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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Summer 2003 > Book Balm

Young boy holds a bookBook Balm

When it comes to healing wounded hearts, Pamela Krupman-Allyn ’84 says the best medicine is a good story.

By Leanna James

At Children’s Village, a 277-acre complex of green lawns, trees and graceful, Tudor-style buildings that recall an elite college campus, Pam Krupman-Allyn ’84 is hurrying down a path balancing an enormous cardboard box in her arms. The box must weigh a good 20 pounds, but Allyn carries her load so lightly it may as well hold gumballs or popcorn, instead of several paperback and hardcover books in the Harry Potter, Lemony Snicket and (one of her favorites) Captain Underpants series.

Not that gumballs and popcorn would be out of order here. “Reading should be fun,” Allyn, founding director of the innovative literacy program, Books for Boys, insists. Her mission is radical in its reach and simplicity: to bring the joy of books and reading to some of the most neglected children in our society. More than 300 boys live at Children’s Village, a residential treatment center for emotionally troubled boys in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. Children’s Village provides extended, intensive therapeutic care for children in the foster-care system who can no longer function in a family setting. These are children who need serious help for serious problems. And yet imposing a grim, “this is good for you” program is as remote from Allyn’s intention as grading a child’s first attempts at reading aloud.

"Almost everything you do well later in life starts with pleasure,” Allyn says. “You tend a lovely garden in your back yard; well, maybe you have fond memories of planting flowers with your grandmother, side by side in her garden when you were a kid. That’s where everything starts, with the pleasure of it, and reading, more than anything, begins there.”

And if you didn’t have a grandmother with a garden? If you spent your summers on the streets, not in grassy back yards, and had no one to take you to a park or a pool, much less show you how to plant roses? All the more reason, Allyn believes, to emphasize pleasure and play as learning tools. “Play” is an alien concept for many of these boys, whose lives have been anything but picket fence. For this reason, helping children regain a lost part of childhood is a therapeutic cornerstone both of Children’s Village and of the Books for Boys program. “We might start with books the boys missed as young children—board books, playful stories, rhymes, songs. Goodnight Moon, Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, The Cat in the Hat. At this stage,” Allyn says, “the important thing is inviting the boys into the ‘literacy club.’ They’re introduced to great authors; they develop a sense of the joy of stories and wonderful language—” She is interrupted by shouted greetings from across the campus as various staff members spot her: “Hey, Pam! Good to see you! Where have you been?” She shouts back, actually managing to wave while holding the box, then returns to her favorite topic without breaking her stride.

"This is what I always tell my student teachers. Of course we’re boosting reading skills, but before that, we’re teaching a relationship to reading. It’s not about doing something just because ‘teacher thinks you should.’ It’s about the intimacy, fun, excitement, joy of sharing a wonderful book.” In that sense, then, it’s joy and pleasure, not just a bunch of books, that Allyn is delivering today on her rounds to the cottages.

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RELATED LINKS

Children's Village

Amherst College "Fellowships for Action"

LitLife: Cultivating Readers and Writers of All Ages (site in progress)

 
     
     
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