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Students at Blatchley Middle School and elsewhere in the Sitka School District have just finished reading some of his books, including “Leaving Protection,” which is set around a 16-year-old boy named Robbie who lives in Port Protection and becomes a deckhand on a salmon troller.
“Let me see,” says the book’s author, Will Hobbs, standing in front of a group of 7th grade students. “How many of you have gone out on a commercial boat, like a troller, like the one in the story?”
Some of the students raise their hands. (Hear one student, Savvas Matiatos, conduct an interview with Hobbs.)
“So you know,” Hobbs said. “I’m trying to get everything right about the gear and everything, because I only worked on a boat for a week. So you know a lot more about it than I do, but I wanted to sound convincing.”
When Hobbs visits schools to talk about his books, he brings along a slideshow. It starts out with pictures of him when he was their age, and quickly moves into photos of the real-life places he’s been that have inspired his books.
In an interview after his presentation, Hobbs says rural kids, who grew up near the outdoors, really love his stories. But urban and suburban students also enjoy the outdoor adventure style of novels, he says.
“They eat it up,” he says. “And when I visit them and they see the pictures and they see that this is all real, it opens up their minds and gives them a sense of open possibility that these places are still out there. And they get wildly excited about it because it is different from what they see every day.”
That’s what happened for Ginny Blackson, the librarian at Sitka High School, and one of the coordinators of the Alaska Spirit of Reading program. She grew up on her grandparents’ tobacco farm in Shipley, Kentucky. With 5,000 people in the entire county, neighbors were few and far between.
“And so we went into town on Saturday and went to the public library and got a pile of books,” he said. “We also had a bookmobile. There was a nice lady in a beat-up van who brought books around. Books were really the pathway to the world for us.”
A program like the “Spirit of Reading” is important for many reasons, Blackson says, including for its ability to put books in the hands of kids.
“We’re a book-poor state,” Blackson said. “Kids don’t have books put in their hand, especially kids in rural areas. We’re lucky to have a book store here in town. We’re lucky to have a fabulous public library here in town. And so what I see is just kids with books. And last year I had students who read everything that was in the Sitka Library Network System by Roland Smith. Kids I might never have seen in a library before.”
Roland Smith was last year’s author, and he was the first one to visit Sitka High as part of the program. Most of the books selected for the Spirit of Reading are pitched for upper-elementary and middle-school age students, so Blackson says she wasn’t sure how his visit would go over among the older teenagers at Sitka High.
“So I bribed the students,” she said. “And I said if you read the book, after the author’s presentation, I’ll have pizza. It was a mob scene. I ran out of pizza, I ran out of books.”
But more than that, she says the kids were actually excited – not just because of the pizza.
The Alaska Spirit of Reading Program is in its third year and is funded by a grant from the Alaska State Library, which is running out.
“The interlibrary cooperation grants are not meant to go on forever,” Blackson said. “And so we start off next year looking for a new way to fund it.”
She’s hoping that the coordination of the program will start rotating around the state. Blackson and Blatchley Middle School Librarian Kari Sagel have been running the program since it started.
“Kari and I go every year to the Alaska Library Association with our little binder and do our little presentation at the end and say ‘This could be your program!’ And while we get a lot of positive feedback we haven’t had anyone raise their hand and say ‘Oh we want to take this on.’”
Even with an uncertain future, Blackson is traveling to a symposium in November to look for an author who might be interested in participating, next year.
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