Family Reading Night

Good things happen when creative minds get together to brainstorm ideas.

Family Reading Night, The Missourian’s community-wide celebration of reading which will present its 20th event Friday, March 6, is proof of that.

Diane Lick was working as a reading specialist for the Washington School District during the 2000-01 school year when she told Dawn Kitchell and Ann Joyce that it had long been a dream of hers to hold a family reading event.

“As a reading specialist you know that reading has to start at home,” said Lick. “It’s that lap time with a parent that instills the love of books in a child. And when you work with kids who have problems reading, you are always searching for ways to hook them.”

Kitchell, who had just joined The Missourian to manage the Newspaper In Education program, and Joyce, who had facilitated the program for several years and was working full time as a teacher, agreed. Together, the three got to work making that dream a reality as part of The Missourian’s NIE program.

Kitchell invited people to read stories to children, Lick organized craft activities inspired by books, and Joyce found volunteers to work the event, which has always been held free of charge.

Two decades later, the women marvel at how Family Reading Night has grown and evolved, and how its mission of bringing families together has come full circle with children who attended the first few years coming back as volunteers or even as parents with their own young children.

“I’m thrilled, overjoyed that it has worked so well and continues, because I think it shows the value that our community places on reading,” said Lick.

“It is such a community effort,” said Joyce, recalling how even from the beginning the event has been served by volunteers and organizations from across the area, and students too come from a number of different schools. “It truly is pulling in our entire community.

“It’s not just the public schools. It’s the private and parochial. Everybody works together for one mission — reading.”

It takes a great team to plan and carry out an ever-evolving event. The committee, which now includes 20 people (mostly educators, librarians and Missourian staff), continues to impress Kitchell, who spearheads the event every year.

“The beauty of our committee is that they bring fresh ideas and new ways of looking at things,” she said. “It’s just a big brain trust of people who are passionate about reading.”

So much of what makes Family Reading Night so beloved by the community is what Kitchell and Joyce love about it too — from the reading logs that families keep the week before showing what books they’ve been reading together to the book baskets that children are so hopeful about winning to the story skit that the Washington Police Department performs.

“The way our entire community comes together for this event — it’s incredible,” Kitchell said. “We have students creating amazing art to decorate the school, District staff helping set up and facilitate rooms, Parent Teacher Organizations hosting our activity tables . . . the list is tremendous and includes more than 100 people of all ages volunteering.”

They credit the guest readers throughout the years and the high school students, like the football players, cheerleaders, dancers and drama students, who give animated and enthusiastic readings in the various rooms with helping make the event so memorable for families.

Another important part of Family Reading Night is the opportunity it offers for children to meet an author and/or illustrator. In 2004, Kitchell and Chris Stuckenschneider, Missourian book editor, decided to integrate Book Buzz, The Missourian’s youth literacy program into the event by inviting an author/illustrator to be a featured guest.

“It’s a joy to see the excitement that’s generated when a child gets to meet the actual person who’s created a book,” Stuckenschneider said. “Suddenly these authors become more than just a name on the cover — they’re real people, folks who will engage with young readers. What a thrill is for the kids to go away from Family Reading Night with a signed copy a book, a personal forever treasure.”

‘It’s a Circle’

Kitchell said she gets especially excited to see those high school volunteers as guest readers, because she knows how much the young children look up to them.

She still gets goosebumps remembering how a photo from the first Family Reading Night showed her that the event’s mission was working.

The photo showed two boys at the Cat in the Hat craft table in 2001, and 10 years later, one of those boys was volunteering as a reader with the Washington High School football team.

“That was the moment for me . . . I realized, Wow! It’s come full circle!” Kitchell remarked. “We introduce this to these kids, they see the value of reading and now here they are as role model readers to kids today.

“I have been preaching for my whole career about how it’s a circle, that parents have to read with and in front of their children. Their kids need to see them reading, and when they grow up, they’ll be readers. So to see concrete proof of something I had believed in for so long, that it is working, was very cool.”

And, she said it reinforced the overall theme of Family Reading Night -- Reading Together Makes a Difference.

Seuss on the Loose

The very first Family Reading Night was held in 2001 on Dr. Seuss’ birthday, March 2, as part of the Read Across America celebration to honor the birthday of Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss.

The theme was Seuss on the Loose.

The day began with a Reading Rally that morning at the Washington Public Library. Then-Mayor Walt Larson read a proclamation, and Judge Craig Hellmann led some 150 students who had walked over from nearby schools in reciting an Oath of Reading.

That evening, families gathered at Washington Middle School to do craft activities inspired by Dr. Seuss books (“Horton Hears a Who” puppets and “Yurtle the Turtle” turtles) and to hear stories read by local dignitaries and public figures, local police officers and firefighters.

More than 400 people attended.

“Our goal is to have every child engaged in reading activities on this day,” Dawn Kitchell wrote in a letter to area school principals promoting the event.

The Washington School District and Pepsi-Cola Bottling Company in New Haven have been sponsors with The Missourian from the beginning.

Growth, Year by Year

2002 — Dr. Seuss was the theme again. The Missourian and Washington School District sponsored the event along with the parent organizations from several Washington schools and the East Central Area International Reading Council.

New activities included the Scholastic Book Fair and a skit based on “Little Red Riding Hood” presented by Washington police officers.

2003 — Nursery Rhymes was the theme. Crafts were based on “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Three Little Kittens Have Lost Their Mittens.”

2004 — Family Reading Night partnered with Parents As Teachers and the District’s Early Childhood Program to include its first author visit. Emily Pearson presented her story, “Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed.” The event was held at Washington High School for the first and only time. The Washington Kiwanis Club sponsored the author, something the group continued to do through 2012.

