Every article about a schoolbook should start with a quiz, so here we go: Kalamazoo is known for Checker cabs, Gibson guitars and the Pfizer vaccine, among other products, but what scholarship program is Kalamazoo known for? What longtime local civic group is made up of business people? And how are these two nonprofits connected?
You probably got the first two answers right: The Kalamazoo Promise and the Rotary Club of Kalamazoo. As for their connection to each other, the Promise is the inspiration for a new book, What Do You See in Room 21 C? — which will be distributed to every second–grader in Kalamazoo Public Schools through the Rotary is for Reading program.
Rotary is for Reading was created in 2009, when the local Rotary Club joined forces with Communities In Schools (CIS) to help promote literacy and college awareness. Each spring Rotarians visited Kalamazoo Public Schools second–grade classrooms to read the book I Know I Can, by Veronica Chapman, to students, talk about college and The Kalamazoo Promise, and present each student with their own copy of the book.
But after a decade of using I Know I Can, the program sought a new book that “was unique and tailored to Kalamazoo, that referenced The Kalamazoo Promise,” says Kevin Brozovich, chief people advisor at Rose Street Advisors and a Kalamazoo Rotary member since 2010.
CIS had a donor willing to underwrite the cost of developing a new book, and in 2018 they asked Jennifer Clark, a KPS parent and a published poet who coordinates special projects and initiatives at CIS, to write the book.
‘An ideal fit’
Clark was a natural choice, according to Brozovich. “Communities In Schools is an integral partner in this process, and Jennifer knows the program, CIS and Kalamazoo schools,” he says. “We wanted a local, experienced, published author, so she was an ideal fit.”
The result was What Do You See in Room 21 C?, written by Clark and illustrated by Leslie Helakoski, a Southwest Michigan author and illustrator. Clark says the book is “truly built by community.” Clark held several focus groups, seeking feedback from parents, KPS staff, librarians, Rotarians, and recently promoted second–grade students, to guide her in writing a book that would resonate with its readers.
“From the moment I said yes, I started doing some research and gathering feedback,” Clark says. “The most consistent piece of feedback I heard from students and teachers is that they love and appreciate the Rotarians coming into the schools to read to them, to talk about college and lift up The Kalamazoo Promise. And while the Rotarians wanted to use a different book to improve the experience for the second–graders, they already were offering the most successful and important ingredient in this project — themselves.”
The plot of What Do You See in Room 21 C? is simple: A teacher, Mr. Washington, presents an “Operation College” assignment to his students, and the kids talk about and imagine their futures. Readers learn about these students’ current lives as well: One lives in a homeless shelter, another lost her father in a war, for example. Clark says What Do You See in Room 21 C? aims to be a realistic book with a positive message that reassures students that they don’t need to know exactly what career they want to pursue in order to prepare for their futures.
The Kalamazoo Promise provides free or partial college tuition to Kalamazoo Public Schools graduates, depending on how many years they were enrolled in the district. The scholarship program shimmers in the background of Clark’s book — never stated, but implied — and not every character is bound for a four–year academic degree. Jayla considers marine biology, while Pablo wants to cook and open a restaurant.
In the book, when Mr. Washington is asked by a student what he wanted to be when he went to college, he says, “When I went to college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be. In fact, when I was little, I wanted to be a bumblebee!”
Despite having published three books of poetry, Clark had never before written a children’s book nor worked collaboratively with an illustrator. Similarly, Helakoski, who has authored 13 picture books for children, illustrated five of those and received the 2020 Gwen Frostic Award from the Michigan Reading Association for her role in influencing literacy, had never created illustrations for someone else’s writing.
“It was nice being able to communicate about what the author wanted in the images and get direct feedback,” Helakoski says.
What was interesting to Helakoski, whose books feature animals like sheep, cows and chickens, is that the characters in What Do You See in Room 21 C? are children rather than human–like animals.
“Even though most of the stories I’ve written feature anthropomorphic animals, I always strive for stories and art with layers of information that can be expanded on with a child, make them ask questions and tickle their funny bones,” she says. “Jennifer wanted to show diversity in the classroom in a realistic way, and I agreed. It gives more weight to the topic.”
Book release celebration
What Do You See in Room 21 C? was originally to have been released in the spring of 2020, but just as the Rotarians were preparing to step into classrooms to deliver the books, the Covid–19 pandemic hit. It wasn’t until April 2021 that the books finally made it into KPS students’ hands, either delivered to them by their teachers or picked up at the schools. Instead of Rotarians visiting classes, a video of master storyteller Sid Ellis reading the book was created and shared with the students through their virtual classrooms.
This month there will be a community open house to officially celebrate the release of What Do You See In Room 21 C? (see breakout box), which is published by Celery City Books, the publishing arm of the nonprofit Kalamazoo Friends of Poetry.
The hope is that next spring the Rotarians and other volunteers can get back into classrooms to read and distribute the books. Brozovich says he’s ready.
“My two oldest (children) are Michigan State University grads, and I’m a Central Michigan University grad, so I wear my college buttons and talk about how my kids were able to use The Kalamazoo Promise,” he says. “I’m impressed most with the level of community engagement with our program. Communities In Schools does an amazing amount of coordination necessary to get 100–plus volunteers into the right classrooms on the right days ready to read.”