, became a newspaper reporter covering crime and environmental politics, and later attended graduate school at Goddard College, selling her first novel So Much Pretty, before receiving an MFA in 2009. She has been a visiting writer at Columbia, St. John’s, and University of Oxford, and currently teaches in the Stonecoast low residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.

“Hoffman impressively evokes the combination of nihilism, idealism, rootlessness, psychic and economic necessity, lust and love that might set a young person adrift. Unlike the runaway heroes of many queer narratives these characters are not cast out but looking to get lost…The Athens on display here is peopled with rebels and runaways of all kinds, idealists, revolutionary operatives, con men, wayward young scholars, squatters…In Bridey and Milo Hoffman has created memorable anti-heroes: tough and resourceful scarred, feral and sexy. The book and the characters refuse to conform and Running like all good outlaw literature takes sharp aim at the contemporary culture’s willingness to do so.” – The New York Times Book Review

Behind the Book on NBC’s GIVE!

Behind the Book was beyond thrilled to be featured on NBC’s philanthropic reality show, GIVE, on March 11.

As you may know, our Executive Director worked in television for 20 years before she launched Behind the Book. But Jo was on the production side, and in no way used to being in front of the camera. She swallowed her nerves and got through the filming, only to be surprised with a generous gift at the end. Through GIVE, we were awarded a $20,000 grant from the Ganek Family Foundation – and we’re so grateful!

Meeting Jenna Bush Hager was a treat for us all, and we loved working with the pros at Bungalow Media on the production end. We can report that the students at PS 125 were extremely excited to have a television film crew in their midst.

Our thanks go out not only to them, but to author Tony Medina, who agreed to be featured in the segment, and principal Reginald Higgins, who agreed to let the show film in his school.

Here’s to teamwork!

You can view the full episode on NBC’s website:



March Reading at KGB

Our March reading at KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village is filled to the brim with new works! Four authors will headline on Thursday, March 9 at 7PM:

André Aciman is the acclaimed author of the new novel, Enigma Variations.  His prior books include Eight White NightsCall Me by Your NameOut of EgyptFalse PapersAlibis, and Harvard Square, and the editor of The Proust Project.  He is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a fellowship from The New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.  His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, The Paris Review, as well as in many volumes of The Best American Essays.  He teaches comparative literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and lives with his wife in Manhattan.

“Aciman writes arousal so beautifully you miss it when it’s gone . . . [Aciman is] up to something bolder this time . . . Aciman is all the way himself here.  He writes with the ferocity of a writer who’s finally getting his vision down, and he has to say it, has to get it out.  He’s made a magnificent, living thing.” – Paul Lisicky, The New York Times Book Review

Nicole Krauss has been hailed by The New York Times as “one of America’s most important novelists.” She is the author of the international bestsellers, Great House, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Orange Prize and winner of the 2011 ABA Indies Choice Honor Award in Fiction and the 2011 Anisfield-Wolf Award, and The History of Love, which won the Saroyan Prize for International Literature and France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger, and was short-listed for the Orange, Médicis, and Femina prizes.  Her first novel, Man Walks Into a Room, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book of the Year. In 2007, she was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists, and in 2010 she was chosen by The New Yorker for their “Twenty Under Forty” list.  Her fiction has been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire, and Best American Short Stories, and her books have been translated into more than thirty-five languages.

“The voice [in Great House] sweeps you up…beautiful and mysterious.  Krauss’s understanding of the varieties of human suffering—exceptional in a writer so young—makes the experience of her characters resonate in us.  Their stunningly distinct and lively voices hold us captive…Krauss, who began her career as a poet, can do just about anything she wants with the English language.” – Ann Harleman, The Boston Globe

Eric Puchner is the author of the collection Music Through the Floor, a finalist for the California Book Award and the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, and of the novel Model Home, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, and won a California Book Award.  His short stories and personal essays have appeared in GQ, Granta, Tin House, Zoetrope, Narrative, Glimmer Train, Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses.  He has received a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was a Pushcart Prize winner.  In 2015, he was awarded the Jeannette Haien Ballard Writer’s Prize, given annually to writers “of proven excellence in poetry or prose.”  An assistant professor in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, he lives in Baltimore with his wife, the novelist Katharine Noel, and their two children.

“Ray Bradbury meets Tom Perrotta in the new collection by Puchner (Model Home), which blends science fiction with the all-too-real suburban horrors of deadbeat dads, unsupervised teens, and the onset of mental illness.  In the instant classic “Beautiful Monsters,” a brother and sister rearing themselves in a world where parents are extinct encounter their first adult . . . . Other tales feature aging punk rockers, vindictive divorcées, and ready-to-snap bookstore employees, completing Puchner’s composite of everyday desperation.” – Library Journal

A Philadelphia native, Tom McAllister lives in New Jersey, teaches at Temple, and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, an editor at Barrelhouse, and the author of a memoir, Bury Me in My Jersey: A Memoir of My Father, Football, and PhillyThe Young Widower’s Handbook is his first novel.

