Interview with Justin Stanley, Founder of Uprise Books
Uprise Books, founded by Justin Stanley, is a nonprofit that will provide underprivileged teens access to free, challenging (and challenged—that is, banned) works of literature. What kind of salacious novels end up on such a list of banned books? How about The Lord of the Rings (“satanic”), To Kill a Mockingbird (“trashy”), and Of Mice and Men (“morbid”).
Justin developed and refined the concept for Uprise Books in a graduate-level course on social innovation taught by Impact Entrepreneurs Managing Director Cindy Cooper. Justin aims to raise seed funding for website development through a Kickstarter project that will run through the end of October; make sure to check it out!
Impact Entrepreneurs: How would you describe Uprise Books in a single tweet?
Justin: The Uprise Books Project is dedicated to ending the cycle of poverty w/ literacy, providing underprivileged teens w/ banned/challenged books
How did you arrive at the concept for Uprise Books?
I’ve been interested in banned and challenged books for years, probably from the first time I heard about challenges to Huck Finn years ago. Until I took Cindy Cooper’s social innovation and entrepreneurship course over the summer, though, I’d never really thought about taking any sort of action on that interest. I started a blog on the subject with a few friends several years ago, but I don’t think we had more than a half-dozen posts before we gave up on the whole thing.
The majority of [Cindy’s] class is devoted to a feasibility analysis on some social entrepreneurial concept of the student’s choosing. After a couple of false starts on some other ideas, I started thinking about poverty and literacy and the connections between the two. Honestly, I thought both were a bit too big for me to tackle… got overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems and couldn’t imagine any little thing that might be helpful.
Still, though, the causes hit close to home (have always been a big reader and spent my elementary school years being raised by a single mother… we were no strangers to various welfare programs), so I tried to focus on ideas in those arenas. I’m not sure what triggered it, but I started thinking about banned books again, and about the connections between literacy and poverty.
Would you describe the link you see between poverty and banned books?
I’d start by quoting a study that Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) commissioned a few years back:
Not only do NAEP and NHES data suggest that less affluent children are less likely to demonstrate academic performance at the level of their more affluent peers, but several studies suggest that less affluent children have access to fewer books and other reading materials. Studies by Allington, Guice, Baker, Michaelson, and Li (1995); Neuman and Celano (2001); Di Loreto and Tse (1999); and Smith, Constantino, and Krashen (1996) all have demonstrated that children from poorer families have fewer books in their homes, have fewer books available in the school and classroom library, and live farther from public libraries than do children raised by middle- and upper-income families.
These lines of research, taken together, form the premises of a logical argument (Krashen, 1993, 2004):
- Children from less affluent families do not perform as well on achievement tests compared with children of more affluent families.
- These gaps related to families’ socioeconomic status are present even before children enter school.
- Reading to young children is related to stronger subsequent academic achievement.
- Children in low-income families have access to fewer reading materials than children of middle- and upper-income families.
The conclusion of the argument: One possible remedy to the socioeconomic gaps in academic achievement is to make sure that children of low-income families have access to high-quality, age-appropriate books. Having books can facilitate children’s reading and shared reading between children and their caregivers.
Of course, you’ll see that doesn’t mention banned or challenged books specifically, but I think the fact that we focus on those books will be key to the organization’s success. The kids that we’re talking about, underprivileged teens… they have a lot of reasons not to read. First and foremost is the fact mentioned above: they just don’t have access. But by the time they reach the teen years, it’s a lot more difficult to get them to change the behaviors they learned when they were younger. “I don’t read, I’ve never read, I’m not going to start reading now.” Plus, they have a lot of negative peer pressure working against them. Education, reading, achievement… it’s “nerdy” or “selling out.” Even if you get them the books, how do you convince them to read?
I think that focusing on banned books will help overcome those obstacles. First, you’re playing on the teen’s inherent sense of rebellion. As I mentioned in the Kickstarter text, the sixteen-year-old boy who doesn’t care that the Radcliffe Publishing Course called The Great Gatsby the best novel of the 20th century might be enticed to pick up a book challenged because of its “language and sexual references.” Second, the fact that it’s “forbidden” might help him defend himself against the negative peer pressure. “I’m reading this because THEY don’t want me to” is a pretty good shield.
