Lead to Read KC: A Prescription for Pandemic Recovery

Lead to Read children’s book authors (pictured left to right): Vladimir Sainte, Nikiyah Crosdale and Kristen Heath (photo by Jim Barcus)

Authors in schools offer lively tales designed to bolster young readers’ emotional health

“We’re All Weird,” “The Thought Jar” and “Just Like a Hero.”

These three children’s books — all by local authors — share a key characteristic. They’re lively tales filled with tips and tools for bolstering a young reader’s emotional health.

Vladimir Sainte’s “Just Like a Hero,” and Nikiyah Crosdale’s “The Thought Jar” are two of the children’s books featured in the Lead to Read program. (photos by Jim Barcus)

They’re also at the forefront of an effort by Kansas City’s Lead to Read KC program to counter the “learning losses” and mental health issues spawned by the pandemic, in a partnership with elementary schools like Wendell Phillips, the Crossroads Academy, Whittier, Faxon, Brookside Charter and others, on both sides of the state line.

Teaming with authors “puts us in a unique position to help kids,” says Pauly Hart, executive director of Lead to Read, which has grown and diversified since its founding in 2011 by former teachers Lynn and Jean Rundle. “In order to learn, children need to have their emotions in check. Which means addressing some of the other things going on in their lives.”

Kristen Heath, who wrote “We’re All Weird,” feels much the same way. She thinks her book, with its emphasis on inclusivity, is “exactly what I needed to hear when I was a kid.”

Tucked inside its bouncy rhymes and slapstick humor are clever reminders that the assumptions we make about others aren’t always correct. Especially when social media constantly bombards us with images of filtered “perfection.”

In March, Vladimir Sainte read his children’s book, “Just Like a Hero,” to first and second graders at Wendell Phillips Elementary School. (photo by Jim Barcus)

“Everybody’s got quirks and flaws, and we need to embrace them,” is the serious message Heath hopes to get across in a playful way.

“I love that Lead to Read is using authors to teach acceptance and kindness,” she adds.

Heath also loves the diverse world her book depicts — a place rendered even more beguiling by Nick Burke’s upbeat illustrations. He took her “very general” suggestions and added his own graffiti-inspired touches. The result, she says, was “perfect.”

“We’re All Weird” is the fourth book Heath has written, but the first one to be published. She’s already finished a follow-up.

Nikiyah Crosdale says the idea of a place to collect and store positive thoughts came to her like the proverbial “light bulb going on.”

In short order, “The Thought Jar” poured out of her and into a book — one she hopes will help kids (like its protagonist Ebea) break the cycle of negative thinking and pursue positive thoughts instead.

“It’s almost like a lifestyle,” she says.

Though she’s been journaling and writing since third grade, this is Crosdale’s first venture into children’s literature. She has, however, spent some time as a substitute teacher.

The experience taught her “the psychology of teaching,” and above all, “the kinds of things that resonate with five-year-olds.”

As proof, she points to the sea of raised hands and the flood of questions her “read-alouds” almost always inspire.

Kristen Heath thinks her book, “We’re All Weird,” with its emphasis on inclusivity, is “exactly what I needed to hear when I was a kid.” (photo by JIm Barcus)

She’s noticed something else too. The book appeals to teachers. “They tell me they need to go home and make their own thought jar,” she chuckles. “All ages can do it.”

Like Heath, Crosdale credits some of her book’s appeal to the artwork inside it. The illustrations by Decarso Carroll “surpassed my expectations,” she says. “I was blessed to have him.”

Vladimir Sainte is the Lead to Read author with the longest tenure. He started in 2018 when his wife (who volunteers as a reading mentor) connected him with the organization.

At the time, he’d just finished writing and illustrating his first book, “Just Like a Hero.” Since then, two more in what he envisions as a five-part series have been published.

“I wanted to connect my love of art with my interest in mental health,” he says.

Currently the clinical director at The Children’s Place, Sainte holds a master’s degree in clinical social work from UMKC. His daily encounters with kids of color who’d been bullied, left to feel unloved or unwanted and even suicidal, led him to search for books that might assist them. Books about people who looked like them. He found very few.

That’s why Sainte decided to dive in, using superheroes as a hook. “I’m trying to help increase kids’ emotional literacy,” he explains. “I want to give them tools so they can learn to self-regulate. So they don’t jump into ‘being mad’ immediately.”

“Just Like a Hero,” he says, reminds kids that “It’s OK to make a mistake, but you have to make changes. You can’t keep doing the same thing.”

Ever the therapist, even the physical activities that accompany his readings are designed with “treatment” in mind, including movements to help de-stress and deliver a brief respite from the problems so many youngsters are struggling with.

“COVID has taken such a toll on children’s mental health,” sighs Pauly Hart.

At the same time, the partnership with authors has emerged as a sort of silver lining. She points out that the program helps writers by facilitating their appearances and buying books to send home with every student in the partner classrooms.

Kristen Heath agrees that “the last few years have left a lot of underlying damage.”

She’s glad that Lead to Read KC is working to address it. And though selling a few more books is always nice, what’s most important, she says, “is getting them in the hands of the kids who really need them.”

For more information, visit www.leadtoreadkc.org.

Randy Mason

Randy Mason is best known for his work in public television, but he’s also covered Kansas City arts and artists in print and on the radio for more than three decades.

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