Michele Weisman spent 25 years in educational publishing, working for Sesame Workshop and Highlights for Children, but six years ago, all of that changed. Weisman signed on to volunteer at her daughter’s school in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she helped run a program called Meet the Writers. The premise was simple: teachers and parents coordinated three author visits per grade per year, and each kid received a book with which to build a small library. The program elicited a wave of excitement from the students, and Weisman began wondering whether Meet the Writers could be something bigger.
With the approval of the school principal, Weisman reached out to the principal of the Highbridge Green School in the Bronx, whom she had previously met, and asked if he would be interested in having the same program for his students. “Three seconds later, I got a reply,” Weisman said. In all capital letters, the principal wrote, “YES.”
Six years later, Weisman works full-time with Meet the Writers, which is a growing presence in the New York City public schools. Last year, Weisman organized 42 author events at 15 schools, though the pandemic ultimately forced 17 of them to be postponed. Through the program, authors join students for three periods, doing different events and gatherings that always include at least one grade-level reading with a question and answer session.
In the schools, Weisman says the program has become something of a rite of passage for kids, getting them to come out of their shells when they see authors with whom they share a background. Last spring, author Sonia Manzano of Sesame Street fame joined students virtually to discuss her novel The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano, Weisman says 85 students attended online and showed their faces during the discussion. “It was an amazing discussion,” she said. “We had a dialogue for 30 minutes. They put their questions in the chat, and there were softballs like ‘how many books have you written,’ but also hardballs like ‘what did this book mean to your life?’ The principal was over the moon.”
The program has drawn dozens of authors, including Elizabeth Acevedo, Brendan Kiely, and Ibi Zoboi. Some live nearby, while others, prior to the pandemic, were in New York to visit with their publishers. The nonprofit pays for an honorarium, local travel, and books for the students. The entire program is reimbursed by the schools, most of which receive Title 1 support (which means that 40% of students in the school quality for free and reduced lunch).
Each school pays for the program differently, something which can delay payments and require substantial paperwork. “That’s why I think there aren’t so many people doing this work,” Weisman said. “It’s not easy to navigate. It’s taken me years to learn.”
That learning process has been supported along the way by similar nonprofits around the country, which Weisman frequently taps for information, along with local support. Weisman completed the nonprofit’s 501(c)3 incorporation and tax-exempt status in 2017, with support from the Fordham Law Clinic. She also received training through the Brooklyn Public Library’s PowerUP! competition, where she came in second place. The program awarded her $5,000, helped her craft a nine-part business plan, and introduced her to two advisors with whom she continues to consult.
“They’re sort of like fairy godfathers,” Weisman said. “They say things to me like you need five funders for 5K each for five years.”
Weisman is making headway on that goal. She received a $10,000 grant this year from the Young Authors Foundation, which she will use to match school book purchase contributions in order to ease their budgets. She also received $6,000 from the Maurice Sendak Foundation to purchase books for Meet the Writers from Black booksellers.
As the organization grows, Weisman is pitted between two difficult considerations. She reads every book for the program and is present at every event; a level of engagement she credits with helping the organization succeed. At the same time, she sees substantial need, citywide.
“There are 1.1 million kids in 1,600 schools in New York City. 1,300 of those schools are Title 1 and last year I had 42 events in 15 schools. I’m not scratching the surface,” she said. The pandemic has only heightened that sense, while also revealing the potential for virtually connecting school kids with authors who might not otherwise be able to travel to New York.
At the same time, Weisman’s personal involvement with each event has been as transformational for her as the program has been for the school-age attendees. “I feel like I really didn’t understand the need and now I do,” she explained. “I would say, when I started, that Meet the Writers is about literacy. Now I would say it’s about literacy and seeing yourself.” As the program continues to expand, that mission is guiding the next steps for Meet the Writers in the years ahead.