For more than a decade the New Jersey Center for the Book (NJC) has advanced a dynamic literacy agenda, championing its definition as the ability to read and write while extending it to include literacies emerging in the 21st century. NJC initiatives reach out to the richly diverse communities of our state, from those residing in our challenged inner cities to those in our outlying suburbs.
The innovative spirit that launched NJC as the first located in a university, Rutgers School of Communication and Information, permeates its legacy. The NJ Center has demonstrated the power of the word by designating literary landmarks, offering programs that provide educators with continuing education credit while honing their skills in the writer’s craft, presenting events that highlight emerging literacies, sponsoring grants to encourage the initiation of new programs and developing awards that convey the NJC’s values.
An excursion into NJC’s projects highlights the designation of Literary Landmarks (LL) in inner cities, which breathes pride in their contributions to NJ culture. The first LL, Newark’s Public Library’s Showcasing Information Literacies brought educators to Newark for a program of workshops concentrating on the writer’s craft, the art of storytelling for youth at risk and the use of the NJ public broadcast station for literacy enrichment. A partnership with Camden, designating the Walt Whitman House a LL, served as a catalyst for a two-day festival. NJC collaboration with the NJ Juvenile Justice System, headquartered in Trenton, initiated Youth Create Writing and Art, helping the population in 17 detention centers tell their stories in prose, poetry and drawings. The results were featured at eight libraries and became an exhibit that traveled throughout the State to great acclaim.
A focus on Emerging Literacies with the renowned Liberty Science Center, produced Science is FUNdamtal. Anchored by learning centers in astronomy, physics and robotics, this program featured a NJ astronaut, Robert J. Cenker, who flew aboard the Columbia Space Shuttle. Dressed in astronaut’s garb, Cenker offered a multimedia presentation of his space walk and the challenges encountered in outer space. Food for Thought—What’s on Your Plate? explored food as science and community service. From food preparation, cooking and tasting stations scattered throughout the auditorium well known chefs from New York restaurants, Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen and an award winning next generation teen-age chef focused on healthy eating.
Networking with the state’s libraries is an ongoing NJC priority. With the NJ Library Association as a partner the NJC hosted a reception honoring the public libraries where certificates of membership in the NJC were awarded. Later the Center organized a grant competition combining its library members’ interest in literacy with the 350th Anniversary Celebration of the birth of our state. The 12 winning libraries received funding for activities combining NJ’s history with reading and writing. They were previewed at a daylong event at the Grounds for Sculpture.
The Center presents three awards to reinforce the life enrichment that accompanies literacy. The first, Rutgers Award for Distinguished Literature for Youth honored author Jim Murphy and the late Walter Dean Myers, both of whom, through fiction, nonfiction and poetry, opened the lives of young adults to their reality of the world. The second, the Miss Rumphius Award, honors librarians and teachers who collaborate to build a program with Internet resources that enhance literacy. The third award is Letters About Literature to which over 6,000 NJ students participate. The NJ winning students who enter the competition are honored at a reception where certificates from the Governor are presented to the authors and also to teachers who provide longstanding encouragement for students to enter the contest.
The future of NJC is as promising as its past. It has a Facebook and Twitter presence to encourage greater awareness of its record of providing innovative programs that create a measurable impact on the thousands touched by its literacy initiatives. The sustainability of these efforts results from modest costs insured by the NJC’s support network, which continues to increase in size. The criteria of sustainability and reliability are employed by NJC in every program, award and grant it offers. To these NJC adds the criterion of diffusion of best practices found in programs they have tested in the field. The model built and developed by the NJC is easily adapted or replicated nationwide not only by other Centers but also by any organization promoting literacy.