Book club for incarcerated girls at Illinois Youth Center-Warrenville, IL
On Saturday, July 24, we had a conference call conversation between Kelly Woods, Outreach Services Librarian, Plainfield, Public library. Planfield, IL, and coordinator of a Book Club for incarcerated girls at Illinois Youth Center-Warrenville, IL; Susan K. McClelland, Adjunct Faculty Reference and Instruction Librarian, Oakton Community College, Skokie, IL. and, K.C. Boyd; Coordinator, City-Wide Book Club Coordinator, Chicago Public Schools. The resulting interview follows.
Sat., July 24, 3:00p.m. (CST)
Kelly Wood, Susan K. McClelland, K.C. Boyd
Susan: WHERE IS THE PRISON BOOK CLUB?
Kelly: Warrenville, IL, a maxim security facility for girls ages 13 years to 21 years.I have been volunteering at the prison since 2001, and facilitating the book club since 2004. The book club has no name (K.C. suggests, “Kelly’s Angels”!)
The volunteer application process is rigorous and can take 3-6 months; it includes background check, fingerprints and blood tests. One-time visits may be approved with about 2 weeks’ notice.
Book club has 8 -10 girls per discussion. Girls must attain levels of behavior to attend book club. Volunteer coordinator oversees book club privileges.
Some girls are familiar with books; some become avid readers as result of incarceration and book club involvement.
K.C.:WHERE DO BOOK CLUB BOOKS COME FROM?
Kelly: I purchase multiple copies of books with my own money and some come as publisher donations. I (Kelly) have a professional reviewer friend who often ships boxes of single-copy books for the book club. The volunteer coordinator is usually in charge of allowing the books into the book club and is not overly restrictive. I’m a longtime volunteer/book club coordinator, and this is rarely a problem.
K.C.:ARE THE VARIANCES IN READING LEVELS OF THE GIRLS CHALLENGING FOR THE BOOK CLUB?
Kelly: Not as much as you might expect. Most of the girls read at an acceptable level, but interest level is the key.
HOW MANY COPIES OF BOOK CLUB BOOKS DO YOU BRING WEEKLY?
Kelly: I usually purchase 8-10 copies, and freebies are often donated. The book club meets monthly and I try to tailor the questions to accommodate those who have read and perhaps not read the books.
CAN YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF WHAT TITLES ARE HITS & WHAT ARE MISSES?
Kelly: I take recommendations from the girls and they DO prefer non-fiction or true stories to fiction. For instance, some favorites very much enjoyed include, “A Child Called It” (David J. Pelzer), “They Cage the Animals at Night” (Jennings Michael Burch), and “The Coldest Winter Ever” (Sistah Souljah). The girls have a good grasp of the author’s intent and can express themselves quite well.
Some other great hits were “Random Family” by LeBlanc and “33 Snowfish” by Rapp. We’ve also read“Tyrell” (Coe Booth), Sharon Flake, Sharon Draper, and the Romeo and Juliet tale with an urban twist, “Perfect Chemistry” by Simone Elkeles.
Susan: IS THERE A LIBRARY IN WARRENVILLE?
Kelly: The girls do have access to the library, but it’s not well-weeded and the librarian doesn’t hold classes or have access to the latest books, since most come by donations.
K.C.: Since I get lots of books for my schools, I’d be happy to make some donations of titles you might like to read, but can’t afford to buy. Of course, these are usually single copies.
Kelly: We’d welcome donations and would love to have them!
Susan: ARE THERE ANY BOOKS YOU DON’T WANT?
Kelly: The girls here don’t usually want to read fantasy--no Science Fiction or anything that doesn’t present a solution to a set of problems or life situation that they can envision or that doesn’t seem real.
K.C: I’ve worked in schools in Englewood (Chicago neighborhood) and it seems to me that what is lacking is that these children have often not been taught how to fantasize or had the luxury to do so.
Susan: DO YOU FEEL YOUR BOOK CLUB IS OPERATING UNDER THE RADAR WITH REGARDS TO THE BOOKS YOU RECEIVE?
Kelly: If I were to have the books sent ahead of me to the youth center, they may not be seen again. That is to say, if I carry the books in myself, I know I’ll have them available for my book clubs. I’m volunteering and operate the book club alone.
Warrenville has its own school district and most girls attend class full time, though I find these studies are remedial at best. So I feel the book club, while I try to make it fun and a release from the school routine, can be work that helps increase learning; critical thinking, writing skills, etc. The girls can choose to receive a GED or diploma from Warrenville.
SUSAN: ARE THERE OTHER BOOK CLUBS AT OTHER FACILITIES?
Kelly: There is another book club which is facilitated by another group of volunteers, but it is different from mine. Also, Storycatchers Theater, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that helps at-risk and troubled teens write and produce theater based on their stories, comes to Warrenville to coach the girls through the process of telling their own stories, putting them down on paper, and turning them into songs and plays.
K.C. ARE YOU AWARE THAT OTHER URBAN FICTION WRITERS, SUCH AS WAHIDA CLARK, TRACI WOODS, AND VICKIE STRINGER TO NAME A FEW, ALL STARTED WRITING WHILE INCARCERATED?.
Kelly: The girls love to write and though they’re not always grammatically perfect, they are excited to express themselves through their writing. I think that’s why they enjoy the street lit books, because they are written about situations they are struggling with, by and about people with whom they can identify.
K.C. DO YOU ATTEND ALA CONFERENCES?
Kelly: Only when it’s here in Chicago! I regularly attend other local Illinois educators’ conferences like Illinois Computing Educators and Illinois School Library Media Association.
Susan: How did you find PHAT Fiction blog/wiki?
Kelly: through ISLMANET -Illinois School Library Media Association
Susan: HOW CAN THE PHAT FICTION WIKI/BLOG HELP BENEFIT YOUR BOOK CLUB?
Kelly: For these girls in particular, it can be hard to find appropriate titles in this genre, so I was happy to connect with the PHAT Fiction wiki/blog to suggest reading lists, titles and book reviews for titles the girls might enjoy. My dream is to have a publisher, company, or other group underwrite the book club and supply books!
K.C.: I think you should attend the ALA annual conference in New Orleans and be part of the next PHAT Fiction panel!
Susan: Yes, I agree, and in the meantime we’d both like to work with donating books to “Kelly’s Angels Book Club”. Thanks, Kelly, it was good to talk with you today.
Susan K. McClelland