Are Books Dead? Third-Grade Readers at the Crossroads

BLOG #8, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
ARE BOOKS DEAD?
THIRD-GRADE READERS AT THE CROSSROADS
February 25, 2015

Scan_Pic0146February 8, 2007

Author Joe Wheeler, foreground left, and fellow Kiwanian Barry Sweeney, encouraged children to read by handing out certificates and books at Beaver Ranch on Feb. 3, 2007.

It appears to be a national consensus that unless a child falls in love with reading by the third grade, it is extremely unlikely that the child ever will. Because of this, thirteen years ago, the Conifer, Colorado Kiwanis Club launched out on uncharted waters. We had no guidebook, no map; we just knew something ought to be done about it. After all, every week, we recited the Kiwanis mantra, our reason for being: “Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers dedicated to changing the world—one child and one community at a time. Kiwanis is for kids here, there, and everywhere.”

Over time, gradually, we felt our way, as we adopted five elementary schools: Deer Creek, Elk Creek, Marshdale, Parmalee, and West Jefferson [Jeff, for short]. Recently, because there are so many homeschooling families in the Mountain Corridor, we added them as well.

Each year, we raise money for books; not bureaucracy or infrastructure—just books.

Because for us, this one thing we do, we have had an impact far greater than the size of our club would warrant. All our fund-raising is centered on reading. In my own case, every December, because every penny above cost of my books goes directly to third-grade readers, the largest grocery stores in the area permit us Kiwanians to set up inside the store. Kiwanians man the table and I inscribe from a very large selection of our in-print and out-of-print books. We also raise money by sponsoring a rest stop for bikers in the annual Triple Bypass Bike Race (“triple” meaning that it features three passes over 11,000 feet); drawing 4,000 – 6,000 bikers every year. And we also seek other sources of funding.

And every year, we Kiwanians hold a Reading Celebration for third-graders and their families, as well as their teachers and principals. On that occasion, the kids get to see Mr. Ron Lewis’s buffalo herd close up (he’s our club president), partake of refreshments, receive certificates of reading achievements, have one of my books (chosen by the child) personally inscribed as a gift from me. They will also join their teachers and principals, school by school, and tell us how last year’s money was spent, and how they feel about reading. They are then awarded the check for the upcoming year.

Scan_Pic0149February 27, 2014

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That’s the fun part for me. During the past two weeks I have made appointments with area principals and third-grade teachers, to enter the classrooms and personally invite the third-graders to come to the Marshdale Reading Celebration. I brought with me fourteen of my books: ten collections of animal stories (series titled “The Good Lord Made Them All”), Showdown (sports stories for boys), Bluegrass Girl (horse stories for girls), The Talleyman Ghost (mystery stories for girls), and The Secrets of Creeping Desert (mystery stories for boys). Each attendee will choose one later, after first receiving parental permission to do so. Then I leave full-color posters depicting the 14 book covers with each teacher. By the time I leave, the kids are excited.

Often the teachers grant me time to talk with the kids about both reading and writing, and how they go together. At that age, being an author is a magical thing to them. When they’re told that I’ve written/edited 89 books so far, they are in awe. When I ask for questions, they are so excited, almost every hand is raised. Believe me, when all the third-grade sections are brought into one room for my annual visit, one section seated at their desks and the other sections seated on the floor (50 – 80 kids at a time), and seeing all those hands waving for my attention, it is an exciting thing to behold. Third-grade is a perfect grade to target for they are still excited about life and reading; fourth grade is too late.

This year, one of our schools, Elk Creek Elementary School, is being honored because its students made the 98th percentile in state-wide reading scores! Which gives Kiwanis validation for the thirteen years we’ve partnered with these area schools. And with parents–for unless they are partnering with us at home, our efforts are limited. But together, we can accomplish miracles!

As I see it, if my entire life were to be judged by just lighting the eyes of these children, one at a time, with the joy of learning, reading, writing, creating—it would be worth having lived.

The Talleyman Ghost and Other Mysteries for Girls

BLOG #33, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE TALLEYMAN GHOST AND OTHER
MYSTERIES FOR GIRLS
August 13, 2014

N E W S    R E L E A S E

Just out is this, our 88th book. In last week’s blog, I discussed with our readers the three-and-a-half-year fuse that led to the eventual publishing of The Talleyman Ghost and The Secrets of Creeping Desert. How it was thanks to Larry Weeden (Editorial Director ) and Bill Flandermeyer (then bookstore manager) at Focus on the Family in Colorado Springs that these two books came to be.

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In this case, our discussion that December 3, 1910 evening centered on the individualized book needs for boy-readers and girl-readers. We concluded that both boys and girls love mysteries. After all, generations of young readers have grown up reading The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery stories. Both Weeden and Flandermeyer urged me to consider putting together mystery story collections for both audiences. Finally, three and a half years later, here they are.

