Boston Voyager Magazine:
Today we’d like to introduce you to Rebecca Coll.
So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I’ve had a lifelong fascination with books — from sitting on the piano bench with my father sounding out the words to my first book, to sneak-reading under the covers as a kid, to reading to kindergarteners as a high schooler, to earning a degree in binding and restoration. The work I am doing now as Executive Director of Wondermore, a small philanthropy with the mission of inspiring a love of reading and books in Boston’s underserved youth, is a natural fit for me!
My path to Wondermore has been anything but direct. I arrived here by way of being a graphic designer in the publishing industry, working as a teaching assistant in a preschool, managing executive training programs at Wharton, and, in addition to other jobs over the years, serving on many nonprofit boards both in the US and in England.
I’ve earned two undergraduate degrees (B.S. in business from Skidmore, and BA Honors in Book Arts from the London College of Printing – now the University of the Arts, London) as well as completing graduate certificates in bookbinding. Just last year I completed a one-year program in nonprofit leadership with the Institute for Nonprofit Practice / Tufts University.
Throughout all the work I have done, both as an employee but also as a volunteer and board member, there has been a theme of giving back, education, books, and art. The work I do at Wondermore, bringing authors and illustrators into under-resourced Boston public schools, perfectly balances my skills and my passions.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
This is my fourth year at Wondermore. When I joined, the organization was in the process of rebranding from The Foundation for Children’s Books (FCB), to Wondermore. Since the mid-1980s the FCB had been connecting authors and illustrators to teachers and librarians as a professional development organization. The rebranding involved shifting the primary work we do away from being educator focused to being student focused and changing the name to reflect the energy and excitement of the children during an author visit. While the mission has always been to inspire a love of reading and books, our work has shifted to having students, not educators, be the direct recipients. Taking authors and illustrators directly into the classrooms with the kids adds value to what the teachers are doing already and provides an opportunity for schools to delve deeper into a subject, time, author, etc.
The road for Wondermore has not always been smooth, but perhaps not for the reasons one would think. There are only nine full-time, certified elementary school librarians in the entire Boston Public School system. In a day and age when reading comprehension drives so many of the opportunities that will be available to our youth, Wondermore steps in to support the amazing work already being done in the classrooms of some of our most disadvantaged students.
As a small, local charity, our funding comes entirely from private donors and a few grants. The demand for our work far exceeds our ability to fund our programing. Up until about 5 years ago, we were taking authors and illustrators into schools a few times a year. Last year we conducted 16 visits and connected authors and illustrators to over 2,000 students. This year, we hope to almost double that. Our largest challenge has been, and remains, being able to secure funding to provide programing to all the schools that need and want it. Surprisingly, we have found that there are far more dollars available to arts programs than literacy ones. Getting creative and emphasizing the work we do with illustrators allows us access to some of these funds.
We’d love to hear more about your business.
I am the Executive Director of Wondermore. We are small philanthropy focused exclusively on fostering a love of reading and good books among students in grades K-8. Through our Authors-in-Schools program, we bring acclaimed authors and illustrators directly into those K-8 classrooms serving the most economically disadvantaged Boston students for curriculum-aligned presentations and interactive discussions. In doing this we work together with educators and authors to further nurture children’s curiosity and academic achievement.
Our programming is free of charge to schools in which 75% or more of the student body are identified by the district as being economically disadvantaged. Since launching our Authors-in-Schools program in 2004, Wondermore has been able to provide our programming at no cost to the school or students. Wondermore pays the author/illustrator honorarium, buys and then donates copies of an author’s or illustrator’s books to each classroom visited and to the library at each school, and as of September 2017, we have been able to donate a book to each student participating in an Authors-in-Schools visit, which has been a long-held goal of ours and an extension of our programming of which we are very proud.
The work we do at Wondermore absolutely reaches and inspires children. Sometimes you can see “the lightbulb” flash on over a child’s head as they made a connection to the author or illustrator’s work. My favorite moments are when a student says, “I can do that!” or “I thought I didn’t like to write but now I know I do” or “the main character in the story is just like me!”
Many of the students in the schools we visit are from marginalized communities. There are large Latino, African American, and immigrant populations in our schools and our aim, in selecting authors and books, is that we not only select books that support the curriculum but that we have a diverse representation of authors and illustrators that reflect the student body, as well.
What were you like growing up?
I have always been obsessed with books. I grew up surrounded by them — I would literally take piles of books into bed with me at night because you just never know when you might need to reread a chapter or be inspired once again by a character’s antics or bravery. Personality-wise, as a kid, I was an odd combination of quiet and bossy. A type-A personality from birth, I’ve always liked organizing things. I was the editor of my high school literary magazine and at the same time was the chair of the school’s pep club. That pretty much sums me up: an outgoing nerd!