Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015
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Literature for Life

Promoting literacy, empathy and a love of learning
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By Tanis Rideout

“For a lot of our participants this is likely the first book that they’ve ever finished.” Jo Altilia, founder and executive director of Literature for Life holds up a novel with a lurid pink and purple cover; the red puffy lips are a slash of sexuality. There’s a blurb at the top by Sean “Puffy” Combs. The book is Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, a "street literature" bestseller. “It’s our introductory drug.”

Altilia started Literature for Life, a Toronto charity, eight years ago after volunteering for a similar program when she lived in Chicago. The idea was simple enough – end the cycles of poverty and violence that most teen mothers live in by fostering in them a love of learning and reading. How? Through reading circles.

Altilia began, in 2001, with eight young women in a single reading circle. Now Literature for Life runs seven reading circles with teen moms in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Each week, trained facilitators head out across Toronto to meet with approximately 75 teen moms in seven different groups, bringing armloads of new books for mothers and babies and journals and pens. Together, the teens read selected books and discuss them, exploring personal and cultural ideas and issues; they puzzle out what motivates the books’ characters and what they might do differently in similar situations. They relate to the books, to the facilitators, to each other. Once a month, the facilitator reads the young moms a children’s book, pointing at pictures and making funny voices in order to demonstrate how to engage their own children in books and stories.

All of this serves to increase not only literacy, but also empathy and a love of learning that these young moms, most of whom have long since given up on traditional schooling, pass on to their children. Their children, in turn, are better prepared to attend school in the future and less likely to become involved in violence and high-risk behaviour. In effect, Literature for Life provides meaningful intervention and helps to end poverty and violence in these young families, offering them different perspectives and different possibilities. The participants from Altilia’s very first group (and many after) have gone on to graduate from post-secondary education, start businesses and find meaningful employment, and one of them was even named YWCA’s Young Woman of Distinction.

And this isn’t just feel-good stuff. Readers and writers have known for a long time the visceral experience of reading, of feeling as if you’re making new friends when you are introduced to characters, and hard science is really starting to back this up. “Fiction and storytelling are really exciting topics of study right now. There is all sorts of new evidence about how reading fiction affects the reader. A recent study at U of T showed that people who read more fiction were, generally speaking, better able to function socially than those that don’t. They seem to be more empathetic.” 1

But first the facilitators have to breakdown a cultivated resistance to reading. “We start with books the women find engaging and exciting,” Altilia explains. “If we can get them to read one book, to finish it, then they begin to redefine themselves. They start to see themselves as readers. Once they do that it they open up their minds to other books, ideas, experiences.”

The program runs roughly in conjunction with the school year, from September to June, and requires a two-hour commitment from the women participating. In return, they get free novels -- the organization purchases new books for each participant along with books for their children (so that the family can build a home library) -- and a chance to voice their opinions and be heard. It’s similar to narrative therapy. Participants get to comment on characters’ behaviors and think about how they might respond if they were in similar situations, all with the comfortable guise of fiction. They don’t have to talk directly about their problems and their difficulties. They can talk about the characters’ problems and get feedback from their peers. They make connections between cause and effect. They look at incidents from a variety of perspectives and begin to see that there is always more than one side to any story.

After The Coldest Winter Ever, the books become more and more challenging and have included Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple . In order to relieve any anxiety about difficulties in language or content, portions of the book are read in the groups, with the focus of discussion being on the sections read together. Each member is encouraged, though not required, to read aloud, and because of their engagement in the story their literacy levels, usually beginning at a grade 4 level, quickly improve.

“Most of our participants don’t read books because they never have,” says Altilia. “They can, but there’s never been any payoff for them. Their families don’t encourage them, their friends don’t, reading simply isn’t valued or praised. But once they begin to do it and if someone is willing and wanting to listen to what they have to say about the ideas in the book, they’re quick to pick up on it and run with it.”

