Field Notes: Camp Read-a-Rama: Learning to “Live Books”

Leader: Hey Nick.
Nick: Yeah!
L: Hey Nick.
N: Yeah!
L: Can you Gruff?
N: Gruff-a-what?
L: Can you Gruff?
N: Gruff-a-lo.
N: My hands are high, my feet are low, and this is how I Gruffalo. [Nick dances]
All: His hands are high, his feet are low, and this is how he Gruffalos! [Everyone mimics Nick’s dance]
All: Gruff-a-lo, Gruff-Gruff-a-lo.
Gruff-a-lo, Gruff-Gruff-a-lo.

So goes a Harambee Time (Harambee is a Swahili word that means “coming together”) — the way we start the day at Camp Read-a-Rama. This camp for children ages four to eleven uses children’s books as the springboard for all other camp activities, including songs, chants, games, field trips, and exploration. After singing the Gruffalo song, campers settle down on the floor to listen to an animated read-aloud of The Gruffalo picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, about a trickster mouse and a mythical (or is it?) monster. Capitalizing on its popularity with young readers, I used The Gruffalo to adapt a song I learned as a child, thereby giving kids a musical connection to a book they already enjoy. This full-immersion literacy approach that I have been cultivating for Camp Read-a-Rama since its inception in 2009 is the best answer I have found to combat “summer slide,” the three-month learning loss experienced by children who lack summer enrichment — especially children of poverty and minority populations who typically have limited or no access to educational summer programs.

The concept of Read-a-Rama began in 2001 as a service learning outreach project for my Clemson University children’s literature students, all of whom were education majors. After we determined a theme (examples over the years include “Mad Hatter,” “Animalia,” “Read-a-Rama in Your Pajamas”), students prepared interactive small-group read-alouds; created compelling discussion questions; and planned hands-on activities related to the books we had chosen. During the ninety-minute programs, children participated in two book groups; at the end, every child received a free book to add to his or her home library. (We also served a healthy snack at most programs.)

Camp Read-a-Rama co-founders Rachelle D. Washington and Michelle H. Martin. Photo: Amelia Hare.

In 2008 I met Dr. Rachelle D. Washington, a Clemson colleague and assistant professor in the School of Education, and she embraced my vision to extend the model by creating a summer camp for South Carolina children. I brought to the partnership a PhD in English, specializing in children’s literature; an idea; a love of the outdoors from years of Girl Scouting; and hundreds of songs, activities, and other ways of getting kids engaged in learning through play. Dr. Washington brought a PhD in language and literacy education; years of experience in early literacy programs, Head Start, and classroom teaching; and a host of students eager to participate in our camp’s pilot. When I became the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children and Youth Services at the University of Washington in Seattle in 2016, it gave us a chance to expand camp to the West Coast.

Fully Engaged Programming
The most important hallmark of Camp Read-a-Rama — and the mantra for staff — is “100% engagement 100% of the time.” We also believe that “dead time will kill your program,” which results in our filling every moment of every camp day with engaging activities. We have had as few as two and as many as eight weeks of camp programming, and each week features a theme and a book or set of books. Previous themes include “Read-a-Rama Rocks” (both geology and music; books we used included If You Find a Rock by Peggy Christian and Barbara Hirsch Lember), “Tell Your Story” (autobiography; Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk), “Splish Splash” (water; Wet Dog! by Elise Broach and David Catrow), and “Let’s Have a Ball” (all things round; The Great Ball Game by Joseph Bruchac and Susan L. Roth). The geology activities for “Read-a-Rama Rocks” in Seattle included visiting a beach to build rock rainbows and growing borax crystals. Music-related activities featured performances by a guitar trio and a nyckelharpa (a Swedish instrument) player, and making maracas out of light bulbs.

Photo: Michelle H. Martin.

Each morning after Harambee Time, campers rotate through hands-on activity stations. For instance, during the “Tell Your Story” theme, author Ann Haywood Leal led the campers through writing and illustration exercises; we used story apps for digital storytelling; Eva Abram, a teller with the Seattle Storytellers Guild, told the campers Aesop’s Fables; and Roger Fernandes (whose Native name is Kawasa), a member of the Lower Elwha Band of the S’Klallam Indians from the Port Angeles area of Washington State, told campers traditional stories, including a favorite about the Basket Woman (who eats children!).

