I seem to be ping-ponging between inspiring teen stories and inspiring animal stories. It’s only natural. I’m a writer of YA stories. And as a lifelong cat lover, I spend a lot of time thinking about cats, playing with cats, and catering to the every whim of the three cats that adopted me.
Cats are even dominating my writing time. My current work-in-progress is a young adult novel about a cat-hating runaway who finds herself living in a shelter for homeless cats. Dare I hope that the cats will win over Abi Rose?
But I digress.
For me, the perfect day is relaxing in a comfy chair with a cat on my lap and a book in my hands. So I was intrigued to learn about the many programs springing up around the country encouraging children to read to shelter cats.
A Reader Is Born
The program that seems to have started it all is the Book Buddies Program run by the Animal Rescue League (ARL) of Berks County, Pennsylvania.
Go on. Check out the website. The first picture alone is worth the visit. I dare you not to exclaim “AWWWW!”
In 2013, then-ARL program coordinator Kristi Rodriguez was at her wits’ end trying to help her young son improve his reading skills. Like many reluctant or slow readers, he had particular difficulty reading aloud in front of his classmates.
Studies at Tufts University suggested, “Human-animal interaction can make the learning process more comfortable and enjoyable for children.” Studies also showed that animals could be a “non-evaluative presence that can provide support and comfort to participants without judging them.”
Rodriguez was ready to try any approach that might help her son. She took him to the shelter and suggested he read aloud to the homeless cats living there.
He enjoyed it so much, he begged to return. Eventually, his reading improved, and he began reading aloud at home to the family dogs.
A Win-Win Situation
Rodriguez noticed that the cats seemed to enjoy the attention as well.
Many strays that land in shelters have been abused or alone for so long they are frightened of human contact. But Rodriguez’s son wasn’t trying to play with them or pet them. He was simply reading. Soon, even the most skittish cats seemed to calm down when he came for his visits.
Rodriguez wondered if the cats would benefit from regular visits with other children reading to them. Thus, Book Buddies was born.
Today, homeschooled children, Brownie Troops, autistic children, and other students in grades 1 through 8 participate in the Book Buddies Program. They read to the cats and, yes, play with those that feel comfortable enough to do so.
In Indiana, the Johnson County Animal Shelter teamed up with Webb Elementary School.
Jennifer Bartram, literacy specialist at Webb, worked with shelter director Michael Delp to launch a reading-to-animals program for her second to fourth graders.
“It gives the kids an opportunity to practice reading in front of an audience that’s not going to judge them and then they’re also learning the importance of volunteering and giving back to the community,” she says.
Delp says the reading program brings noticeable benefits to the shelter cats as well. “I’ve seen some animals that are really normally agitated and anxious settle down, lay down in their kennels, and listen to the kids and watch the kids as they read to them.”
I’m all for any program that introduces kids to the idea that reading can be fun and that also helps socialize shelter cats—and dogs—and make them more likely to find their forever homes.
Remember: If you want to add a cat or dog to your family, ADOPT. Please do not go to pet stores or breeders or puppy mills.
The cats and dogs in shelters need homes. They need you.
Don’t let them down.
Although Trouper by Meg Kearney and illustrated with paintings by the incomparable E.B. Lewis is not about a boy who reads to dogs, it is a heartwarming book based on a true rescue story. Animal lovers of all ages will enjoy this book.
Read it to your favorite child, cat, or dog.