Sometimes a family isn’t defined by bloodlines but by the ties that bind. So it is with members of The Pagemasters book club.
For the past five years, a group of six to eight adults with physical and developmental challenges has been meeting on Monday afternoons once a week at the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library to read books and share their life stories.
On this particular day when the club gathered, there were five men and one woman. This group loves snacks. This week it was all about the pretzel rods. Nadine Connors, the library’s cultural program specialist, opens the meeting by asking members to talk about their weekends. Many watched movies either at the theater or at home. Someone slept all day on Saturday, another went to a Halloween party, another went shopping, and there was talk about the Jets game.
But it wasn’t all light banter. “I called the Rockville Centre movie theater about getting a part-time job. I want to get out of the house. I need to do something other than watch TV. There’s nothing but junk on during the day,” said Anthony, who looked a bit frustrated.
Another young man, Mike, chimed in and said he was having trouble on his job. “I don’t think they want me to come back to work,” he said.
Connors looked concerned. “Do I need to go in and pressure them,” she asked half jokingly. He said he would let her know.
Jackie likes to paint and talked quietly about the doughnut series she just finished and how she plans to paint a series of strange houses. “Let us know when you have another show so we can come. At the last show someone bought the Eiffel Tower picture that I wanted so I bought your Starry Night,” Connors said.
Ross, who uses a wheelchair, has difficulty speaking so he writes down the highlights of his weekend and asked Jonathan to read it for him. He, too, had watched movies.
Hitting the books
Thirty minutes into the session the group turns to reading. They pick up where they left off last week with a refresher of what was happening and continue reading “Clan Castles,” a book by Evan Jacobs about two boys playing an adventure game. Everyone reads a little, even if only a few sentences. Some read slowly, struggling. Jackie reads but keeps losing her place. But they all are enjoying the moment.
Being a part of The Pagemasters is a refuge of sorts for the adults, ages 24 to 32, who have a variety of mental and physical issues. It brings them out of isolation and exposes them to the world of books.
It all started when a patron asked Connors to start a reading/socializing group for adults with mental and physical challenges so her daughter could attend. “There was one meeting at night at the library in Great Neck at that time, but the distance and time of day was a problem for her and her daughter,” Connors said.
Little did she know that she would be ultimately facilitating the club. “Laurie Adler, a librarian who does not work at the library since this fall, was my partner. Laurie and I went through the training required to run the club,” said Connors.
The Pagemasters is an affiliate of the Next Chapter Book Club, which was created in 2002 by Thomas Fisher, the director of Social Work at The Ohio State University’s Nisonger Center for Excellence in Disabilities.
Next Chapter Book Clubs sprang up in Ohio and are now nationwide and in other countries. The goal of the club is to provide opportunities for lifelong-learning, social interaction and community inclusion for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library became an affiliate of Next Chapter Book Club in 2018. “Being an affiliate of NCBC gives us a connection for ideas, book suggestions, etc. As an affiliate, we can also form an additional club if we need to,” explained Connors. Earlier this year the library received a $10,000 grant from American Library Association American Dream Literacy Grant/Dollar General Literacy Foundation. The money will be used in part, to develop the collection of hi-lo readers (that is, books with “high interest” topics but “low vocabulary/readability,” or books Connors describes as being designed for teenagers who aren’t "into reading") and have a permanent area for those books.
The library is purchasing Kindles and is considering purchasing Launchpad tablets that are preloaded with materials that will have vocabulary and other games for the group. The library has already bought an extra-large iPad to look up words, geography and other information when club members are reading.
Connors is clear, “I don’t teach reading. I correct people.” She’s quick to tell you the club is as much about socializing as reading.
Club members also play hangman, do crossword puzzles and play games that involve language. Reading is key. They have read Jack London’s work, “Frankenstein,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” young adult novels, as well as hi-lo readers.
Books are chosen and voted on by the club.
“They voted that we should try to find books that have a corresponding movie. This club belongs to the members. We do not ‘do’ the book club for them. Everything is discussed and voted on. We have a highly motivated club,” Connors said.
They are also learning to express themselves in a more formal way.
One of the members was reading the entire Alex Rider series of books by Anthony Horowitz. The club read the first one, “Stormbreaker,” last year. They also watched the movie.
The club members decided to write the author a letter, with all of them sharing their thoughts about the book.
Much to their surprise, Horowitz, who lives in England, wrote them a letter via email.
“He apologized for his lateness in responding (he responded February 2019), and told us about his new television series, ‘Point Blank,’ based on the Alex Rider series,” Connors said. “He wrote that it seemed like we were a wonderful group.
“We have decided if the author of the book we are reading is alive, we will attempt to get in touch by writing them,” she said.
Pagemasters members are in control, which gives them a sense of empowerment. When they’re finished reading for the week, they get back to themselves. Connors and a volunteer bring out a small ball that when caught requires the catcher to answer a question written on the ball where their thumb lands.
This go-round, the question that popped up was, “What’s your worst fear?” Someone says getting trapped in an elevator; Anthony shrugs his shoulders. Ross struggles to say that he fears nothing. Matt rolls the ball to Anthony. The Question? “What makes you happy despite having a bad day?” Anthony pauses and says, “Spaghetti and meatballs and being around my family.”
The hour goes by fast. Connors encourages members to read on their own as they make their way out, some with aides in tow.
She looks ever the den mother saying goodbye to her cubs. Many of the members, most of whom live in Nassau County, have been with the group from the start. She’s attached to them. Connors may have been joking about going to Mike’s workplace to stick up for him, but she says club members have encountered problems getting jobs. She’s heard that funding for employment programs has been cut, and she said, “I want to do some research and find someone or an agency that could come in and talk about the funding, who to contact about the funding cut, and where there may be job opportunities.”
At times her heart seems a little heavy. “I want them to feel appreciated, respected, and important to the library and the community. They have a club that is theirs for learning, to enjoy reading, and to socialize. They have become better readers by attending this club.
“I am always impressed by what they share during our time together. I hope they are having a great time,” she said.
Connors stays positive, an attitude that isn’t hard around this crew that is dedicated and has a certain amount of innocence. “I wasn’t hired to do this, but I love it,” she said. “One of the hardest things for this group is isolation. A couple have jobs, a couple are going to get their driver’s license. It’s tough for them. Mike once said what he wants most is a friend.”
WHAT The Pagemasters aka Next Chapter Book Club provides opportunities for lifelong-learning, social interaction and community inclusion for adults 21 and older with intellectual and development disabilities.
WHEN | WHERE 1:30 p.m. Monday at the Hewlett-Woodmere Public Library, 1125 Broadway, Hewlett.
INFO hwpl.org or 516-364-1967 (For information about Next Chapter Book Club, visit nextchapterbookclub.org.
Next Chapter Book Clubs
Listing of other clubs on Long Island and a link to the website.