5 Star Story: Adventures with Amir and Zuri

Published: Nov. 14, 2023 at 11:04 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - As the African proverb goes, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and in the case of this week’s 5 Star Story, that village is Memphis and Shelby County.

In that same vein, the County Mayor’s Office of Innovation published a book after soliciting the help of many to provide a prosperous future for our children.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris took a Sunday afternoon at Novel Bookstore to read Adventures with Amir and Zuri: Shelby County A to Z to a group of youngsters as part of the book’s release.

It’s the first children’s book published by his Office of Innovation in collaboration with the County Nonprofit Committee -- comprised roughly of 300 different non-profit organizations.

“And in 2021, two years ago, this group, through their literacy committee...they said, ‘let’s take on student achievement, let’s try help our children learn to read,’” explained Danielle Inez, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Innovation.

Inez added that the group then reached out to the community for ideas and decided on a book that helps kids fall in love with Memphis and Shelby County.

“A lot can be affected in our community if we just remember that we love it. We love Memphis, we love Shelby County. And, if we teach our children why we love it then I believe that when it’s time to make difficult decisions, those decisions aren’t that difficult at all,” Inez expressed.

From A to Z, the book explores the “unique sites, historical figures and special experiences” only available in Shelby County.

“And so they collected, you know, A is for Agricenter, B is for Beale Street,” Inez further described.

There’s even a “J” for jookin’ and it’s all seen through the eyes of Shelby County newcomers Amir and Zuri as the 2nd-grade siblings travel throughout the city and county learning about their new home.

“When we think about the ways we want children to be engaged with literacy. One: we want them to see individuals in the book that looks like them, but when you add spaces that they’ve probably been to, they’ve probably driven by with their parents. It makes it a complete comprehensive tool for literacy engagement,” agreed Literacy Mid-South CEO Sam O’Bryant, who knows literacy rates in the area all too well.

Statistics like one in seven adults cannot read above a 6th grade level, and nearly 75 percent of third graders cannot read at grade level.

“When we think about the shift to third grade and how the rigor is increased, the work level many times is increased. It’s important that we engage second graders as we get to prepare them for the third grade,” he added.

This is also why this children’s book is aimed at 2nd graders, particularly in, but not limited to, Memphis-Shelby County Schools.

“So they are going to support us with distributing the books to about 10,000 2nd graders throughout all of Memphis-Shelby County Schools, and we’re also gonna partner with our other municipal school districts. If a child is in homeschool or an alternative learning school environment, they’ll be able to pick up these books from the library or from their local YMCA by the end of year,” Inez spelled out.

But it’s also not just for 2nd graders.

“There are a few challenge words throughout and so they can get some support from their parent, but we believe that this is a book that can grow with the child,” Inez added. “So, from ages 7 to 12 there’s something they can learn from this book. It’s also awesome for families. And so parents can read it and learn a lot about the community, too.”

Inez also believes that, regardless of your neighborhood or socio-economic status, everyone can relate to Amir and Zuri’s adventures, and most importantly, encourage kids to read even outside school hours, perhaps even be the first book to start their own libraries.

“Like, all the research shows that when a child has 35 or more books in their personal library, the trajectory that they have means that they will finish high school, they’re more likely to apply to college. It just creates this positive long-term sort of benefit,” O’Bryant concurred.

“The ability to read affects every single part of your life,” Inez said. “And so, taking care of children at these young ages and really strengthening both their confidence and their ability to read and their curiosity about reading. To me, that’s life-changing work.”

Adventures with Amir and Zuri brings leaders and nonprofits together to take on the challenge of literacy in our community, and change the lives and future of our children growing up in the village known as Memphis and Shelby County.

There are plans to eventually expand Amir and Zuri’s story so stay tuned for that. For more information about Literacy Mid-South, click here.

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