Mary_Palmer_and_Lightning_Round_kids_32014Mary Palmer emceeing a tie-breaking Lightning Round. The winner: Adams, the team at left, in white—“the little team that could.”

Mary Palmer, Director of Seattle Public Library’s Global Reading Challenge, has spent the last 20 years connecting children and good books. “Practically every kid in town either knows Mary or knows of Mary,” her colleague Jason Davis said recently. “And every kid who knows of Mary and her program wants to participate.”

She’s not an easy interview subject, since she leads questions away from herself back to the kids she serves. She’s the closest I will ever come to Zen—unconcerned about her motivations, more interested in the now. Yet Palmer doesn’t hesitate to tell me what makes her most proud: putting books—often books they’d never read on their own—into the hands of schoolchildren.

The Global Reading Challenge is designed to include all fourth/fifth graders, not just the avid readers, though they are its biggest cheerleaders. The program’s great reputation makes kids eager to complete. Though it means more work, they love the excitement (as well as the safety) of competing in teams; the wild and crazy practice sessions; the recognition by everyone in school; the realization later that they will always and forever be Global Scholars. (As a coach, I tell the children that it’s great for their résumé, an unfamiliar concept.) And, for all, the there’s the epiphany that books are actually fun and worthy of their time (not to mention that the competitors learn words like epiphany, thanks to one of this year’s titles).

The schools are asked to be completely inclusive in forming teams, thus encouraging non-readers, special education students, and English language learners to improve their skills and be part of a team. The rules ensure that the students who make the finals mirror the city’s mosaic of cultures.

It all started at the Kalamazoo, Michigan, Public Library, where Palmer began her library career. She was brainstorming with her boss, Terry Lason, about ways to bring more people into the inner-city branch library she managed.  Terry, who had grown up in Chicago, had wonderful memories of his Battle of the Books. He designed the original Global formula: Fourth- and fifth-graders read 10 carefully chosen books. In public competitions, first in their schools, then in semifinals, then at a final competition in a public auditorium, teams of 7 kids each answer questions on the details hidden in the books. (Sample: “What was Mrs. Rosen serving Paris when Paris protested: ‘But Mrs. Rosen! I’m only 11!’?” (Answer: GINGER ALE.)  Global competitions are sports events, accompanied by cheering crowds, handmade signs, and intensely focused teams in their huddles.

Global_competitors_huddle__314Team huddle. (Photo by Skip Kerr)

What has made Palmer’s program so wildly popular, with schools writing letters to the library administration, begging to get in? She jokes that it’s all for a pencil—the lovely color-changing pencil that all Global team members receive. (That’s about it for tangible rewards; they get Global T-shirts if they’re in one of 10 Finals teams.) But all Global students are made to feel special, no matter their level of participation.

Teams include many students from homes where English is not the primary language, plus many kids who have never had such a push to excel or had such an intense relationship with books and their characters. For instance, one teammate I met this year came from a Somali-speaking family. She was in a reading program for students needing more help.  She blossomed in Global, reading two of the “hard” books, commenting that she loved learning about the characters’ thoughts and feelings. She was quick to join discussions and express her excitement over our relentless quizzing. After finals, she has continued to read all the Global books.

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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  • Kathy Ruddick April 16, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    Great article about a fantastic service. Mary has made this program a success. Such a great experience for the children of Seattle.

  • Toni Myers April 15, 2014 at 10:25 pm

    Thanks for your comments. A colleague of Mary’s wrote me:
    “Mary is the change we hope to see.”
    And Global is a gift, the best kind, and the kids know that it is and take to it with gusto.

  • Marti Byrd April 14, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    I’m familiar with the global reading challenge in Seattle and know how dedicated Mary is to this program. What a wonderful way to get kids interested in reading and all they can learn about the world through books. She definitely makes a difference.

  • Susanna Gaertner April 14, 2014 at 6:02 pm

    Why don’t women rule the world? With exemplars like this one it should be self-evident.
    Thanks for the inspiring portrait.

  • Kari Wergeland April 13, 2014 at 2:22 am

    I can’t believe how this program has evolved over the years. Bravo, Mary!

  • B. Elliott April 12, 2014 at 10:11 am

    Fabulous story! I have tears in my eyes for the gift these children have been given. You made my day . . . .