The Rubini family
Ten-year-old Claire Rubini loved to read. After she suddenly died from a previously unknown heart condition at summer camp in 2000, her parents, Brad and Julie, wanted to spread her love of reading. And boy have they.
Last week I had the chance to see how Claire’s love of reading has led to thousands of kids in the Toledo-area receiving free books and reading awards.
Brad and Julie started a children’s book festival they called Claire’s Day with the purpose “to honor [Claire] in a special tribute to her love of reading, storytelling, music, encouraging others to read and simply having fun with friends.”
The Claire’s Day staff, a team of volunteers along with Read for Literacy, arrange for authors to visit kindergarten through 8th grade classes over the course of the week leading up to a dinner on Friday night and the book festival on Saturday.
Middle Schoolers are older than I thought
I visited two middle schools: Beverly and Gateway in the Maumee area. I mainly visit colleges and high schools until the last year or so. In the past when I chatted with students junior high or younger, I talked about traveling, other cultures, and being a writer. I shared stories about encountering snakes in the jungle and staying at Castle Dracula, while holding back on the stories of child labor, slavery, and the other harsh injustices my work often highlights.
But a month or so ago, I visited a class of 6th graders at Marion Local elementary where my junior high English teacher was filling in. I took these stories head on. In the middle of sharing the story of Solo, a slave on a cocoa farm, I paused and asked, “Is this okay? Is this too heavy?”
The teachers told me to go on. It has been a few moons since I was a middle schooler myself and I think I wasn’t giving them enough credit. Also, I think middle schoolers are better informed about the injustices of the world than I was. They are more prepared to talk and to learn about these issues. They can handle it.
And so could the students of Beverly and Gateway. A few of the several hundred middles schoolers I talked to chattered and fidgeted during my talk, but they laughed when they were supposed to laugh and got real quiet when the air got heavy as we all felt the weight of certain moments of the stories. Those moments are magic.
Authors celebrating readers
I was one of 15 authors who participated in Claire’s day. Between us, we visited more than 90 schools. Most of the other authors wrote children’s or middle grade books. One of my fellow authors asked me what reading level my books were written at. To which I responded “uhh…”
I was a bit of an odd duck at the festival. We sat at tables at the exit of the makeshift Barnes & Noble store where students could use their vouchers to purchase one of our books and then have them signed. Most of the students receiving awards were into picture books not books on global slavery.
The volunteer staff took pity on me a few times. They printed off a sign for me to hang on my table. A few of the other authors had posters, banners, life-sized cutouts of their characters. I had a borrowed copy from B&N of each of my books as my display.
At one point someone told me, “You look lonely.”
And then after that I did my best not to look lonely, which isn’t easy.
I sat next to Ruth McNally Barshaw an amazing author/illustrator behind the Ellie McDoodle books. She had a never-ending line of kids waiting to have their books signed. In each one, she drew a picture of the kid in the book as if they were a character in Ellie McDoodle.
“Look at me,” Ruth would say as she studied their faces. “Okay, how long is your hair.”
The joy and wonder on one kid’s face exceeded my joy quota for the day, and I got to witness this over and over again.
I talked to many of the parents in Ruth’s line. Some of them talked about how hard they and their child had worked this year to improve their reading (awards are given based on improvement). One mother was moved to tears as she watched Ruth sign her daughter’s book.
All those kids. All those books. All those readers. It was wonderful.
And it’s all because a little girl loved to read.
Julie Rubini, now an author herself, sums up Claire’s Day’s partnership with Read for Literacy as such:
“I can honestly see Claire, smiling from ear to ear, pumping her fist in the air and saying, ‘YES!’”
Through my work and the work with the Facing Project, I often have the honor of hearing about the most challenging parts of people’s lives. I’m constantly reminded that it’s our lowest, toughest, most challenging experiences that prepare us the most to help others.
It was a pleasure to participate in Claire’s Day, and it was uplifting to meet Julie and Brad, and Claire’s siblings, Kyle and Ian. They turned an unimaginable tragedy into an amazing celebration of family and reading.