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Reimagining the author visit: a statewide approach

Every once in a while you discover a confluence of opportunity.

This happened when a team of librarians and educators in New Jersey discovered that Jacqueline Woodson, the Library of Congress National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, was visiting our state for two events.

Not only was Ms. Woodson visiting with a group of 250 Trenton area middle school students at The College of New Jersey as her nearly final stop as National Ambassador, Ms. Woodson was also an invited keynote speaker at NJASL’s Fall Conference on December 10th.

In yet another very fortunate circumstance, the collaborative planning actually began when the visionary Dr. Betty Turock, ALA Past President and Professor and Associate Dean Emerita, Rutgers University, gathered a group of leaders across the New Jersey library community with the founding of The Literacy Alliance of New Jersey.

The newly formed Literacy Alliance brought together leaders from among the following state and national groups:

  • The Children’s Book Council and Every Child a Reader
  • The New Jersey Center for the Book (a program of the Library of Congress)
  • The College of New Jersey (Faculty from the R. Barbara Gitenstein Library and the School of Education)
  • Rutgers School of Communication and Information
  • The New Jersey State Library
  • The New Jersey Library Association (NJLA)
  • The New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL)
Woodson celebration team participants

As the team from the newly formed Literacy Association of New Jersey sat around the table planning the auditorium event, we wondered how we might more creatively and effectively scale our two separate projects and maximize Library of Congress support for the Ambassador’s visit, to involve and engage the largest possible audience of New Jersey young people beyond the limited size of the auditorium at TCNJ.

As we worked in our early face-to-face meeting spaces and later, in our many Zoom planning rooms, it was thrilling to consider the potential for leveraging the power of the various networks the participants represented,

Early on, we created this New Jersey Celebrarate Jacqueline Woodson flyer to spread the word, gather registrations, share resources and describe the various elements of the event.

Youth Services Coordinator for the New Jersey State Library, Sharon Rawlins, worked with Penguin Random House to secure and distribute copies of Harbor Me to young people in school and public libraries across the state.

Throughout our planning, we considered how we might engage youth across the state both before and during the event. Our flyer suggestions included responses to Ms. Woodson’s platform: Reading = HOPE X CHANGE.

We collected student responses to Ms. Woodson’s program question: #WhatsYourEquationNJ on this Google Slidedeck which played prior to the author’s presentation at The College of New Jersey and was shared with Ms. Woodson at the NJASL Annual Conference.

With Ms. Woodson’s very kind support, we were able to stream the visit live and to make the video available to young people in their school and public libraries in the form of viewing parties across the state on the day of the event. For libraries that could not view the event live, a video was available to registered schools and public libraries for use throughout the day on October 16, 2019.

We were delighted that Ms. Woodson planned for a student-focused event, devoting a significant portion of her time to questions from young people.

At the live event, current NJASL Vice President Amy Gazaleh and I helped moderate student questions from the auditorium as we fielded and presented questions from students at the remote sites.

Interacting with questions from the remote sites.
Student questioners in the auditorium

Students also engaged in a variety of creative experiences developed by TCNJ Education School faculty. These experiences included black-out and buzz-words poetry writing, and six-word memoir writing hosted onsite in break-out workshops as well at the remote viewing party sites. On-site, TCNJ faculty and students, as well as Rutgers LIS students, helped facilitate the workshops.

You may be interested in the Reading = HOPE x CHANGE Activity Kit developed by The Library of Congress, Penguin Random House and Every Child a Reader.

In the end, what might have been an experience for 250 students was attended by well more than 1300 at more 67 remote sites. While we did not receive attendance estimates from a great many of the participating sites, we know that registrations were received from 16 (76%) of New Jersey’s 21 counties.

Children in registered school and public libraries participated in the experience in the following ways:

  • by submitting student questions that were shared during the live event in the Q & A session
  • by creating art and writing inspired by Ms. Woodson’s work
  • by contributing responses to Ms. Woodson’s question: #WhatsYourEquationNJ on our Google Slidedeck

In cross-library collaborations, registered school and public librarians participated in the celebration by:

  • programming around Ms. Woodson’s books (book discussions, displays, author studies)
  • initiating cross-library/school discussions, as well as school/public library collaborations
  • getting ready for NJASL’s One Book, One Conference discussion of Harbor Me  on December 9th and 10th

Several of our resources live beyond the two connected events. We hope students, teachers, and librarians will enjoy the 36-min audio sampler prepared for the event by Penguin Random House with the assistance and hosting of You may listen directly on this page or download the complete audio file. The page was visited and likely used around 2100 times during the months of September and October. Our team is now happy to share these resources with the larger reading community.

