Lerner Publishing Group has joined forces with Read Woke nonprofit founder Cicely Lewis to develop the Read Woke Books brand, providing librarians and educators with tools to help teens engage in thoughtful conversations about gun violence, immigration, and other timely subjects. A high school librarian turned writer, Lewis has co-authored the first six titles in the Issues in Action series, slated to roll out this fall.

The idea for a potential book deal expanding on the nonprofit’s mission took shape in 2018 after the Lerner team worked with Lewis to design and distribute Read Woke buttons at bookseller trade shows. “We really believe in the philosophy behind Read Woke: that knowledge is power and that action and hope are essential to understanding hard issues,” said Jenny Krueger, publishing director for school/library at Lerner Publishing. “The Issues in Action series doesn’t shy away from hard topics, but covers them with an emphasis on hope, action and what’s possible.”

From Humble Beginnings

Lewis began Read Woke in 2017 as a way to assist her students at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, Ga. “I realized that the kids were going through all kinds of things and didn’t have a lot of information to help them, so I decided to bring books about different issues to the forefront,” Lewis told PW. After putting together a display of current book offerings, many of which had never been checked out from the school library before, she created a Read Woke sign—a nod to the 2017 Stay Woke Essence magazine cover that had caught her eye. “It was so powerful, and I thought, ‘How can I bring this same message to books?’ Everything I do in my life, I connect back to reading,” Lewis said. Word of Read Woke eventually spread and today, the program has 95 registered chapters across the nation, as well as in Canada and the U.K.

Following her attendance at a Library Journal conference and the industry’s growing interest in the Read Woke movement, Lewis was tapped repeatedly by other educational conferences for her keynote speeches that focused on diversifying readership. When the requests became overwhelming, she approached Lerner with the idea of creating a line of books to meet the need for relevant content. “I told them that people are asking what they can buy for their libraries. If I had something to give out, it would give people the tools they need to have these difficult conversations,” Lewis explained.

The debut six Read Woke titles in the Issues in Action line-up, written by Lewis and Elliott Smith, include Gun Violence and the Fight for Public Safety; Immigration, Refugees, and the Fight for a Better Life; Income Inequality and the Fight over Wealth Distribution; Mass Incarceration, Black Men, and the Fight for Justice; The Opioid Epidemic and the Addiction Crisis; and Use of Force and the Fight Against Police Brutality. While many of the topics are straight from today’s headlines, one topic in particular—mass incarceration—resonates with Lewis on a personal level. As a child whose drug-addicted father was in prison for much of her young life, Lewis reached a turning point during her research and book writing that helped her to better understand her father’s circumstances.

Rather than take credit for spearheading this movement single-handedly, Lewis is quick to deflect praise. “My students are so proud, wearing their Read Woke shirts as a badge of honor, and for our school being recognized as a positive place,” she said. “I hope these books will encourage them to share their own stories.”

With six additional titles scheduled for spring 2022 and six more for fall 2022, Lewis hints at what future topics will be tackled in forthcoming Issues in Action titles. “We are rethinking everything we’ve ever been taught in school,” she said. One aspect of the series that remains consistent is the prevailing message of acceptance—one that Lewis strives to impart in both word and deed. “It takes more energy to hate someone than to be tolerant,” she added. “I try to instill that message in my students and in these books.”