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Lean, green, reading machine: Eagles Storybook Man’s quest for literacy

Summer Lost bonus episode featuring Storybook Man reading Dr. Seuss

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

He’s green, he can read a Dr. Seuss book faster than a speeding bullet, and he fights the evils of illiteracy in the Eagles Bookmobile.

His name is Storybook Man and he’s a part of the Eagles Youth Partnership. This summer, Storybook Man, along with hundreds of local organizations, teamed up with Philadelphia’s READ! By Fourth Campaign that’s aiming to double child literacy rates by 2020.

Storybook Man, whose real-world moniker is Maurice Rowland, has been with the Eagles Youth Partnership since 2008, serving as a literacy coach for the organization. This summer alone he read upwards of a hundred books to thousands of children at recreation centers, daycares, summer camps, libraries, and outdoor park activities to infuse more literacy into their activities.

“Seeing the kids eyes light up as I read the stories to them is the favorite part of my job,” said Rowland, 43, a West Philadelphia native who attended West Catholic Preparatory High School.

This summer, Storybook Man became acquainted with a new super villain: summer slide.

“[Summer slide’s] a problem because it delays children’s learning when they go back to school,” said Rowland, who has five children of his own.

Also known as summer learning loss, summer slide refers to children’s loss of knowledge and skills over the summer when they aren’t engaged in educationally stimulating activities. Summer slide causes children to fall behind academically; research has shown that it increases the chance a student will drop out and accounts for a big part of the achievement gap that puts African American, Latino, and low-income students at a disadvantage compared to White and Asian students.

“Once you get that slide from the summer and get back into school, the teachers, instead of moving on to newer material, they spend a good beginning of the school year reviewing things children should have known since the last school year," he said. "But because they’re not practicing and staying fresh with it, they lose it and forget everything they’ve done.”

Summer learning loss is more pronounced in a city like Philadelphia, the poorest big city in the United States. Not all parents can enroll their children in summer learning opportunities, whether that’s due to limited budgets or overbearing work schedules. Research has shown middle- and upper-class families tend to retain more knowledge and learning over the summer compared to their lower-class peers.

Enter Storybook Man, who brings the gift of reading to all children, regardless of economic background. Although he attended numerous pre-enrolled camps, Storybook Man also made several appearances during the summer at recreation centers, as well as park and outdoor events that were open to the public.

“The Eagles Youth Partnership are committed to getting books in the hands of kids for years and they do a wonderful job,” said Hedra Packman, a literacy and library consultant who specializes in summer programming for the READ! By Fourth Campaign.

“Storybook Man is a great way of personalizing that commitment and giving kids the connection and the excitement that he brings to reading and stories.”

Packman was impressed by the work that the Eagles Youth Partnership and Storybook Man performed this summer.

“It expands the reach of the [READ! By Fourth] campaign,” she said. “It’s such a great partnership for kids and for families. Everybody’s following the Eagles, and if they transfer some of that excitement about Eagles and football into excitement about reading and stories, which is what Storybook Man does, then we’ve made a huge impact for the campaign.”

The Eagles Youth Partnership, which is mostly funded by the Eagles organization, was founded in 1995. It now serves more than 50,000 children from across Philadelphia annually.

The Eagles Youth Partnership and READ! By Fourth will soon announce the name of a prominent Philadelphia Eagles player slated to become a spokesperson for the campaign and harness more awareness about doubling literacy rates and preventing summer slide.

For now, Storybook Man will head into Philadelphia schools over the fall and winter months to continue giving the gift of reading. Then next summer, he’ll resume his endless crusade against summer slide.

However, the Eagles Youth Partnership’s literacy superhero emphasized a need for more literacy programs during the summers if Philadelphia’s READ! By Fourth Campaign hopes to double 4th-grade children’s literacy rates in the next six years.

“My role is minimal if you think about how many different children are out there and how many different places that we don’t get to go to during the summer and how many people we don’t touch,” said Rowland. "The truth of the matter is I’m only one person. It’s a great program, and we do get out there, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s unfortunately minimal.”

This is the final episode of the series Summer Lost: Stopping the slide. Follow Dorian Geiger on Twitter.

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