True to its mission of promoting children’s authors, as well as literature and literacy, the Kerlan Children’s Literature Research Collections, which is housed in a library on the University of Minnesota’s main campus in Minneapolis, has launched #OperationReadAloud. The project consists of videos, primarily of authors and illustrators reading from their own work, but also celebrities reading from their favorite children’s books, and posted in one place on social media, thus allowing easy access. Launched on March 17, the Facebook page currently has more than 1,000 followers, and there are more than 100 videos posted, as well as links to virtual author festivals and other events that are appropriate for children.
Lisa Von Drasek, curator of the Kerlan’s collections, told PW that the social media project was inspired by a text sent to her in early March by an Italian friend, who is a pre-school teacher, during Italy’s national shutdown, before the U.S. shut down, due to the pandemic.
“We think Bologna is going to be canceled and there’s a national lockdown,” Von Drasek recalled her friend telling her. “We’re running out of stuff to do for the children.”
Von Drasek thought that it might be helpful to her friend and others in similar situations to have access to videos that could be translated into various languages. She put out a call for children’s authors and illustrators to film themselves reading from their books. Not long afterwards, Rosemary Wells coincidentally made the same suggestion to her contacts; the two connected, and an ad hoc group was formed that included agents children’s illustrators, librarians, indie booksellers, as well as publishing professionals from all the major houses and several indie presses. The group strategized on how best to make videos available to the public without violating any copyrights.
“The postings by the publishers are giving limited permissions to schools and teachers,” Von Drasek explained. “And now random people are [submitting] their own videos.” The first three videos posted last month on #OperationReadAloud feature not just authors but also animals: Marcia Goldman, author of a series of picture books about a therapy dog named Lola, holds the real-life Lola while she reads from the first book in the series, Lola Goes to Work. Wells reads from her book, McDuff Moves In, illustrated by Susan Jeffers; and Margi Preus reads from her early reader chapter book, The Littlest Voyageur, about a talking squirrel.
“It’s the zeitgeist,” Von Drasek explains. “Everyone wants to do something to support teachers and parents and this is something we can do against this invisible enemy that is keeping everybody at home. Everyone is pulling together to get the word out that they’re supporting teachers and parents at home through their work.”
And, she says, “This is a time when you realize that your school librarian’s constituencies are the children, the teachers—and the parents too.” New York City school librarian Eileen Makoff demonstrated the truth of this statement in a recent email to Von Drasek: “I have relied heavily on your Facebook group for programming, pulling content for my students almost every day. They have enjoyed the videos, etc. so much, and the comments have been a sliver of silver lining in what has been a dark time.“
Von Drasek noted that all of the videos posted on the #OperationReadAloud page are vetted by her first—especially important after somebody posted a video of someone reading Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are that turned out to be, in Von Drasek’s words, “for adults.” After receiving numerous complaints about the sexually suggestive video, Von Drasek said she would preview every video submitted to her or that she discovered on the Internet.
“I’m not putting up everything, I am just putting up stuff that informs the curriculum or promotes literacy,” she said. “I look for the same things I look for when putting together a collection. I look for diversity in content, for diversity in age groupings. It’s not all picture books, there’s videos for older children, too. And it’s a mix of big presses and small.” Videos range from Sandra Boynton’s daughter, Darcy, reading Barnyard Dance, to Charles R. Smith Jr. reading from his collection of poems about basketball, Hoop Kings.
After actor Jennifer Garner posted numerous videos of herself and other celebrities reading books as a fundraiser for Save the Children US and No Kid Hungry, called #SaveWithStories, Von Drasek “cherry-picked” videos from Garner’s website to post on #OperationReadAloud.
“I chose only the ones of the famous actors who did a good job reading,” she said. This includes Jon Hamm reading The Good Egg by Jory John, illustrated by Pete Oswald, and Glenn Close reading Millions of Cats by Wanda Gág. There’s even Lin-Manuel Miranda reading in Spanish: El Gallo que no se Callaba! (The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!) by Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin.
#OperationReadAloud, Von Drasek said, also includes videos that are not read-alouds, but are educational and entertaining, such as Kate DiCamillo’s weekly writing tips and Mo Willems’s Lunch Doodles. “There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes of illustrators creating art you would never get to see otherwise,” she said. “How often do you get to go inside an artist’s studio?”
Realizing that not everybody has access to Facebook, Von Drasek said that a spreadsheet of all the #OperationReadAloud videos has been created and is being updated regularly; links of the videos can be sent to parents and educators upon request.