I’m a reader. As such, I’m often told that I seem to be in my own world or lost. Aside from those sleep-deprived Mondays when my mind has melted into a homogeneous goo of nothingness, I always confess: I’ve been trailing Hamlet’s footsteps through his 15th-century palace in Elsinore and slogging through the marshes of Melrose Island with Luke Wingo. Stories are impactful beyond the physical book-in-hands experience. They’re transformative.
That’s why I believe that everyone deserves to experience the magic of reading for pleasure. But against the vicious ebbing away of each day and the appeal of the digital world, finding the time to foster this love is a challenge, even for a self-proclaimed bookworm like me. So during my sophomore year when I heard about Book Buddies, a club that pairs younger students with high schoolers at Orange High School in Pepper Pike, Ohio, I knew I had to join.
“Book Buddies brings students together, older and younger, and connects them,” said high school librarian Joanna McNally, who advises the club with gifted coordinator Kathy Frazier. “Older students feel like they’re empowering younger students, and younger students have a sense of acceptance and belonging. Together, they enjoy reading and develop life skills like empathy.”
The club began as a pilot program during the 2013-14 school year with seven elementary school students, one from every third-grade classroom. Today, Book Buddies has become a popular club at the high school, annually matching about 100 high schoolers with preschool and middle school students “hoping to encourage an excitement for literature, instill an appreciation for pleasure reading, expose students to different types of age-appropriate literature, and foster lifelong readers and learners through positive modeling.”
Buddies sit down every week to read, followed by fun activities like letter search bingo and illustrating scenes from their books. They also have the opportunity to participate in a half-day intersession at the high school toward the end of their year together, where they bond further over a pizza lunch, activities like LEGO building and watercoloring, and the optional (but totally awesome) handshake making.
Frazier added that the high schoolers “are amazing role models and challenge their buddies to use their imagination, develop communication skills through book discussions, and collaborate on creative projects.”
I, too, can attest: Book Buddies makes a difference, and not just for the younger students. For the past three years, I’ve looked forward to my day of the week where I get to spend time with my buddies. This year, as soon as I stepped into the classroom, I was greeted by my preschool buddies, Jackson and Santiago, grinning and enthusiastically clutching more books than we could possibly read in our short time together, usually including some favorites to reread. I mean, who could possibly get tired of Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham”? Not Sam-I-Am, and definitely not those two!
Although I’m an avid bookworm, all high schoolers can enjoy the club. Adi Breitman, a three-time participant, said, “I love going to Book Buddies once a week to spend time with my buddy. It’s my favorite part of the day.”
Agreeing, two-time participant Kaitlyn Margolis said, “It’s so rewarding to help young children discover their love for reading through sharing my own.”
Providing a fresh focus for these high schoolers after the school day is what McNally considers the key to the club’s impact.
“After a day spent on their own needs and their own learning, the high school buddies feel needed and important, which is incredibly gratifying and empowering,” she said. “Who wouldn’t want to bottle that feeling up and experience it over and over again?”
While the mentors can’t force their younger buddies to enjoy the books, I consider the club to be scheduled love-building. Beyond the books, buddies form a special connection, which encourages the younger students to love what they’re doing and even lose themselves in the books that we read.
Reader or not, that’s something we all can appreciate.