The sampler includes the following clips:

  1. Harbor Me (00:00)
  2. Harbor Me Interview (05:27) Ms. Woodson and her son Jackson Leroi discuss Harbor Me, diversity, the equation, Reading – HOPE X CHANGE, and reading audiobooks.
  3. Brown Girl Dreaming (22:22)
  4. If You Come Softly (27:17)
  5. Miracle’s Boys (31:31)

At NJASL, with a couple of committee partners, we hosted our first One Book, One Conference discussions of Ms. Woodson’s Harbor Me as well as a panel discussion on organizing successful One Book events in schools, districts, and communities.

Early arrivals at Harbor Me One Book, One Conference discussion

Our One Book how-to panel presentation:

Response to the celebration:

For nearly half of the students responding to our survey, and likely for many more, this was their very first author visit experience.

Among the student responses to their favorite part of the day:

When she talked about becoming the change she did not see in books.

It was amazing. I got chills at how amazing she was inside and out. Her comedy in the speech and how she understands how reading is so important to the people in this world.

Something that I want to share is that an author visit was really fun. It was my first time doing a authors visit.

We surveyed librarian hosts about favorite parts of the event. Among the responses:

  • They got her message and it resonated with many of our students.
  • When the live stream started it was very rewarding to watch the students react to being involved in a state-wide event!
  • Hearing Jacqueline Woodson speak and answer questions.
  • Seeing my students laugh at Ms. Woodson’s jokes made my day!
  • Listening to the student Q&A. Woodson was wonderful!
  • The excitement of my students.
  • Listening to Ms. Woodson present and seeing how engaged the students were.
  • [From an on-site participant] Hearing Ms. Woodson speak and seeing our students interact with the college volunteers ( who were very helpful) when they asked many questions about college life.
  • The content of Jacqueline Woodson’s talk. Not only were the students listening closely, but an administrator who was there said that he really appreciated her remarks.
  • Also, we received two copies of Harbor Me, which I raffled off. Thank you so much for a successful event.
  • Ms. Woodson reciting The Other Side from memory. My students loved that.
  • The students responding to the live stream Q&A
  • Seeing how motivated my students were to create their own equations and share themselves.

Beth Thomas, the librarian at Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School, and our current NJASL President shared a particularly moving reflection:

By chance, our Lib Squad consists completely of girls of color. They are all “Brown Girls” and I could see how engrossed they were when Ms. Woodson was speaking.

To be able to hear from an author who looks like them and who has become such a huge success is something that will stick with them for a long time. They ran for the books that she recited from, checked them out (and many others) and were still talking about the event today. I personally loved Jacqueline Woodson’s message, and I appreciated the teens who put a lot of effort into their equations.

I appreciated the opportunity to work on such a diverse and talented team and to be able to participate easily via a tool like Zoom.

Woodson Planning Team

Because a leader like Dr. Betty Turock chose to hit the start button to create a kind of supergroup in the form of our new Literacy Alliance, we were able to explore new possibilities and new collaborative models. Together, we engaged libraries, organizations, academics, and literacy experts across a state in poking the author visit box, building quality resources and examining the possibilities for scaling experiences for young people. We were able to very tangibly consider how school and public libraries might work together to organize joint events and share books and materials.

Because of the generosity of author Jacqueline Woodson and the hard work of a talented team, we were able to create something far bigger than an auditorium author visit in a single auditorium for 250 young people. Though that memorable experience for those 250 kids will ripple for years, it will also ripple for those many others who watched gathered in local libraries around the state.

This Wakelet documents some of the excitement across the celebration.

A summary of takeaways
Getting ready!

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza


  1. It is really nice from you Joyce, this post covered many good things. I would love to share your updates at Novato. I really appreciate your blogs. Thank you for the new insight, Joyce.

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