Concerned about declining reading skills and expanding waistlines for young people—nearly a third of U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 19 are overweight, according to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation—Boston author and storyteller Irene Smalls is looking to tackle both with Literacise, a children’s program that combines literacy and exercise. “We learn through our senses and bodies, too. Putting the mind and body together you get more learning and greater health,” Smalls says.

A rendering of the Literacise exhibit.

On her Web site, Smalls cites 20 studies linking exercise with learning and physical activity with classroom behavior. To put those studies—including one from Cornell University educational researcher Wendy Wolfe who found that time spent on physical activity increases academic achievement—into action, Smalls raised $110,000 from State Street Bank and the Community Design Resource Center for a “Literacise Story Steps” exhibit at the Boston Public Library’s central library in downtown Boston. The exhibit, which will open on October 3 in a large space just outside the Margret and H.A. Rey Children’s Room, will feature large, somewhat triangular three-dimensional shapes (like a book standing on end with its spine up) with text in Spanish and English and copies of Michael Hays’s original illustrations for Smalls Jonathan and His Mommy (Little, Brown, 1992).

The Double Dutch Divas, seen here in action,
is just one of the groups that will help celebrate
the grand opening of the Literacise exhibit.

In the book, which has nearly 100,000 copies in print, a mother and son zig-zag walk, take giant steps and slow-motion steps, hip-hop and race down an urban street. With Literacise at the BPL, now other children can do the same—while reading. They can crawl through the shapes or zig-zag around them. The story doesn’t have to be read in a linear fashion. But no matter what order they choose, Smalls says, “they’re not just going to read the book; they’re going to do the book.”

Despite the fact that Jonathan and His Mommy came out more than a decade and a half ago, Smalls says, “it has long legs. I always think of it as my son’s love song.” Besides, she wants to get kids to think differently about books. “Research shows that even a few minutes of physical activity results in 20 minutes of reading,” she points out.

In addition to the BPL exhibit, which will be up for six months, Smalls is working with a local school, the Nathan Hale School in Roxbury, Mass., on a Literacise project in September.