Riverhead librarian launches nonprofit book club to inspire a love of reading in children

You might assume that a full-time Riverhead librarian that recently launched a book club has had a lifelong fascination with reading. But that isn’t quite the case.

“Believe it or not, I didn’t really walk around with books as a kid,” Phatima Mitchell recalled recently, though she remembers her favorite childhood book was “Corduroy.” But as a young mother at 21, she learned that books can be an escape, transporting you to other worlds. “It gave me peace. And I realized I really have a thing for books, even though I didn’t know it as a young kid,” Ms. Mitchell, now 39, said. “That’s why it’s really important for me to let kids know: reading can be really fun.”

Ms. Mitchell, a Sound Beach resident, is a full-time library teacher at the Riverhead Charter School and also works part time as an adult reference librarian at the Riverhead Free Library.

She recently launched A Journey With Words, a nonprofit organization that aims to inspire a love of reading to children, particularly in underprivileged communities, realizing that there are many barriers that can prevent children from accessing their local libraries. “Maybe they don’t have a car to get to the library, maybe they have parents that work all the time, or younger siblings that they’re responsible for watching,” Ms. Mitchell said, adding that books are also not a priority to purchase for many families. “You can’t eat books and you can’t live under them either,” she said.

That’s how she got the idea to create monthly book boxes, each one packaged like a gift. After she selects the book of the month, Ms. Mitchell creates a theme around it and includes items that are nods to themes within the book.

A recent box for teenagers included “The Stars Beneath Our Feet,” an award-winning debut novel by David Barclay Moore that celebrates themes of community and creativity. It also includes a package of blocks, a Pez dispenser and sheet of star stickers, which all relate to the book, Ms. Mitchell said.

“I tell the kids, when they get to that part in the story, to pull it out to make them feel like they’re there and can connect to the character,” she explained.

A sample teen box includes an award-winning debut novel and items that connect back to themes of the book. (Credit: Tara Smith)

Each box also includes a small notebook to encourage kids to explore their own creativity by writing a poem or journal entry or sketching a picture inspired by what they’re reading that they have the option of sharing during group meetings, where they get together with Ms. Mitchell to discuss the book and do an activity.

Ms. Mitchell, who has a dual certification in elementary education from Dowling College in 2012 and completed her master’s degree in library science from Rutgers University in January, feels that it’s a fun way to get children to immerse themselves in a book and be able to discuss it without typing it back to an assignment or essay. “In schools, state tests sometimes take precedence over reading for pleasure,” she said.

In curating the book list, Ms. Mitchell said she looks for diverse, engaging, culturally relevant stories that kids will be able to identify with.

“It’s important for our kids to be accepting of people who are different from them,” she said, stressing that the selections are always age-appropriate books that are recommended in school library journals and also vetted by reading them herself, both as a mom of four and experienced educators.

Since launching the organization, Ms. Mitchell has met with a group of about a dozen kids in a pilot program as she tries to get the project off the ground. The book boxes range between $15 and $25 per month and donations will help her subsidize the boxes for low-income families who qualify for free or reduced lunch.

“I definitely want to focus on underprivileged communities but I’m a librarian, so I want all kids to be able to read and have that outlet,” she said.

Ms. Mitchell also plans to partner with community groups like the Boys & Girls Club in Bellport for storytime sessions and is also planning a teen program through the Greenport Library this summer.

For more information, you can visit her website at ajourneywithwords.org and follow @ajourneywithwords_ on Instagram for giveaways, including a family basket that will be awarded to a new follower on April 29.

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