A Citywide Reading Program Connects Youth Through Literature and Safe Dialogue About Violence

As the writer Maya Angelou once said: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Previous research has found that reading and writing literature can help people express themselves and reduce the stigma and isolation surrounding sensitive subjects and experiences.

A new study published in the Journal of Community Psychology from the International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab) at Johns Hopkins University has found evidence that the literary arts can be an effective tool for generating productive conversations and educating students about complex topics, like violence and mental health. The research also provides recommendations for deploying similar reading programs in other cities based on feedback from participating educators and librarians.

“Literature, like many art forms, helps us talk about difficult or sensitive issues, and it gives us a starting point for new conversations,” said Tasha Golden, Ph.D., director of research at IAM Lab and lead author of the study. “At a time when young people are suffering and seeking support — from their communities and from one another — we have to consider how the arts can help generate connection, creativity and dialogue.”

In 2019, over 10,000 seventh- and eighth-grade students in the Baltimore City Public Schools participated in the citywide One Book Baltimore program. The initiative, which is a collaboration between the T. Rowe Price Foundation, Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS), Enoch Pratt Free Library and other local organizations, provided each middle school student at 85 schools with a copy of the award-winning novel “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds.

“Long Way Down” features a powerful portrayal of youth violence and its many consequences, a subject matter familiar to many students in the One Book Baltimore program. In surveys given before and after the program, half of the students reported that they or a close family member had directly experienced violence.

The new study found that reading “Long Way Down” influenced how middle schoolers think about violence, and students with personal experiences of violence reported greater influence than those without.

The study also found that students are interested in opportunities to discuss violence with peers and adults, and that the shared experience of reading the novel offered such opportunities. The vast majority of students who finished “Long Way Down”—84%—reported discussing the book with friends, and reading the book in full was associated with more conversations about violence with friends and family. The program may also pique students’ interest in connecting over complex issues; following One Book Baltimore, almost 60% of students wanted more opportunities to discuss violence and peace with their peers, and the same number (60%) reported wanting more public events focused on these topics.

The new research builds upon previous studies suggesting that literature can help generate dialogue about sensitive topics and reduce stigma, which negatively affects mental health outcomes. The One Book Baltimore program also draws inspiration from bibliotherapy — the use of books as therapy to support mental health — and other studies that show how reading literature can help youth develop perspective-taking and empathy.

After surveying almost 40 program leaders at the schools and 14 participating city librarians, the study also made recommendations on how to improve One Book Baltimore in subsequent years and offered lessons for implementing similar programs in other cities.

“What’s different about this [study] is that it not only shares findings from our evaluation, but it offers recommendations and ideas so that other school districts or nonprofits can try this model in their own communities,” Dr. Golden said. “We want this evaluation to be seen not as the end of one program, but as the beginning of many similar opportunities and partnerships.”

Recommendations included creating a youth leadership team to allow for more student input in programming, centralizing project management and communication, and increasing student participation in activities that complement reading the book, such as creating and sharing spoken word, poetry, music or visual art inspired by their reading.

“The artistic expression we have seen from students through programs at schools, Pratt Library branches, and nonprofit partners has been inspiring. Over time, we hope to develop more opportunities for students to engage with the arts,” said Stacey Van Horn, Senior Program Director at T. Rowe Price Foundation.

The International Arts + Mind Lab at the Pedersen Brain Science Institute of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine conducted the program evaluation in partnership with Dr. Karl Alexander of the Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts & Sciences.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020-2021 One Book Baltimore program continued with the selection of the essay collection “We Speak for Ourselves by D. Watkins, an East Baltimore native sharing first-hand accounts of life in disadvantaged Black communities. In the 2021-2022 school year, Tami Charles’s award-winning novel “Becoming Beatriz was selected as the One Book Baltimore pick. The story explores the theme of resilience and follows Afro-Latina high-schooler Beatriz Mendez, who is traumatized by her brother’s death and struggles with realizing her dream of becoming a professional dancer.

“We are so happy that One Book Baltimore is making a difference for the middle schoolers in our community,” said Pratt Library President and CEO Heidi Daniel. “We’ve heard so much great feedback about the program, and for the findings of this study to back up what we know anecdotally is meaningful. I’m thankful for our partners, especially the T. Rowe Price Foundation and Baltimore City Public Schools, for assisting us in this work that is helping change lives.”

Watch a panel discussion on One Book Baltimore hosted by the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and IAM Lab here. Read the new publication at the Journal of Community Psychology here.

Lead Image: Pratt Contemporaries

Education IAM Lab Literature Mental Health Research