Money & Careers

A Woman Who’s Made a Difference: Mary Palmer, Seattle’s Pied Piper

An important thing to know about Mary Palmer, and one of her keys to success, is that she’s hilarious. She emcees the competitions with fervor. Her mantra, as any Global kid, parent, or teacher can tell you, is fun. At competitions, Palmer can be counted on to cheer, “We are here to have . . . Fun!” as everyone shouts the word in unison. “Soccer parents” are jokingly chided to “leave now, since this is all about fun.” She reminds the audience, “This is not Las Vegas. No betting allowed.”

Palmer got Global started in Seattle in 1996. Funded solely by donations, thanks to the Seattle Public Library Foundation, the program first involved three high-needs schools in a nine-team competition, with an evening finale at an auditorium. Today, Global happens in an astounding 48 schools, with 380 teams participating. It continues to be funded by Seattle Public Library Foundation and small donors.

The wait list is as long as the list of Seattle Public Schools elementaries. Palmer is now brainstorming how to gradually expand into all 70 schools, a daunting task. She will do this without changing the character of Global Reading, which, as its goals say, is “to ensure participation of children with lower reading scores; to foster teamwork and cooperative thinking; to build strong relationships between Seattle’s public schools and public library. And, not least, to share quality children’s literature that represents a diversity of experiences at a variety of reading levels.”

How does Mary Palmer manage all this growth, depending on donations every step of the way? From the beginning, she’s developed relationships with the schools’ teachers, librarians, principals, district staff. She inspires the children’s librarians at Seattle Public Library who are the point people for all schools involved; they handle the local side of things, running in-school competitions. She plans for each year’s 10 book titles, working with book jobbers and publishers, dealing with which good titles are available in more than 400 paperback copies—not easy to find in print. Palmer works with a committee of librarians who choose the titles.

The list goes on and on: library administration, the printer, the photographer, other city organizations, library tech to help her create a large-screen musical quiz show of the books, the music ientifying each by era, location, or theme. The audience yells out the title before it’s displayed. Most important to the bottom line, she coordinates with Seattle Public Library’s Foundation, who manage the funding.

Awed students pack the downtown library auditorium whenever Palmer brings in authors to share their stories. This year, Sylvia Mendez, a main character in Sylvia and Aki, by Conkling, talked about her experiences in 1940s California when she could not go to the local school because she was Mexican. Her father stood up to the school district in a case that resulted in the end of segregated schools in the state and influenced the national triumph of Brown v. Board of Education. Sylvia was a rock star to the kids. Once they ran out of books and bookmarks for her to sign, students offered her their arms.

One of Palmer’s most successful collaborations has been with volunteers from the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center. Elderly survivors speak to rapt audiences—the majority of them children of color—telling them about their harrowing escapes as children their own age. The children have written many letters to Palmer after these talks.

mighty-miss-malone-200x300Global Reading Challenge creates ripples radiating globally from the participating schools. After reading A Long Walk to Water, by Linda Sue Park, about the incredible journey of one of the Sudan’s lost boys, many students wanted to contribute to water programs in South Sudan, and started collecting pennies, having bake sales, and other activities.

One of this year’s 10 books, The Mighty Miss Malone, by Christopher Paul Curtis, takes place in 1936 Gary, Indiana, and Flint, Michigan. Deza Malone may be the “smartest kid in her class,” but her family is desperately poor. Deza never loses sight of what’s most important: We are a family on a journey to a place called wonderful.

To thousands of Seattle schoolchildren, their families, and teachers, Mary Palmer leads us on that “journey to a place called wonderful,” year after year, from one generation to the next. She makes a difference.

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  • Tea Bagger October 4, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Thank you for letting everyone know about this worthy program and the inspiration that both initiated it and keeps it going year after year!

    You are an inspiration, too, in your dedication to helping young people learn to love reading, and your dedication to coaching them in the Global Reading Challenge. What a treat to meet some of these students at your parties and soirees!

    From one of the Tea bags in your Book Club

    Reply