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The Story of Madison Reading Project

This year, MRP is celebrating 10 years of igniting a love for reading. Each month of 2024, our founder and Executive Director - Rowan Childs - will be adding a chapter so you can follow along on our journey. Let's dive in...


Once Upon a Time...

First Steps by Rowan Childs

The spark for our work started in 2013 with the belief that ALL kids should have access to great books they truly want to read. That same year the first Race to Equity report came out highlighting immense racial disparities in Dane County.  With $1000 of seed money, a clear need, and collaborators Will Green and Stephanie Berto, our non-profit went from an idea to a reality, serving 30 kids in our pilot program at Salvation Army on Darbo Drive in Madison.  We filed our non profit paperwork in October 2014, and the rest is history! 


After a successful pilot program turned nonprofit, and figuring out how to scale one program to many there were more than one sleepless night. A fortune cookie landed in my hands and summarized what I was trying to do and what I needed to focus on. When things got complex, I’d glance at the fortune taped to my laptop and remind myself to refocus on what was important. To this day, this quote still rings true. Our work has grown significantly since the early years, and we have built a wonderful community. We are intentional about our work and reach, and believe in our values. Who knew this was all part of the seeds of a great nonprofit that is out to accomplish literacy goals for the youth of this community?

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Chapter Two

First Steps by Dr. Corinda Rainey-Moore

The next chapter in our story is by Dr. Corinda Rainey-Moore. As a founding board member, Corinda has been part of MRP since the beginning. She is now Board President. Here's her story.

After ten years of being involved in our organization, you are now board president. What does that mean to you and do you have any goals you would like to see accomplished during your term? 

I am honored not just to be a board member but to be a Founding Board Member. I am one of two Founding Board members still on the board. What I love most about being on the board is that I get to be an active member that influences the direction and growth of the organization. Madison Reading Project has grown tremendously over the years to meet the community's needs. When I started, we did not have our own space; we used the space the Salvation Army offered us. We now have a Book Center, 15 staff members and two Big Reading Buses.  This is my favorite part because we are reaching children in Madison and all over Dane County. My goal is to get the Madison Reading Project endowment established, to increase the number of students we serve, and ultimately own our own building.


Is there a memory of your beginning days as an MRP volunteer that you'd like to share?

My most memorable moments are working directly with the youth, mentoring them and working with them on reading and other activities. It was also nice to receive handwritten letters from them after our sessions with them.


Why did you want to support the organization? Why is the work important to you? 

I support the Madison Reading Project because I know the importance of reading. My mom never learned how to read, I would often have to read the mail to her. I, like many others, saw the Race to Equity report that showed that African-American black students were not reading at grade level and that they were on the path of school-to-prison pipeline. I knew that we could change this as a community and as an individual. I am also aware that by learning to read, you can change the trajectory of your family. 


What is one of your favorite memories of reading as a child? 

I have always enjoyed reading. As a child, my family didn’t have much money to take vacations; as I’m one of six children raised by a single mom, books could take me anywhere I wanted to go. It allowed me to connect with others across the world. I had pen pals growing up, and we’d write to one another back and forth. We also shared books together! 


Was there anyone influential in your reading journey when you were a kid? 

Two people come to mind. One is my mom; even though my mom couldn’t read, she made sure that her children could. Secondly, I had mentors in school who tutored and worked with me on reading. They even ensured I was able to test above my grade level. 

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Chapter Three

Read Like Mad by John Smalley

Honestly, it is a challenge to recall all the specific details of Madison Reading Project’s “Read Like Mad!” game that the Wisconsin State Journal sponsored back in 2016 when I was editor at the paper. But one thing I will never forget was our staff’s brief engagement with Daniel, the young fellow who won the reading contest that first year.

As part of the prize package, Daniel earned a visit to the State Journal newsroom with a chance to meet some of our journalists and get a tour of the building, including the behemoth printing
press that literally shakes the building when it runs at full speed.

While some might question the quality of that reward – A newspaper tour? Really? – Daniel was not among the skeptics. He was all in that day. What I most remember was his ear-to-ear
grin as we worked our way around the newsroom, treating him like the champion that he was.

Already a voracious reader – again, I do not remember the exact number of books Daniel read in the contest timeframe to win the top prize, but I recall that it was a jaw-dropping total – Daniel also had an interest in cartooning. I think some of the joy he was exuding that day came from hanging out with State Journal cartoonist Phil Hands, who presented Daniel with a signed cartoon.