2005 — Bee Unique was the theme, and Steve Seskin, songwriter and author of “Don’t Laugh at Me,” was the guest. An estimated 675 people attended.

2006 — In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina devastating the Gulf Coast, Family Reading Night celebrated Community Building by holding a book drive to benefit a destroyed library in Waveland, Miss.

The featured book was “Some Friends to Feed: The Story of Stone Soup,” by folk legend Pete Seeger and Paul Jacobs.

A year later, Washington High School Key Club students helped sort through the book donations and packed up some 2,000 books that members of the Washington Kiwanis Club personally drove to Waveland, Miss. The donated books featured a label that indicated they had been part of the “Some Friends to Feed” book drive held in Washington, Mo.

This also was the year that local high school students got involved as readers, said Kitchell, noting it was the suggestion of Washington Middle School teacher Jennifer Wirthwein, who served on the Family Reading Night committee.

2007 — Matt Tavares was the featured author with his book “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

Bookmarks were handed out to encourage children to visit the reading rooms to hear the stories. More than 250 books by Tavares were given to students who visited two or more rooms.

The Washington library joined the committee and began facilitating the craft activities.

2008 — The theme was Leap Into Reading, as this was a leap year and Family Reading Night was held on Leap Day. Author/illustrator Marla Frazee presented “A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever.”

The bookmark drawing prizes were copies of Frazee’s book, “Roller Coaster.” The Washington High School football team began donating funds to help purchase books that were given away as prizes.

2009 — Readers Become Leaders was the theme, and Deborah Hopkinson presented her book “Abe Lincoln Crosses a Creek.” Book baskets donated by various individuals and groups were given away prizes for the first time.

2010 — Ten Years of Tales was the theme for the 10th annual event, and Amy Krouse Rosenthal presented her book, “Duck! Rabbit!”

2011 — The theme was Stories to Share, featuring Candace Fleming, author of “Clever Jack Take the Cake.”

2012 — The theme was Reading, Pass It Down, inspired by the book “Passing the Music Down” about a fiddler. Master fiddler Vesta Johnson, St. Louis, was the guest speaker/performer.

2013 — Author Kenneth Kraegel presented his book “King Arthur’s Very Great Grandson.” His visit was sponsored by the Washington Optimist Club, which took the baton from the Washington Kiwanis Club and has sponsored every author visit since.

The Washington Fire Department followed the police department’s lead and performed a story skit on the main stage, but had to leave in the middle when a fire call came in.

2014 — Sniffing Out Good Stories was theme with Carolyn Mueller sharing her book “Lily: a True Story of Courage and the Joplin Tornado.” Lily, the search and rescue dog, came to Family Reading Night with her handler, Tara Prosser.

2015 — Blooming With Kindness was the theme, and children were invited to create a virtual flower garden by writing down various random acts of kindness and good deeds on the petals of paper flowers.

Justin Roberts was the guest author. He presented his book, “Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade.”

2016 — Ready, Set, Read was the theme, with Meghan McCarthy presenting “The Wildest Race Ever: The Story of the 1904 Olympic marathon.”

2017 — Bedtime Stories was the theme. Sherri Duskey Rinker presented “Steam Train, Dream Train.” Students were invited to participate in a writing contest, “Where Would Your Dream Train Take You?”

“Of all the authors who have come to Family Reading Night, she was the biggest rock star to our young audience,” said Kitchell.

“Her book ‘Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site’ was huge, a New York Times bestseller, and the toddlers just gravitated to the stage to meet her.”

2018 — The theme was Reading Builds Bridges to Everywhere, and Brian Biggs was the featured author. He shared his book “Tinyville Town Gets to Work” about a community building a new bridge, mirroring what was going on in Washington at the time.

2019 — Pets, Love, Books! was the theme with author Lisa Papp presenting her book “Madeline Finn and the Shelter Dog.” Families were invited to donate pet suppplies for the Franklin County Humane Society.

Challenges

There were a few years that snow and ice caused headaches for the Family Reading Night committee. There was even one year that Washington School District was closed due to bad weather, and the committee had to scramble to make sure the event could run as planned.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Kitchell recalled. “I called Judy Straatmann, who (works for the school district) was on our committee. She saved the day. She got the grounds people there to clear the parking lots and opened the building.”

There have been other less stressful challenges over the years. Early on those included things like WMS teachers who came in Monday morning after Family Reading Night to find things out of place in their classrooms.

Each challenge has led the committee to find solutions. Now, volunteers staff each of the reading rooms to make sure everything is in order and tidy at the end of the night.

In 2007 when Matt Tavares was the featured author, his flight was canceled due to weather and the only way to get him to Washington in time for the event was to pay for him to catch another flight. The cost was an additional $500.

That was incredibly challenging, Kitchell recalled, especially because Family Reading Night operates on such a tight budget.

“Donations help fund an author and give away books,” said Kitchell. “The Missourian has always covered the costs associated with organizing and promoting Family Reading Night — the printed materials, the advertising — it’s a tremendous community investment.”

For the 20th event, scheduled for Friday, March 6, at Washington Middle School, this year’s committee is working on special details and is excited about the guest author/illustrator, Peter H. Reynolds.

The creator of many children’s books, including “The Dot,” (a January 2004 Book Buzz Pick) and “The Word Collector,” (a March 2018 Pick), founder of FableVision Learning, a resource hub for creative educators, and International Dot Day, a day designed to promote creativity, Reynolds will share his newest book, “Be You!”

The Missourian’s Feb. 22-23 issue will feature a story on Reynolds with more details on this year’s Family Reading Night celebration.