By Megan Ciskowski, Associate Publicist
In 2017 Cicely Lewis began developing a program called Read Woke that encouraged readers to explore books written by diverse voices and with diverse characters. Since that time the program has taken off and found great success with librarians across the United States. In 2020 Lewis won School Library Journal’s School Librarian of the Year for her ingenuity and resourcefulness.
This fall Lewis and Lerner Publishing Group partner up to create Read Woke Books™, a collection that seeks to challenge social norms, give voice to the silenced, provide information about groups that have been disenfranchised, disrupt the status quo, and share perspectives from underrepresented or oppressed groups. The first series, Issues in Action, is written by Cicely Lewis and Elliott Smith, an experienced freelance author in the Washington D.C. area. Read on to find series information, author interviews and more!
- Interest Level: Grade 4 – Grade 8
- Reading Level: Grade 4 – Grade 5
Examine hard topics facing our society—from gun violence to immigration. Learn how problems developed and hear from underrepresented persons involved in these struggles. Reflection questions help readers challenge their perspectives, while an activism toolkit and Read Woke reading list empower readers to make a difference.
Interview with Cicely Lewis (CL) and Elliott Smith (ES)
What was your inspiration for the book or kept you inspired while writing?
CL: My inspiration is always my students and my two children. They are our future and they deserve to learn about the issues that affect our lives.
ES: What inspired me while writing was being able to share the information that I learned with my own kids, who wanted to find out more. Knowing that this material could resonate with potential readers was exciting.
What kind of research did you do for this project and what was your best resource?
CL: I used the Library of Congress for much of the information and the Smithsonian institute website. I also reread The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
ES: I did a lot of reading for this project. Getting a variety of perspectives on these issues is critical because they can affect so many segments of society. Reading stories of people on the front line (immigrants, anti-gun supporters, opioid counselors) was very helpful.
What is the most surprising thing you discovered while researching or writing the book?
CL: The most surprising thing I discovered while researching is the story of Isaac Wright. He was wrongly accused of being a drug kingpin and sentenced to life in prison. He became a lawyer and while in prison cleared his name along with several other inmates.
ES: It was an eye opener to write these books because they allowed me to dig deeper into these issues. I knew about them, but I don’t think I realized how deep of roots some of these problems had established in our country. I think the most surprising (and disappointing) thing I learned was that the wealth of an average white family was 10x that of an average Black family due in part to decades of systematic racism.
What was the most challenging and/or the most enjoyable part about this project?
CL: The most challenging was sharing my story about my father who was imprisoned for my entire childhood. I have struggled for years with this and it was challenging to put it in writing but therapeutic. It was also the most enjoyable because it felt as if a burden was lifted off my shoulders. I hope that this sparks conversations and thoughts that will lead to changes in the way we deal with mass incarceration.
It was also challenging trying to meet the deadlines and reviewing different writer’s drafts.
ES: These are difficult topics, even for adults! So, finding the right voice to explain to a younger audience without talking down to them is tough. You want to make sure they understand why this issue is important, how it touches on every aspect of society and give them some hope that things can get better.
What was the most powerful or meaningful moment you had during your writing process?
CL: I think the most powerful moment was writing the letter to the reader. I had to limit my words because I had so much to share. I truly wanted to connect with the reader and I think the letter was a great way to do so.
ES: Just finishing them and knowing that readers could explore this entire Read Woke collection and find honest discussions of topics that could be hitting home for them is very meaningful. Many times, young people feel like no one is really speaking to their situation in the world, and I think these books can provide a voice for those who have been disenfranchised and a way for others to discover a cause they can throw their energy behind.
What do you hope readers will learn or discover from reading your book?
CL: I want readers to become more knowledgeable and compassionate. I want them to have accurate information so that they can make decisions based on fact and not misinformation. We have seen what this can do to people and to our country.
ES: I hope that readers will learn that many of the problems we face today are being addressed and battled by smart, inspiring people who want to make things equitable, and that they can join the fight as well! Learning and understanding these issues and why they happen is a great first step.
How could these titles be used in a library collection?
CL: There are so many ways! I was talking to an ESOL teacher yesterday about using these titles to jumpstart a research lesson. They can also be used for displays and as supplemental texts or companion texts for fiction pieces on the same topic. I also think these titles would be beneficial for collaborating with the Social Studies department.
ES: These titles would be a great way to introduce young readers to current events. They are living this history! But as kids become more aware of the world around them, it’s good to have a handle on what these topics are, whey they are happening and what they can do to be a more informed citizen.
What upcoming projects are you working on now?
CL: I am hosting a Read Woke Institute for educators who want to learn more about the program and how to implement it. It is a one-day institute on November 9.
I am also working on a lesson plan guide with Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul. In addition, I will be speaking at conferences in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.
ES: I am working on several other books, including titles about The Great Depression and Japanese Internment in World War II. I recently finished another series about the Civil War as well.
Connect with the Authors!
Read articles from Cicely’s column on School Library Journal.
Learn more about how the Read Woke program began here.
Find Read Woke lesson plans here!
Visit the Read Woke Lerner Page to find so much more!
Cicely Lewis and Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul are developing a Read Woke Books teaching guide! Sign up on the Lerner website to receive notification when it is available.
Video: “Just Read It!” The Read Woke Music Video
Click here for more Behind the Scenes on the Lerner Blog!