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Willow School librarian using prize money to diversify collections


A $500 grant is giving Willow School librarian Margi Nilles a chance to update reading materials to better reflect Homewood’s diverse population.

Willow School librarian Margi Nilles purchased these books representing diversity with a $500 grant she won from Scholastic Books and author James Patterson. (Provided photo)

Nilles remembers the contest application from Scholastic Book Club and author James Patterson coming into her mailbox in spring “when everyone was at home during the shutdown, and I said I’ll enter this and see what happens and I completely forgot about it. Then they notified me in September that I’d won the grant. I was so excited!”

Scholastic said Nilles was one of 100,000 applicants for the grant. In her 50-word entry, Nilles explained that schools were spending more money on COVID-19 related protocols, and they had to make every dollar count. The grant would be a supplement to the annual library budget.

“We have a lot of diverse books already in the collection but they’re historical, not current like stories that feature characters of different races. That’s what I’m working toward — getting the collection more current,” Nilles explained. “Getting books into the hands of children is our main objective, so if we can get children to feel they have a connection, that’s my goal.”

Willow School librarian Margi Nilles. (Official photo)

Nilles didn’t look for any one particular topic but chose a wide range of subjects, from families to empowerment. One of her favorite new books is “I Can Be Anything” by Diane Dillon. The story encourages young readers to believe that they can achieve amazing things.

Willow School serves pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first and second graders. Nilles selected half of the books with hard cover and half with soft cover. She’s been spending time laminating the covers of the new books to reduce damage.

The new purchases also allow the librarian to begin weeding out materials that are “old, irrelevant titles that are inappropriate now and don’t meet the criteria” for the young ones at Willow.

But how do you get the books to students who aren’t in the building? Nilles has been working on that.

In a normal school year, classes would come in to the library, Nilles would read a story and each student would select a book. 

Now, in addition to the assigned reading materials sent home to Willow students, Nilles records herself reading a story book. Teachers include her presentation in their lesson plans.

“For four classes, I read live on Zoom as part of the class and they can talk back and forth about the story,” Nilles said. 

Reading to second graders over the week isn’t something she would normally have the chance to do, but because she’s with the class four times a week, she’s able to select chapter books and record herself reading a chapter every day. Teachers use her presentations in their reading time for small groups.

“Sometimes it’s a fiction story and I pair a nonfiction to go with that,” she said. Nilles also has a running list of books she’s read the past three years. That helps her know what is part of the curriculum.

She also will work on themes. This week it’s new books, next week it will be books about fall and then on to Thanksgiving.

In addition to the $500 grant, Nilles will have access to additional support from Patterson and Scholastic Book Clubs in the form of a special online boutique filled with promotional discounts on books for every type of reader, as well as a monthly newsletter filled with ideas for building classroom and at-home libraries.

This year marks the sixth annual installment of the Patterson Partnership, created to build classroom and home libraries and assist teachers in acquiring books and other materials desperately needed by them and their students. To date, Patterson has donated $11 million to school and classroom libraries through his Scholastic Book Clubs campaign.

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