Bonding Over Books: Centering Family at the My Home Library Book Fair

Published on December 18, 2023 in ,

Elyse Sutton scanned the colorful shelves for one more special book to add to her stack of Dork Diaries books. Her eyes finally landed on the cover of the graphic novel Frizzy. She knew immediately that it was the one. Frizzy celebrates the radical power of accepting yourself for you.

“I like that picture, it reminds me of my hair,” Elyse, 9, said. “I want it!”

Elyse, a student at United Oaks Elementary School, will take home five free books, thanks to the My Home Library book fair.

United Oaks is one of four Community Schools that hosted book fairs made possible through United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s partnership with Scholastic. Other book fair sponsors included the Siebert Williams Shank Foundation, the Kaas Family, Stellantis and the Applebaum Family Philanthropy Compass Fund.

United Way distributed 33,181 books through book fairs and Little Free Libraries across the region this year. A wide range of titles ensured there was something for everyone. The book that appealed to Elyse, Frizzy, recognizes the challenges people with textured hair can face including bullying, internalized racism and structural prejudices. The main character perseveres and strives for authenticity despite the obstacles.

Karla Graessley, principal at United Oaks, said diverse book choices are so important, especially so kids can see themselves in the pages (and everywhere else).

“It helps kids with self-esteem, and it helps kids feel a little bit of ownership with these books,” Karla said.


Excited conversations filled the air as classes full of eager students flooded the colorful book fair area, exploring books labeled for every grade level, from easy readers to picture books, chapter books and more.

“It’s like candy to them!” said Pekisha Hemlinger, a United Oaks parent, aunt and volunteer. “My nieces are very excited. They’re like, ‘Yes, I got a new book!’ and they’ll sit down and go through the pages, looking at the pictures first. Then, we will all read it together.”

The self-described bookworm and super volunteer has been a fixture at the school since her son began attending in kindergarten. Now that he has moved on to 6th grade, she’s continuing to share her passion for reading while helping at the school’s library.

Pekisha said starting her son reading at an early age helped his vocabulary and comprehension grow.

“When my son was four, he would get cookies and milk, sit in my lap, and we would read a book a night. We called it mother-son bonding time,” Pekisha said. “And by the time he started pre-school, he was able to read a book by himself.”

Starting my son at a very young age with reading has not only built his vocabulary, but his comprehension as well.

Pekisha and her son are an inspiring example of what a parent-supported reading routine can do. The importance of the parent or guardian’s engagement in a child’s reading journey often is overlooked. When parents are passionate and get involved in their children’s education, the results can be stunning.

The U.S. Department of Education states that parents who read to their children, have books in their home and exhibit a positive attitude toward school, tend to have higher achievers than parents who do not. Parental involvement in their children’s school life influences student achievement, attendance, motivation, self-concept and behavior.


United Way recognizes that parents are instrumental in nurturing a lifelong passion for reading. With 40% of families in Michigan struggling to make ends meet, basic needs can be a higher priority than new books. The five free books received from the book fair can alleviate pressure on parents’ budgets and provide a starting point for an at-home library.

“It’s nice not having to spend the money on books,” said Mark Essad, a para-pro whose second-grade daughter attends United Oaks. “It’s a lot of her favorite books that she likes getting, and she’ll read them over and over again.”

United Way focused on engaging parents in literacy efforts this year. At our Community Schools, book fair doors opened early for an hour-long parent and student preview, intentionally giving families the time to connect over a love of literature.

“The dedicated ‘preview’ hour is exclusively for parents to explore the diverse and captivating selection of books alongside their children,” said Tiffany Mousel, manager of literacy initiatives at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “This unique initiative provides an exceptional opportunity for families to create a bond over literature that extends beyond the school environment.”

Parents were given practical reading tips to engage with their children, as well as information to sign up for the Parent Powered program, formerly called Ready4K. The Parent Powered program is a research-based text-messaging program where parents can receive age-appropriate facts, tips and opportunities for growth to boost each child’s learning opportunities by building on existing family routines.

Since a genuine love for reading is fostered at home, the event included a raffle for one lucky family to win a cozy reading corner. The reading nook kit included a bean bag chair, blanket, throw pillows, hot cocoa kit and a reading light.

“It’s important to have books at home, not just at school,” Karla, the principal, said. “And the fact that they have a home library, they can go put their fingers on their books and say, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to read this one today’, it’s what we want. They need to be independent readers.”

Are you interested in getting involved with our literacy initiatives? Look for opportunities to volunteer on our portal. Or, donate today!