The program doesn’t stop with reading. Literature for Life believes in helping their clients develop their voices in order to make them better advocates for themselves and their children. All of the groups also have a writing component. At the end of each session, the participants are asked to write a poem based on a prompt that is connected to the day’s reading, often focusing on the participants’ identities, how they see themselves or how they think the world sees them. The poems are honest and open. Literature for Life then collects the poems and publishes them in chapbooks as a way to show the women, yet again, that their experiences, their voices, their opinions are important. This focus on the importance of voice helps increase self-esteem, which makes the women better able to navigate the numerous systems – school, social assistance, housing, etc. – in which they often live.

Their writing goes well beyond poetry. Six years ago, group participants decided they wanted to be able to share their experiences as young parents with others in the same situations. They started a magazine called Yo’ Mama – a magazine written by young moms for young moms. The health and lifestyle magazine, the only one of its kind in Canada, is supervised by current editor Amiga Taylor. A young mother of a six-year-old son, Taylor came to Literature for Life after losing her 11-year-old brother to gun violence in the city. Already a dedicated reader and writer, Taylor found a wealth of support at Literature for Life.

“When I first came to Literature for Life I wasn’t sure what I was doing. I had ideas about where I wanted to go but none if it seemed realistic,” says Taylor. “I wanted to write, I wanted to contribute, I wanted to do something for my brother.” With the assistance of the groups, Altilia and the facilitators, Taylor contemplated what she wanted to do and how to go about it. With their support, she took the leap and applied to Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts program. Just as she was accepted to the university, she also took on the role of editor at Yo’ Mama. It’s difficult, balancing university, parenting and a demanding job, but she says, “this is the best way I can think of to give back. Yo’ Mama’s a magazine that makes a difference. It talks to youth directly, they listen to each other. We’re the experts on our lives and we deserve to be treated that way. That’s what Yo’ Mama and Literature for Life do. They allow us to be the experts.”

The quarterly magazine offers employment opportunities for young parents as writers, illustrators and photographers, providing them with training and transferable skills for future employment. Writers are paired up with professional writing mentors who help teach them the ins and outs of freelance work such as rewriting, meeting deadlines and pitching story ideas. Perhaps most important, the magazine is a venue for young parents to not only express themselves, but also to advocate for change for themselves, their families and their communities (a recent story about the TTC resulted in a meeting with Adam Giambrone, TTC Chair, to discuss the treatment of young mothers on subways and street cars). It provides a place where these young women define themselves, something that is extremely important in a society that tosses around Bristol Palin, Jamie-Lynn Spears or Juno as examples of teen motherhood.

Ultimately, Literature for Life is providing tools, offering language, reading and storytelling as ways to redefine and negotiate the world and its challenges. “Both the magazine and the reading circles,” says Altilia, “demonstrate for the participants the power of words and language. It shows them that words can be used to resolve conflict. They learn that there are other options when they find themselves in a confrontation. They can talk through things. They don’t need to resort to yelling or violence.”

Tanis Rideout

Tanis Rideout is a poet and writer living and working in Toronto. In the fall of 2005 she released her first full-length book of poetry Delineation, exploring the lives and loves of comic book super-heroines, which was praised as a “tantalizing, harrowing read.” It has been featured on CBC Radio’s Bandwidth with Alan Neal and Definitely Not the Opera with Sook-Yin Lee.

In the spring of 2005, Rideout joined Sarah Harmer to read a commissioned poem on Harmer’s I Love the Escarpment Tour to draw attention to damage being done to the Niagara Escarpment by ongoing quarrying. Subsequently a performance of the poem appeared on the DVD of the tour - Escarpment Blues. In 2006, she was named the Poet Laureate of Lake Ontario by the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and toured with the Tragically Hip's Gord Downie to draw attention to environmental justice issues on the lake.

Her poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous quarterlies and magazines and received grants from local and national arts councils. She has read across Canada and the United States. She is currently working on a novel about Mt. Everest.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Notes

  1. Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Hirsh, J., dela Paz, J., & Peterson, J. B. (2006) "Bookworms versus nerds: Exposure to fiction versus non-fiction, divergent associations with social ability, and the simulation of fictional social worlds," Journal of Research in Personality, 40, 694–712.

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