Friday, June 16, 2017

Michigan KidLit Advocates: Cynthia Furlong Reynolds and the Prime Time Family Literacy Program

A small boy waves his hand excitedly in the air—the first time he’s volunteered an answer in five weeks.

“I think this story is about friendship and how friends are people who pay attention to you and sit with you at lunch and give you chocolate chip cookies,” he announces, a big grin on his face. His listeners clap, his grin widens.

At the end of this Prime Time Family Literacy session in Garden City, the boy’s mother smiles proudly at her son, and confides, “Jacob’s teacher told me that he could read words, but he didn’t understand what he was reading. Now I understand that I have to do what you do—read with him, ask him about what he just read, and then ask him what he thinks about the story. Is that right?”

It is!

Louisiana’s Endowment for the Humanities (LEH) launched the Prime Time Family Literacy program for low-income families in 1991, when Louisiana ranked 50th in the U.S. for literacy. PT promotes long-term improvements in family engagement and students’ academics, but along the way, much more happens. Busy families come together for fun and a free meal, relaxing and intellectually stimulating conversation, and an introduction to library services.

Louisiana has tracked PT results through the years, and they’re impressive: most participating students improve their standardized test scores as much as 81% (high school) to 96% (elementary) and 100% (middle school), while 85 percent of the parents report improved family interactions at the end of the six-week sessions.

Forty other states have been impressed enough to adopt the PT program; the LEH offers training in New Orleans in January and July. This year, the Michigan Humanities Council will fund two dozen programs.

Cynthia with reader Phil Smith in Hartland
After dinner (donated by community organizations) and a short message about the library, the Reader models ways to read aloud effectively and the Scholar leads discussions about the book’s themes, vocabulary, character development, setting, story, and art. There are no wrong answers. The night ends with door prizes and three new books.

I’ve served as Scholar in rural and urban libraries, from Luna Pier to Hartland and Ypsilanti to Harper Woods—a treat for a children’s writer who loves talking about books—and I’ve seen miracles take place over six weeks:

*  A second grader volunteers to read to her illiterate 86-year-old great-grandmother, who is raising the child.

*  A busy mother at first answers all questions for her husband and four children, but by the end of the second session, she sits back and listens to their opinions.

*  Parents talk to their children about their dreams (Fanny’s Dream), siblings (My Rotten Red-headed Older Brother), peer pressure (The Orange Spot), role models (Tomas and the Library Lady), and bravery (Brave Irene).

*  A teary-eyed mother, whose abusive ex-husband had been sentenced to jail that day, whispers, “Thank you. This is the best night I’ve had in a very long time.”

*  Sixty eager parents and children crowd into Ypsilanti’s downtown meeting room each PT night; they represent six African nations, five religions, and speak a combined 11 languages.

*  Parents and children continue talking to teach other about a book long past PT’s official end.
And the list goes on and on…

Cynthia Furlong Reynolds has written 12 children’s books, a chapter book series, Middle Reader novel, 9 histories (2 of them Michigan Notable Books), a writing manual and workbook, several historical novels, and countless news stories. At an early age, she realized her calling: helping people tell their stories, as Grammie’s Secret Cupboard (2008 Mom’s Choice Award) reveals. She is finishing two Michigan-based books, a history and a YA novel. Cindy leads writing workshops, freelances as editor/ghost writer, and loves invitations to schools. A Maine native and Dexter resident, she earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Maine’s Stonecoast program. Her website:

Learn more about the Prime Time Family Reading Program at the Michigan Humanities Counsel website, or email James Nelson, the Program Manager.

Coming up on the Mitten Blog: Behind the scenes with our co-RA's, our Grammar Guru tackles common mistakes, and a new Featured Illustrator. But first, it's time for another round of Hugs and Hurrahs! We want to trumpet your success. Do you have an upcoming book release? Did you sign with an agent? Did you publish a children's story or poem in a magazine? Did you win a contest? We want to know! Please send your good news to Kristin Lenz by June 26th to be included.

* June 26th is also the submission deadline for the SCBWI-MI Illustrator Mentorship. Learn more here.

* June 26th is also my birthday! Make my day by submitting an idea for a blog post! The Mitten blog is always looking for contributors. See our Submissions page for suggestions and guidelines.

Happy creating!
Kristin Lenz


  1. Prime Time is ABSOLUTEY one of the best programs out there! At one point they were only second to Ken Burns in the amount of support they got from the National Council for the Humanities. It is such a worthwhile program I urge anyone who lives in an area where there is a number of needy families to suggest that their local library get involved. Kudos to Cyn! And if you ever get asked to participate, jump at the chance. You won't regret it. To see children--and their adults--suddenly awaken to the really big and fundamental questions that good picture books ask--is a thrill. I adored my time with Prime several years ago. But it is still close to my heart, and one of my most treasured experiences. S.

  2. Thank you for such and inspirational and information-filled post.