Partnering with MRP to sponsor the Read Like Mad game was an easy choice for us at the newspaper. For starters, the State Journal is all about promoting literacy and reading, so locking
arms with Executive Director Rowan Childs and the rest of the MRP staff to promote a reading game was, again, a super easy choice.

By that point, MRP had already established itself as a real entity, and a difference-maker in the community. And, boy, little did we know back then how Madison Reading Project would grow and thrive and multiply its impact in almost unimaginable ways in the years to come.


We wrote an editorial in the State Journal in January 2019 that celebrated MRP’s milestone of giving away 30,000 free books in 2018. That was a crazy high number at the time. Last year, this
community gem of an organization gave away 123,897 books
to kids in and around Dane County.


It is an incredible story, and one that has always been based on MRP’s vision for children and partnerships. Rowan and her team have always been able to identify the right partnerships at the right time. Exhibit A on that front would be the Read Like Mad game from eight years ago. By partnering with the State Journal, MRP extended its reach in vast ways.

And the partnerships have only grown since then, including a great combo with the State Journal’s Empty Stocking Club. At the “Toy Depot” event each December, MRP gives away about 10,000 books in two days.

Some part of me likes to think that the first Read Like Mad game way back then was truly a benchmark moment for MRP, a catalyst that helped guide the organization onto a pathway of community engagement and growth that is still paying big dividends today.

But even if that were not the case, that moment in time is still very special to me. It started with a pitch from Rowan about this new game MRP had created, and it ended with smilin’ Daniel’s sweet visit to our office to celebrate reading.


Bravo, MRP, and here’s to the next 10 years!

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Chapter Four

by Katrina Brooks

The next chapter in our story is by Katrina Brooke. Katrina worked with us for 5 years through some incredible milestones including our Big Red Reading Bus, awards, and fun events!

Why did you get involved with Madison Reading Project? 

Growing up, I never had to worry about getting access to books and growing my own little library at home. I wanted other kids to have their own library as well. I knew I could make a difference in a child’s life through the literacy and book-giving programs MRP provided. I’m proud to have been a part of MRP and its impact on our communities.  


What were some of the first projects you worked on?

It wasn’t one of my first projects, however, it was a big project.  I was able to help MRP overhaul its website. Over time, I became responsible for MRP’s communications, event logistics, social media, and website updates.  MRP has hosted several events. I’m thankful to have been a part of almost all of them. Including the ones that launched my first year with MRP Read Like Mad (a community reading game). For three years, I managed the game. Pop-dot designed the gameboard, logo, and fun characters.  


Thankful (annual celebration).  I got to spend the evening with MRP partners, and supporters and I got to announce the grand prize winners of Read Like Mad.


Read(y) to Wear (paper-inspired benefit fashion show).  I was there for MRP’s very first Read(y) to Wear and little did I know it was just the beginning of this show! Every year, the design teams continue to show how creative they are with paper. I’m always amazed.  


Do you have a favorite memory of working with MRP or a particular project or event that you really enjoyed working on? Why?

Oh, I have so many favorite memories! However, at the top of the list will always be the kids and seeing how happy they were to be able to pick the books they wanted. You can see the joy in pictures but to see it in person is such a great feeling.  I remember at one of the book giveaways, a little girl asked me when she should bring the book back.  When I told her she didn’t have to bring it back because it was hers forever, she hugged me and thanked me.


The Read Like Mad game holds a special place in my heart because it was my first project (event). Overall, I enjoyed helping MRP become more visible through its various events, newsletters, social media, and website.


What were some of the milestones and growth points that stood out to you in the 5 years you worked with MRP?


  • Big Red Reading Bus (Beep! Beep!)

  • Book giveaways (30,000th 50,000th, 150,000th, 250,000th )

  • Books for Readers winner (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators [SCBWI])

  • Growth in the Community Book Drive, kids impacted (130,000+), Read(y) to Wear, newsletter subscribers, partners, programs (Books for Educators, My First Pages), and volunteers

  • Outgrowing the office space

  • People’s Choice winner (Wisconsin Innovation Awards) 


What is your favorite children's book?  Why?

I'm going to age myself with this one! I vividly remember reading Mr. Men and Little Miss books by Roger Hargreaves were some of my favorite books. The characters were so cute, and the stories were fun. When I mention these books I tend to get a blank stare, followed by –“What books?”  Someone out there knew about these books, one day there were a few Little Miss books in one of the donation boxes. At the first Read(y) to Wear show, we had a craft table with donated magazines and books which attendees could use to make a paper accessory. I was beyond excited when I saw Mr. Messy and Mr. Tickle. I added Mr. Messy to my paper necklace. 

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