Remember being inspired by Celie in “The Color Purple,” Hester in “The Scarlet Letter,” or Jane Eyre?
Literature is full of strong women forced to make difficult decisions and stay true to themselves. But if you’re a teenage welfare mother living in poverty and no longer attending school, you probably haven’t met any of these characters—in fact, you’ve likely never owned a book.
Karen Thomson of Evanston is changing that. Leading book groups for underprivileged young people in Chicago, including many high-school- and junior-high-age moms, Thomson discovered that opening a book can open up a person’s life, revealing new possibilities.
“Literature does so many things,” Thomson, 62 says. “It can take you away, teach you, give you a chance … [get you] dreaming new dreams for yourself.”
After leading book groups around the North Shore for 15 years while raising her four children, Thomson decided to lead a book group for young welfare mothers in the city in 1996.
They read Maya Angelou poems—”Still I Rise” and “Phenomenal Woman,” among others—and at the end of the session, Thomson prompted the young women to write poems in Angelou’s style.
“When they read those poems they had written, their body posture was changed, they were so proud of themselves,” Thomson recalls.
The girls didn’t want to leave; they loved the group and they began to love reading.
Shortly thereafter, Thomson founded a nonprofit, Literature for All of Us, and began training others to lead book groups for young people in alternative schools, GED programs and after-school programs in Chicago and Evanston. The organization’s many honors include a Harlequin “More Than Words” award of $10,000 in 2009.
Now the organization runs 20 programs that serve 500 to 600 young men and women, ages 12 to 21. At the end of each program, participants receive a bound anthology of the poems from the group, such as this one by Nayeli Garcia:
Body, speak to me
about our lives
and how I feel.
Body, speak to me
and tell me
if I feel good.
Body speak to me
and tell me
if I feel safe.
“The writing component is about them finding their voices and expressing the truth of their lives in a way that makes it more containable,” Thomson says.
In the end, the young men and women, many of whom are parents, end up passing their newfound love of reading onto their children, turning a page for the next generation.
To learn more about Literature for All of Us and to see a video of young women telling their stores, visit www.literatureforallofus.org. The group’s annual Mother’s Day Luncheon, featuring author Elizabeth Berg, will be held on May 1.
Got a book club? You can support Literature for All of Us by becoming a BOOKsister, either individually or through your group. Individual BOOKsisters receive regular program updates and invitations to poetry readings by the young people in LFAO’s programs. Adult book groups can join together to donate and increase their impact in BOOKsister Giving Circles. In addition to the individual benefits, BOOKsister Giving Circles have an opportunity to participate in a book group discussion with the young people once a year. For more information, email [email protected]