LEAP's Read-In Rocks The Green

 Eight year old Serenity Lewis dives into a book from Tedd Arnold's "Fly Guy" series after learning a few new science tips from Jada Jones. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Eight year old Serenity Lewis dives into a book from Tedd Arnold's "Fly Guy" series after learning a few new science tips from Jada Jones. Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Eight-year-old Serenity Lewis knew that she would spend part of Friday reading. But she didn’t expect a surprise lesson in mineral collection from one book’s protagonist, Jada Jones, to spark a new interest in rocks.

Friday morning, Serenity was one of 500 summer campers at Leadership, Athletics, & Education in Partnership's (LEAP) annual “Read In” on the New Haven Green, a communal celebration of reading and literacy now in its 18th year. In addition to several counselors and a small army of volunteer readers, the event brought out State Sens. Martin Looney and Gary Winfield, Reps. Toni Walker, Pat Dillon and Al Paolillo, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Mayor Toni Harp. 

In a normal week, counselor Susan Carson said that campers read for “about 45 minutes” each day as part of a longer three-hour curriculum. She said that it "opens up a whole new world for them to see" and learn facts that they wouldn't otherwise, like a recent lesson in Black history from Deborah Hopkinson's Steamboat School

 Mayor Toni Harp and State Sen. Gary Winfield. To a rapt audience, Winfield recalled growing up in “10J,” a low-income household in the South Bronx where books from the New York Public Library became a key to escaping poverty. He told the students that a lot of people from his neighborhood don’t make it out—but he did, in part, because of reading. "We didn’t have access to a lot,” he said. “But what we had was books. Those books changed my life completely.”

Mayor Toni Harp and State Sen. Gary Winfield. To a rapt audience, Winfield recalled growing up in “10J,” a low-income household in the South Bronx where books from the New York Public Library became a key to escaping poverty. He told the students that a lot of people from his neighborhood don’t make it out—but he did, in part, because of reading. "We didn’t have access to a lot,” he said. “But what we had was books. Those books changed my life completely.”

But Carson added that the read-in is special: campers get read to, basking in old-fashioned story time. Then they take those skills to become better readers themselves, and even mentor each other. 

“Why is reading important?” said Harp as students gathered in a wide circle, a sea of blue shirts among their counselors’ orange. “It’s important because when you’re feeling sad, you can read something that makes you feel happy! When you want to learn something you can read something that teaches you how to do something you don’t know how to do.”

Heading past the New Haven Free Public Library’s Bookmobile and an instrument petting zoo from the New Haven Symphony Orchestra (NHSO), Serenity and a group of campers made a beeline for a grassy spot by the green’s flagpole. As they took their seats, volunteer Christine Atkins joined them and whipped out their first book of the day: Jada Jones: Rockstar, by Kelly Starling Lyons. 

“For the first time ever, I overslept,” she began, opening chapter one wide as campers crowded in to follow the narrative. “Usually I beat everyone downstairs on school mornings.”

 Christine Atkins with LEAPers Chaima Arouna and another camper. 

Christine Atkins with LEAPers Chaima Arouna and another camper. 

In her professional life, Atkins is a professor of foreign languages at Albertus Magnus College, where there is a strong public service bent to the school's mission. But Friday, she was a shape-shifting narrator, changing the pitch and speed of her voice as she read.

In the book, young Jada Jones (not to be confused with Barbara Park’s beloved but tongue-twisted protagonist Junie B. Jones) must come to terms with the absence of her best friend, who has moved away and left Jada feeling lonely. So Jada starts a rock collection, hunting around for the best specimens. 

Around Atkins, Serenity and her friend Chaima Arouna leaned in, scanning the sentences.

“Sometimes in books you can find mystery and adventure,” said Serenity. She added that there were “like, new dimensions” that opened with each page and chapter, like a new interest in rock collecting and science that she’d gleaned from hearing about Jada’s excursions out in the field.

 LEAP alum Eli Sola with camper Bernard Hutchings. 

LEAP alum Eli Sola with camper Bernard Hutchings. 

Nearby, other young readers were getting new ideas too—including some that took place somewhere between this universe and another, at a place called “Ella Mentry School.” Reading from Dan Gutman’s My Weirdest School: My Cooper Is Super!, Albertus Magnus student Eli Sola asked campers if they could predict what was going to happen next, testing out reading comprehension and passage completion skills far outside the classroom.

A former senior counselor and site coordinator at LEAP, Sola said returning to the read-in felt natural, as if she was easing back into something old and comfortable.

“I think it’s really cool,” she said. “It’s a good time for people to get involved. It would have been very easy for them [the campers] to sit around and not pay attention, but they really did [pay attention].”

 Camper Nayshawn Myers, a 9-year-old student at Beecher School. 

Camper Nayshawn Myers, a 9-year-old student at Beecher School. 

Seated at her left, 7-year-old LEAPer De’monnii Coles called it exciting, noting that he now counted My Weirdest School among his favorite books. “You learn so many new things,” he said. 

Back in Serenity’s group, Atkins had finished half of Jada Jones: Rockstar and asked campers if they wanted to hear some poetry. Several murmurs of “yes!” and “uuhhhmmm hmmm” rose from the group. She picked up a volume of Shel Silverstein’s Where The Sidewalk Ends, published almost 50 years ago. 

“Can I read this poem?” she asked, flipping to a page as she spoke. “I had to memorize this poem when I was young!”

“Can we take turns?” Serenity piped up from beside her. 

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“We’ll see, after this one,” Atkins said. She positioned her finger on a page so not to forget her place. Then she began to recite a poem she has known for decades, titled “Invitation.”

If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
A hope-er, a pray-er, a magic bean buyer . . .
If you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire,
For we have some flax golden tales to spin.
Come in!
Come in!