The Young Widower’s Handbook is a stunning, clear-eyed examination of the complexity of grief.  In McAllister’s hands, this story of a man dealing with the loss of his wife takes on such depth and surprising humor that you can’t help but give yourself over, heart and soul, to Hunter’s journey.” – Kevin Wilson, author of The Family Fang

Positive Change through Books

Behind the Book offers more to students than books, authors and literacy skills. We also provide students with the chance to think critically about issues around them through our Social Justice programs.

“There’s always a way to present a subject that’s controversial or difficult in a way that students can comprehend,“ said Bureen Ruffin, a Program Coordinator for Behind the Book.

“I did a program with high schoolers featuring a novel that dealt with surveillance and identity, featuring a Muslim character. This was in a classroom with immigrants but the teacher and I weren’t sure whether they would be able to understand the complexities of identity.”

However, the students responded deeply to the themes of the novel.

“When they met with the author it was so clear that they weren’t just understanding the story but also resonating with the complicated issues that the character dealt with,” she said. “I think we often underestimate children’s abilities to think critically.”

Bureen Ruffin on left, and Chris Fleming on right.

Given the current political climate, it’s more important than ever that we not let students get discouraged – and empower them instead. Christine Fleming, who’s been a Program Coordinator for Behind the Book for 11 years, sees the influence of the last election on her students.

“In this year’s climate the students seem to be charged to be change agents,” she said.

Chris believes the programs are a success when you see passionate reactions from students. “Either they are outraged, curious about pursuing a cause, or writing to a legislator, writing to city council, being activists, or just practicing good citizenry,” she said.

This year Chris will be working with a 9th-grade class on a non-fiction novel about a pacifist’s plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. She will be taking them on a field trip to the United Nations. “The kids see this peace keeping body that has an armed force. They have armed soldiers that keep the peace,” she said.

The trip is expected to elicit questions about violence and if there’s a justification for violence. “You make them think: Is violence justified? Is bullying violence? When does your liberty begin and mine stop?” she said, “We touch on all these big questions in almost all our programs.”







Overall the Social Justice programs give students an opportunity they otherwise may not have. We work with many at-risk youth who have the talent to succeed but aren’t always given the necessary tools. Behind the Book’s Executive Director Jo Umans works first-hand in the classroom every year.

“We’re working with a lot of kids who see social injustice every day of their lives. And I think it’s our job to teach them that there’s an alternative to standing by and just letting it happen,” she said.

“And I think it’s our job to empower with them with skills to fight back in an educated way that could actually give results. Not to fight, not to scream at each other, but to empower them to make positive changes.”

Listen below to hear Jo’s description of one of her current programs, about a 13-year-old boy who finds an abandoned baby and thinks he can keep her.

We have 26 social justice programs for this year (either completed or upcoming this spring), which is almost 40% of our programs. We plan to continue to increase this number annually so we can provide students with the skills needed to seek social change.

This guest blog is from Brian Bonilla, a senior at Brooklyn College, who delved deep into these topics with all of our Program Coordinators.

Authors, Authors Everywhere! Everywhere in the Bronx, That Is.

Here at Behind the Book, we’re gladdened to announce the brilliant launch of a new partnership with the VCFA Young Writers Network. This group, formed by alumni of the prestigious Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program, are working with us to bring more authors to our partner schools in NYC.

Members of the VCFA Young Writers Network joined us in DeWitt Clinton High School and the Bronx Academy of Letters this fall – sending both alumni and faculty to work with our students.
We’ve long enjoyed working with Coe Booth (former VCFA faculty member), and we were delighted to meet current VCFA faculty member Daniel Jose Older. Based on his recent novel Shadowshaper, our students are writing and illustrating fantasy fiction set in their real-life neighborhood. Here’s Daniel in class, signing copies of his book to give out:

The students, particularly the soon-to-graduate students at DeWitt Clinton, benefitted from having published and pre-published authors both lead and supplement the class as writing coaches. Our Program Coordinator Chris Fleming, who has been working with high school students for 11 years, could not have been more pleased with the kids’ response. They left the workshop with a true understanding of the way professionals think through the writing process.

Of course, volunteers are there to encourage students as much as lead them. Per Chris, “The students took their own writing more seriously because a professional writer took them seriously.”

We especially love when the learning goes both ways. Lyn Miller-Lachmann, YA and middle grade author, worked with Spanish-speaking students at DeWitt Clinton on their writing, an experience that empowered her to accept a bi-lingual professional offer, saying:

The highlight for me was being able to give students writing instruction and feedback in Spanish. It was a huge confidence booster for me because I would like one day to teach writing or lead a writing workshop in Spanish or Portuguese, in which I’m equally fluent… This afternoon, a professor at the University of Porto asked about my availability in future years to teach a writing workshop. Thanks to my experience with BtB, I could give her a yes.

Thank you, VCFA Young Writers Network! We’re looking forward to continuing this partnership, and to seeing the student anthology that these students produce.

We hope you’ll visit their website for more info on their work, which extends to Boston and Philadelphia too!

(L-R) Micol Ostow, educator and author of more than 50 books for young readers, including the Louise Trapeze chapter book series and the YA paranormal mystery The Devil and Winnie Flynn; Lyn Miller-Lachmann, educator, translator, and author of books for middle and high schoolers, including Gringolandia and Rogue; Marianna Baer, author of two young adult mysteries, Frost and the soon-to-be-released The Inconceivable Life of Quinn.