I have raided the entire twentieth century for its most memorable girl-related mystery stories. I chose the very best by popular authors whose stories have stood the test of time; not easy given how few stories survive for two generations. A number of the writers were already familiar to me: prolifically published writers such as Catherine R. Britton, May Hurley Ashworth, Albert Payson Terhune (America’s greatest dog story writer), Augusta Huiell Seaman, Eric Philbrook Kelly (renowned writer of stories dealing with Poland and Europe), and Malura T. Weaver.

It is much more difficult today to choose mystery stories that uplift rather than degrade, that help inculcate values worth living by rather than those likely to darken the inner skies of its readers. Not surprisingly, I discovered that most of the best stories had been written earlier on rather than today.

Since far more girls than boys are enthusiastic readers today, I have no fears for the popularity of this collection.

Over the years it has become abundantly clear to me that, generally speaking, book covers are the determining factors in terms of which books are purchased and which are passed over by bookstore browsers. I’ve been lucky with most of our covers; however, two were just plain awful. Not surprisingly, the sales correlate. I’d guess that 95% of impulse book-buying is almost predetermined by the cover illustrations and graphics.

Which brings me to the covers for Talleyman Ghost and Secrets of the Creeping Desert. When Todd Hoyt (president of eChristian/Mission Books) sent us sample cover illustrations for each book, it gave me a brainstorm: quite a few years ago it was when Kiwanis of Conifer members decided to put most all their fund-raising eggs in one basket. Since Kiwanians recite every week this mantra: “Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers dedicated to changing the world one community and one child at a time,” our only question had to do with how we’d focus our energies. We concluded that it had to do with reading. Reason being that for several decades now our national reading test scores have continued their prolonged death-plunge. Reason being: most parents today are themselves non-readers; consequently there are hardly any books, magazines, or newspapers to be seen in their homes. And gone too, for the most part, is the traditional story hour during which parents read to their children. The results add up to a national catastrophe.

Since studies continue to show, conclusively, that if a child fails to fall in love with reading by the third grade—it’s not likely to ever happen at all, we decided to make addressing that need our first priority. Since I’ve directed our Kiwanis Reading Program since its inception, I’ve been deeply involved in helping to make it happen. We’ve raised over $70,000 to buy books for the students (third-graders, highest priority) in five elementary schools: Deer Creek, Elk Creek, Marshdale, Parmalee, and West Jeff elementary schools in the Colorado Front Range. Each year, at our annual reading celebration for third-graders, I personally invite all the kids to attend at Ron Lewis’s barn in Marshdale. We give them a great time, including a chance to personally check out Lewis’s buffalo and elk herds, get their faces painted, get to have one of my books (of their choice) inscribed as a gift from me, and be part of the receiving groups when annual checks are handed out (usually $1,500 or so per school). Last two years, since we have a vibrant homeschooling community here in the mountains, we added them in as well.

So, when the subject of choosing covers for these two books came up, I decided to corral Wendy Woodland, principal of West Jeff Elementary School, and ask her if she thought third-graders would get a kick out of helping to choose two book covers before they were published. Woodland loved the idea. “It would be a real first for them!” was her response.

She felt boys would choose a mysterious-looking cover devoid of frills, and implying overt action. But, as for girls, she prophesied that since they tend to recoil from covers that convey graphic violence, much preferring understated covers that, while they appear mysterious and perhaps mystical, lean toward beauty rather than crude or overt action. “And,” she added, “girls love cursive writing more than block writing. Mark my words, they’ll, hands down, choose the mystical green cover with swirly cursive writing.” She was right: the boys gravitated to the one you’ll see on Secrets of Creeping Desert and the girls almost unanimously chose the one that graces Talleyman Ghost. I can’t wait to show the students these covers this fall when they are fourth-graders.

Here are the chosen stories included in the book:

“The Talleyman Ghost,” by Catherine R. Britton
“The Clock Stopped,” by Mae Hurley Ashworth
“Portia and Xenophon,” by Albert Payson Terhune
“That Darling Chin,” by Grace Lyon Benjamin
“Aunt Honoria’s Legacy,” by Helen Minshall Young
“Butterfly Ranch,” by Mary Beth Oliver
“The Mallory Inheritance,” by Augusta Huiell Seaman
“A Royal Mystery – Unsolved,” by Eric Philbrook Kelly
“The Missing Chessman,” by Dorothea Castelhun
“Wings of the Wind,” by Kenneth Payson Kempton
“Buried Treasure,” by Mabel Cleland
“The Ebony Box,” by Malura T. Weaver

Girls of all ages will revel in this timeless collection. As you’re making up your Christmas stocking list, write down the names of your girls, granddaughters, nieces, godchildren, etc., and have me inscribe the books personally to them. Ditto for birthdays or other special occasions.
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ORDERING INFORMATION

Binding: Trade Paper
Pages: 144
Price: $14.98
Shipping: $4.50

Personally signed or inscribed by Joe Wheeler, if requested, at no extra cost. You may secure your copies from us, so give us a call or email or letter, and we’ll fill your order for you,

Mail your request to Dr. Joe Wheeler, P.O. Box 1246, Conifer, CO 80433.
Or Phone to 303-838-2333.
Or send an email to: mountainauthor@gmail.com.