From 1985 to 1992 my husband traveled behind the Iron Curtain and engaged in an operation that only a select few of our family and friends knew about. Before he could meet up with his contacts in the Eastern Bloc countries where he traveled, there were other individuals who smuggled materials into secret locations for use once Mark arrived on the scene.
We lived in Austria at the time and he made these clandestine trips once or twice each month during the seven years we lived there. We never knew the daring smugglers who got the course materials inside the countries until Janie rented a room in our home for a year.
We met Janie when she worked as an administrative assistant for the American organization we worked with that was located in Vienna. One night over dinner I asked about all the traveling she’d done while working in Europe. I asked a ton of questions and found that this intrepid young woman from upstate New York had a secret, other life.
Janie traveled to Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and what was then known as Yugoslavia. She would set out with only a few other young adults in a car, sleeping out in the open each night of the trip. (It was too risky to leave the car alone with its many hidden compartments holding the precious books being smuggled into the country).
Janie told the story of how once she and two others had been sleeping by the side of the road, were taken in by military officials and held for hours as they were questioned. They separated the three travelers and repeatedly asked who they were, what they were doing and why they were camped in that location. Each of the young adults told the same story, which they had repeatedly rehearsed, using fictitious life stories. Finally, late in the day, Janie told the officers that they had no cause to keep them and they wanted their American passports returned to them so they could go on their way. One officer told her they’d been held because they had been camping on the outskirts of a secret military installation. To which Janie replied, “Well it’s not a secret anymore.”
I wanted desperately to have a secret life like Janie. Well, it finally happened. I, too, became a book smuggler.
Two years ago, a fifth grade teacher responded to a question I’d asked during a coaching session: What’s keeping you awake at night (in regard to her students) and what can I do to help? Mrs. M shared that the thing most troubling to her was that her students didn’t seem to want to read on their own. I asked her if she would be willing to try an idea I’d been entertaining for a while. She was willing and so began the covert operation, Book Smuggler.
Inspired by some of the greatest “edu-heroes of our time”, Penny Kittle (her Book Love foundation) Teri Lesesne (The Goddess of YA Literature) and Donalyn Miller (her 40 Book Challenge and book talks) I devised my book smuggling operation.
Each week I wrote a short book recommendation on crumpled brown paper torn from a lunch bag. The book blurb was slipped inside a book. The book was wrapped in more crumpled brown lunch bag remnants and addressed to Mrs. M’s class. Three books a week were sent so each of her reading blocks had a new book to unwrap. I started with graphic novels because the reading levels in her classes were so diverse, and I was determined to pique the interest of some dormant readers.
The anticipation of the new books each week, plus the hidden identity of the book “benefactor”, the personal book blurb recommendations and the compelling middle grade titles smuggled into the class each week all added to the “book buzz” in Mrs. M’s fifth grade reading classes.
Mrs. M teaches on an “at-risk” elementary campus in our district and has a host of district initiatives with which to comply. However, she made it a top priority to allow 20-25 minutes of student-choice reading time each day. We were meeting on one occasion and she shared how it was clear to her that the independent time she scheduled (and fiercely protected) was probably the most powerful thing she had done for students.
My favorite email from Mrs. M related how everyone had been reading quietly when one of her students remarked that they were getting a little extra time for independent reading that day. She “shushed” the student and told them she had 5 more pages to read in her book and then free reading would be over.
There was another benefit of this clandestine project—Mrs. M related how she’s found a whole new collection of middle grade titles to add to her all-time favorites list.
Surely the irony hasn’t escaped you–my husband and I (and book smuggler extraordinaire, Janie P) spent seven years working with an organization that defied officials in Eastern Europe by getting banned reading materials into the hands of countless men and women. And now, books are getting into the hands (and hearts) of kids who are expected to spend the bulk of their academic day on test prep instead of reading self-selected books they love.
I’ve always been a bit of a rebel. I desperately wish that I could singlehandedly change the state of education in this country, but I’m just one person. I can’t do it. I was, however, able to work some tiny magic in one fifth grade classroom by smuggling books, wonderful books, into the hands of some amazing kids.
How about you? For the cost of a couple of cups of coffee a week, you could buy a paperback, write a quick book recommendation, and smuggle that book into a classroom with the possibility of forever changing the life of a reader.