At midday, during DEAR Time (Drop Everything and Read) campers, staff, and special-guest volunteers spread out all over the camp space for focused reading time. We keep a reading tent pitched inside and fill the camp library with theme-related books, books donated by friends of Read-a-Rama, library books suggested by local librarians, and books the campers request. We hang up butcher paper for campers to record what they’re reading. In two weeks, our thirty-six campers in 2017 collectively read 173 books (not counting re-reads).

Committed to Diversity of All Kinds
Camp Read-a-Rama has always sought to host programming in locations where children are most subject to summer slide. Although it’s a fee-based program (with the amount geared toward middle-income families), we have never turned a child away. In 2017 we held camp in downtown Seattle at an affordable housing complex for formerly homeless families, and several children from a nearby homeless shelter also took part. Two churches funded camp for all campers. We have held camp in schools, churches, community centers, and in beautiful wild spaces, but we always seek to serve children from diverse backgrounds (racially, ethnically, economically, educationally, neurologically, etc.), which has often meant providing breakfast for children who come to camp hungry and keeping a stash of clothing for those who can’t afford a swimsuit, hat, or other basic clothing items.

During DEAR time, guest Glenn Hare reads from The BFG. Photo: Michelle H. Martin.

Having diverse campers means supporting the reading needs of the seven-year-old who came to us reading the seventh volume in the Harry Potter series as well as the ten-year-old who reads at a second-grade level. We always create mixed-age groups for activities. When a preteen who doesn’t read well shares a book with an emergent reader, it helps the older child feel successful in ways he or she often does not when reading with peers. We also maintain a one-to-five ratio between counselors and campers, which ensures time and space for campers and staff to build relationships — because relationships are one of the most powerful and lasting impacts of Camp Read-a-Rama.

Camp Read-a-Rama runs best not only when the campers come from diverse backgrounds but when the staff members do as well. Although we deliberately seek out counselors who have been trained in the study of children’s literature at the college level, we also make a concerted effort to hire people with a wide variety of experiences and from different backgrounds. Last summer we employed staff from Russia, China, and various regions of the U.S. (including the South, the Midwest, and the Pacific Northwest), with expertise in music, dance, theater, foreign languages, art, crafts, photography, aquatic activities, various technologies, cooking, and more. Some staff members identified as straight and cisgender and others identified as queer; some were hyper-athletic and others were happy to just sit and build sandcastles with the campers. We also usually have a counselor-in-training (CIT) program for students ages fourteen to seventeen. (The CITs do not count in the ratio of staff to campers, but their extra hands contribute a great deal, and the on-the-job-training stands them in good stead for future employment in youth programs.) Whether employees or volunteers, all Camp Read-a-Rama staff and CITs must be committed to the 100% engagement model.

While Camp Read-a-Rama doesn’t engage in direct instruction in reading, we have seen firsthand the positive impact that our immersion approach can have on campers’ enthusiasm for reading, their fluency, and their willingness to engage with new literary genres. Parents have reported that camp improved their children’s attitudes toward reading, which often makes acquiring reading skills easier. Children have also formed a sense of community around reading and taken increased “ownership” of their own reading. For instance, some of the campers have started book clubs at their schools, wanting to establish their own community of readers (more details at

Future Plans
Dr. Washington and I have been deliberate about maintaining the quality of Camp Read-a-Rama by growing it slowly and making sure staff members have sufficient training. But we do believe Camp Read-a-Rama offers an excellent model for full-engagement literacy programming, especially for children in underserved communities. We have plans for “scaling up” to enable more communities to benefit from this model. This will involve providing training nationally for librarians, teachers, and staff of youth and community organizations both face-to-face and online and developing curriculum materials that will enable the program to be replicated anywhere.

* * *

At the end of each day Camp Read-a-Rama finishes just as it begins, with a read-aloud and a hearty dose of music and movement:

Hey there, Fatima, you’re a real cool cat,
You’ve got a whole lot of this and a whole lot of that
So stand right there and shake your rear,
And show us how you do the Chiggy Cheer.
Hands up, chiggy chiggy, chiggy chiggy,
Hands down, chiggy chiggy, chiggy chiggy,
Bamboo, chiggy chiggy, chiggy chiggy,
Bamboo, chiggy chiggy, chiggy chiggy!

From the March/April 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Dr. Michelle H. Martin
Michelle H. Martin
Dr. Michelle H. Martin is the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children & Youth Services in the Information School at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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