It’s thanks to the Austin Browncoats that the Kids Need to Read foundation will be filling a booth at Dragon*Con 2009.
“We had the money, but no booth!” said Denise Gary, the foundation’s executive director. “We were trying to get one, and a Facebook call for donations through the Browncoats: Redemption fan film raised the funds.” When booth space sold out too quickly, she said, the Austin Browncoats extended an offer to share their double booth space.
“They’ve been doing a lot of fund-raising for us and really picked it up this year,” Gary said.
Kids Need to Read, which distributes books to libraries, schools, and other institutions in need, was founded in 2007 by writer P.J. Haarsma, author of The Softwire book series, and actor Nathan Fillion, best known to D*C attendees as Captain Mal Reynolds of Firefly and Serenity.
Gary said she became involved with the foundation at its inception through an Internet group of fans. “We were trying to get P.J. to finish an audiobook for The Softwire—read by Nathan—and it turned into this partnership and friendship that has blossomed. P.J. came to me with the idea for the foundation and asked if our group would want to be involved. And we set to work!”
Haarsma came up with the idea for Kids Need to Read after visiting schools and libraries as part of promotional work for The Softwire, which tells the story of a group of children living in indentured servitude on a set of planet-like rings around a wormhole. In his travels, Haarsma discovered that children were eager to read the series but that many libraries were woefully underfunded and could not afford to purchase the books the children wanted. He devised a plan to help them and recruited his friend Fillion, the son of schoolteachers, as co-founder.
The foundation went public in August 2007 and has “grown so fast,” Gary said. “There is a real, true need. It is deplorable, the state of our elementary school libraries. Since we first started, it’s gotten so much worse. The number one priority of every elementary school should be to make strong readers out of every child who walks through its doors.”
Kids Need to Read is striving to make that a reality. The foundation maintains a book list and uses a professional book buyer to add new titles, choosing those that are both age-appropriate and well-written. The list is being expanded all the time, with nonfiction books and graphic novels among the newest additions.
They don’t stop with providing books, though, Gary said. “We work with teachers and librarians to get kids excited about the books. Our mission is to get kids to love to read.”
A new partnership will add the magazine Highlights for Children to the foundation’s offerings. Recipients will receive a free copy of the magazine for each child, as well as a one-year subscription for the school or library. Complimentary copies of Highlights for Children will also be available to children who stop by the foundation’s D*C booth (booths 1005 and 1007, Imperial Ballroom [M]).
As part of the foundation’s participation at D*C, Haarsma will be signing his novels in the Austin Browncoats/Kids Need to Read booth on Saturday from 11AM to 1PM and 3PM to 5PM. “Come to our booth and tell P.J. a joke,” Gary said. “A funny one would be best! We have a prize for everyone who comes to tell him a joke, and we’ll be taping them and putting them up on YouTube, with permission.”
The Austin Browncoats will also be conducting a Jayne hat “knit-a-thon” at the booth all weekend, with proceeds benefiting Kids Need to Read. In addition, a Kids Need to Read calendar, featuring photographs of children immersed in books, will debut during D*C, and special editions of the foundation’s “Terrify’n Space Monkeys” stuffed animals will be available.
But even with all the D*C fun, the focus remains on getting books to kids, Gary said. “We just hope people will come by and talk to us about the foundation and their ideas about how to help,” Gary said. “Most people just do not understand how much a need there is.”