JAM | May 9, 2023

Reading has the power to transform lives, says Latoya West-Blackwood

Candice Stewart

Candice Stewart / Our Today

Reading Time: 6 minutes
Jacqueline Woodson, former US Young People’s Ambassador for Literature and author, with children from schools across the corporate area in Kingston during the meet and read session for Read Across Jamaica Day activities

In light of Read Across Jamaica Day and the work of the Book Industry Association of Jamaica (BIAJ), Latoya West-Blackwood, director of special projects at the organisation says that “reading transforms lives”.

“I know that because it transformed mine. I didn’t travel until I was a teenager and I first travelled through the pages of books as a young girl. That was the access I got to where I am. It has been a gift to me. Now, I travel to different places because of books. So it’s no longer just through pages,” she said.

“I believe in the power of books to give young people hopes, dreams, and aspirations. You have no limit when you read and write stories. It is so important for us to have a culture of knowledge and reading. We become empowered by that as learn empathy as well as understanding other people’s perspectives and ideas,” she continued.

Books written by Jacqueline Woodson

West-Blackwood was speaking at a Read Across Jamaica Day inspired event where a ‘meet and read’ session was hosted by the BIAJ and GrassROOTS Community Foundation in which Jacqueline Woodson, former US Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and author of books for children, adults, and adolescents, read from her picture book, ‘The Day You Begin’.

Part of their work exposes children to books and reading in the hopes of improving the country’s literacy rate that took a hard knock in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

West-Blackwood shared with Our Today that international airline, JetBlue and GrassROOTS Community Foundation collaborated with the BIAJ to get Woodson in Jamaica for a weeklong pre-Education Week activities.

The back of shirt being worn by Latoya West-Blackwood, director of special projects at the Book Industry Association of Jamaica about Read Across Jamaica Day
From left: Lisa Maxwell, board member of the GrassROOTS Community Foundation; Joel Nomdarkham, project manager for Literacy Heores; Jacqueline Woodson, former US Young People’s Ambassador for Literature and author; Latoya West-Blackwood, director of special projects at BIAJ; Dr. Janice Johnson Dias, president of GrassROOTS Foundation Limited.

“We hosted Ms. Woodson for a week of school and community outreach. Her impact as a writer of 35 books, most award winning titles, and as the former US Young People’s Ambassador for Literature, made her the perfect person to support our mission this year. Her advocacy for children’s access to books and for reading as a form of play resonated deeply with the work we want to do in Jamaica. In addition to the ‘meet and read’ activity with students from six corporate area schools, Ms. Woodson did a public reading at Kingston Bookshop in Liguanea, and a school tour in Clarendon with stops at the Bustamante High School and Mineral Heights Primary,” said West-Blackwood.

Woodson is best known for her National Book Award-Winning memoir, ‘Brown Girl Dreaming’, and her Newbery honour-winning titles ‘After Tupac’ and ‘D Foster, Feathers’, and ‘Show Way’. Her picture books ‘The Day You Begin’ and ‘The Year We Learned to Fly’ were New York Times bestsellers.

West-Blackwood said that “Jamaica has a very specific cultural context where a lot of young people are introduced to books in the classroom primarily through text books but not necessarily outside of the classroom in their homes and other spaces that should also be providing access to books”.

Jacqueline Woodson, former US Young People’s Ambassador for Literature and author, during her meet and read session for a Read Across Jamaica Day activity hosted by the Book Industry Association of Jamaica and GrassROOTS Community Foundation

The BIAJ and the GrassROOTS Community Foundation have been working together since 2018 and to date, the organisations, through their collaboration have “touched thousands of communities and schools through our initiative to make books accessible. These are books that represent us, our culture, our history, and our diversity,” said West-Blackwood, who added that over the last three years, the BIAJ and GrassROOTS Community Foundation have gifted over 5,500 students across Jamaica with literacy care packages that contain books, sanitary items among other items.

She stressed the importance of representation and said that it is difficult for Jamaican children to relate to characters in a book because their environmental context and physical attributes are not in synch with the reality.

For her part, Woodson said that it is important for children to see themselves in the books they read. She suggested that when children see their stories reflected in books, it will encourage them to want to read and perhaps improve literacy rates.

Jacqueline Woodson and a student at the Read Across Jamaica Day-inspired ‘meet and read’ event with six schools across the corporate area.

“There is a great academic named Rudine Sims Bishop who talks about the importance of kids having both windows and mirrors in their books. So, windows that they can see into others’ narratives, other lives, other ways of people being and mirrors so that they can see reflections of themselves. When a kid sees a reflection of themselves, they can say ‘oh that kid’s like me’, and they can also see that they are important in the world because the book is reflecting some part of their experience,” said Woodson.

“If a kid is constantly not seeing themselves in the narrative, they’re thinking less of themselves. They’re thinking, ‘I’m not a part of this story, it’s just another story about the world’. So it’s really important for them to pick up a book and see some part of their family. That really matters to them, being engaged in the narrative,” she added.

“Historically, we haven’t had a lot of books that reflected our own experiences. Books have mainly represented the European narrative. It’s also important for kids to see themselves in the people who write. So, it’s not only just important to see themselves in the narrative but also that the person who wrote that narrative also looks like them,” she said.

Focus on Libraries

Book Industry Association of Jamaica (BIAJ) logo

This year, the BIAJ and GrassROOTS Community Foundation have chosen to focus exclusively on libraries. In addition to equipping children with lifelong learning and literacy skills, the two organisations are focused on enabling them to effectively participate and contribute to positive and productive community life.

In speaking with Our Today West-Blackwood said that, “there are Jamaican children who have no or limited access to story books throughout their childhood. How do they get to dream about worlds outside of their reality without the chance to read books that spark their imagination and show them what’s possible? We believe that children have the right to dream and providing libraries with diverse books is a practical way to use access to power the dreams of today to support the achievements of tomorrow.”

For their part, The GrassROOTS Community Foundation says that libraries play an essential role in our liberty by providing free safe and inclusive spaces to learn, connect and gather.

“[Libraries] maintain history and facilitate access to learning. [They] are equitable spaces, for regardless of age, income, and other identities, all are welcomed. Additionally, they are often the only space where there is open access to the internet,” says the GrassROOTS Foundation in a statement on their website.

They stress that libraries often do not receive the resources they need. This is usually evident where books are outdated and are sometimes too few for the growing youth population.

With that realisation, they targeted collecting 2,000 books for young readers. However, 400 books were collected. This year the parishes of St. Mary and Manchester will be the beneficiaries, where literacy initiative ‘Di Cawna’, spearheaded by Rachael McDonald, plans to establish libraries.

The ‘Di Cawna Library’ literacy initiative reaches children in need where they are. They currently have libraries in Montego Bay, Rose Town, and Treasure Beach with plans to establish more.

“The situation is even more dire for rural children who most times have no access to books at home and no libraries close to where they live,” said West-Blackwood.

Send feedback to [email protected]


What To Read Next