You have some interesting Kickstarter partners—Doubleday Books, ThinkGeek, and several children’s book artists. How did you convince them to support your project?
Doubleday was a straight cold call (or, rather, email). I wanted to find authors who’d had their books banned and quickly realized that Chuck Palahniuk was among their ranks. Chuck’s a local, so I thought I might be able to make a connection. I found his publicist’s contact information online and asked about getting some of his books to use for the project. They were very encouraging about the project and replied right away with an offer to send over a set of Chuck’s books to give away.
ThinkGeek is just fantastic. As a big fat nerd, I’ve always loved their stuff and I wanted to try to get them involved, if possible. I reached out to them via Twitter and they sent me to the right person. We arranged to set up a coupon code to give to every person who contributed to the cause (like $10 off a $60 order or something) and had worked out just about all the logistics… and then I made the mistake of taking a closer look at the Kickstarter FAQ and found the small print that prohibited the use of coupons as rewards. I sent ThinkGeek a late night mea culpa email and was in the process of writing another to someone else when I got a response from ThinkGeek that said “No time wasted at all, just gotta shift focus. How about we pitch in a Tauntaun Sleeping Bag and an iCade as rewards? They’re not coupons!” Did I mention they were fantastic?
I’m really excited about working with the artists. When I got the idea to try to use Kickstarter, I had a hard time figuring out some appropriate awards to use. I thought that the idea of giving out custom prints might work really well for the project… that people might be excited about picking a piece of art that was specifically created for the campaign. I have no artistic ability whatsoever, but I knew several locals who were extremely talented.
I’d met Dane Ault before and we’ve been Twitter pals for a bit. I knew his work, too, and thought that it would be perfect for this project. He was very excited about the whole thing and jumped on board. Same story with Ryan Pollard. I asked Dane for some recommendations for other people to reach out to and two of his suggestions (Robin Kaplan and hopskotch SunDAY) were happy to help.
What’s your favorite banned book, and why?
Man, that’s a hard call… I have a tough time coming up with lists of favorite anythings, mostly because they change depending on my mood. Take films… I recognize Citizen Kane as the better film, but sometimes you just wanna watch Wrath of Khan.
Can I give you a short list? I’d have a hard time choosing between Lolita, Slaughterhouse-Five, and One Hundred Years of Solitude. You can take the “banned book” qualifier off that, too; those three would be near the top of any shortlist of books for me.
What’s next for Uprise Books if the Kickstarter project is funded?
Design and development of the website. We can’t really get started on that until we know what our budget is going to look like. The $10k goal we set (minus Kickstarter, Amazon, printing, shipping and other fees) should be able to get us a version of the site that can take care of the basic functionality we want, but we do have other things on the “want” list. If we hit 150% of goal, well… the scope of the project expands quite a bit.
At the same time, we’re knocking out all the basic startup stuff. The legal parts and the like. We’ve filed articles of incorporation, sent off the form 1023 applying for status as a tax-exempt public charity, etc., but we still have some other stuff to take care of.
We’re constantly building new relationships, getting the word out, fine-tuning the business model (yes, we’re a nonprofit, but still need a plan). We’ll also need to set up a pilot group of students for the project, but the Kickstarter’s success/failure will play a big part determining what that looks like. If we’re not funded, the Plan B method is a lot different. More manual processes, more of a local scope, etc.
What single thing could someone reading this do to help support Uprise Books?
Does this person wear a monocle and carry around huge sacks of cash? If so, please give them the link to our Kickstarter project.
For everyone else, though, just spread the word. Follow us on Twitter, Like us on Facebook, link to us on your blog. You might not be Daddy Warbucks, but you’d be surprised at how few degrees of separation there are between the lot of us on this planet. We never know if the guy next to us is the one who can fund us completely, or the person who needs our help the most.