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Hurricane Harvey Book Club offers readers of all ages a literary oasis

A Facebook page started by a Texas teacher as a way to help distract displaced students has blossomed to nearly 50,000 members – including as far away as Ukraine. 

Adrees Latif/Reuters
A woman reads a book at the Good Samaritan Rescue Mission during Hurricane Harvey in Corpus Christi, Texas, Aug. 25.

It’s evacuation time, but a boy runs back in to get one last thing: a book. He’s heard about the Hurricane Harvey Book Club on Facebook, and he wants to join in.

That’s one of thousands of stories people have posted to the closed discussion group this week, along with videos and live streams of themselves or their children reading books aloud. In this literary oasis, toddlers have shared tongue-twisting moments reading favorite board books. Moms have written about how they’ve lost everything, but now they’ve got joyful tears because their children are so happy to hear the stories and share their reading with the club.

Authors and teachers have bookended their stories with reassuring smiles and virtual hugs. Posts have come in multiple languages and from as far away as Ukraine.

The book club is the creation of Kathryn Butler Mills, an elementary school teacher in Katy, Texas, who saw pictures of kids waiting out the floods in bathrooms and under staircases, some with books in hand.

“On Sunday I just woke up with it heavy in my heart and knew that the worst had not gotten here yet and they just needed a distraction,” she says in a phone interview.

She sent out invitations to about 70 parents of current and former students that afternoon. By Thursday afternoon, membership had surged past 49,000. It’s just one of the countless ways people have used social media to seek and offer support as Texans wade through this historic disaster.

Watching the videos “makes you smile and you kind of forget about what’s going on around you for a little bit,” says Mrs. Mills, who teaches first- and second-graders in Katy but lives about 45 miles away in Columbus, where she expects more water to flow as it drains back into the Gulf.

With a little persuading, Lisa Knott’s son, Cooper, sat down on his bed under a bright red-and-white baseball scoreboard and read “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” while she videoed. Mills taught him for two years and he’s now a fourth-grader at the same school, WoodCreek Elementary.

Photo Courtesy of Lisa Knott
Cooper Knott reads 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit' for a video to post on the Hurricane Harvey Book Club, a Facebook group started by his former teacher at WoodCreek Elementary School in Katy, Texas.

They were among the earliest members of the group and he was one of the first boys to post a video. “I told him, ‘You can be a leader in that way,’ ” Ms. Knott says. Sure enough, he soon saw some of his friends sharing stories there, too.

Cooper’s school had been in session for a little over a week before the storm, and Knott expects it to open again Sept. 5, unless there aren’t enough teachers able to get there. She imagines that soon they'll be welcoming children from elsewhere in the district whose schools were heavily damaged.

Their home has been safe, but the roads around it are blocked, Knott says, so “it’s been nerve-wracking … being stuck in the house for days on end, wondering and worrying and hoping things are OK. [The book club] was kind of a nice distraction for him.” 

For her part, Mills has recruited “a village” of friends and fellow teachers to help her ensure the posts stay true to what’s intended. If anyone posts a picture of the floods it’s taken down, she says, because that’s all the kids see every time they turn on the news, or for some, look out a window.

But Mills and her fellow moderators haven’t had to do much policing. “I can absolutely say that this has been one of the most positive things I’ve ever experienced. I have not one time heard a single negative thing,” Mills says.

Now that the book club’s got so many members, it’s selling a T-shirt to raise money so teachers can replace flooded classroom libraries.

The shirt’s simple message: “Be Brave. Be Strong. Be Readers. Be the Light.”

“I just love and applaud Mrs. Mills for thinking outside the box completely,” Knott says. “She just cares so so much about the community and the students and the well being of all the kids.”

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