Reading "The Book Thief" about 10 years ago changed teacher Daphne Russell's life.
Russell found herself captivated by the World War II story of a girl who stole books in Nazi Germany. Her interpretation of the story — books save lives — moved her profoundly.
"Here I was with the opportunity to do that all day everyday and I wasn't," says Russell, who recently retired as a reading specialist at Mansfeld Middle Magnet School. "I cried for half an hour grieving the kids who I didn't reach and didn't help and could have done better for. So I dedicated the rest of my career to changing as many lives as I could with books."
Russell retired from a 29-year career as a teacher last May. Hours later, she published her first book, "Read or Die: A Story of Survival, Hope and How a Life Was Saved One Book at a Time." This year, she founded a nonprofit called Books Save Lives.
That's because her desire to help teenagers begin independent literary journeys didn't stop when she retired. Through her new nonprofit, Russell aspires to give teenagers access to books by training the adults who care about them and providing the books that impact them, either by fundraising for schools or applying for grants.
Prior to the Tucson Festival of Books this year, she managed to book the award-winning children's book and teen author Kwame Alexander to speak at Mansfeld.
"I left that assembly just beaming because I think our kids benefited from it greatly..." says Allison Clark, a seventh grade language arts teacher at Mansfeld. "His books are set up as poetry, so the chapters, he would basically just rap ... Reluctant readers started reading just because they had the opportunity to hear him speak."
As a reading specialist, Russell focused her years in the classroom on exposing students to a variety of titles they could choose from, rather than assigning class reading. Choice is important, she says. Especially because a book that impacts one person might mean nothing to the next.
"There's a common problem where we have expectations that kids should know the canon without honoring what they actually want to read and their vocabulary," Russell says, referring to classics-heavy reading lists.
Although some students elected to take her class, many were assigned to it because of low test scores or other academic concerns. That's where Russell came in, attempting to connect students with diverse titles and engage their interest in reading so that they would continue doing so even when it wasn't required.
"Daphne does a great job of finding, providing and suggesting texts that mirror a lot of our students' lives," Clark says. "Being in a Title I school in a bigger city, not only are our students diverse, but their experiences are vastly different. It's important that we provide all of our students with books that they can relate to in one way or another ... or get a perspective or some insight they might not typically get."
Russell's book chronicles her career in the classroom — with many names changed, of course — and her mission to connect kids with their "most important book."
"'Read or die,' those aren't my words," Russell says. "Those are my kids' words about me, because that's how serious I was."
Kara Trowbridge, who now teaches that class at Mansfeld, first saw Russell in action on a school visit a few years ago. At the time, Trowbridge taught at Lawrence 3-8 School.
"I walked into her class, and all of her kids were sitting there with books in their hands actually reading," Trowbridge says. "It was like walking into the Twilight Zone."
A group of Russell's students later visited Trowbridge's class as book ambassadors. By the end of their presentation, Trowbridge's students snapped up the recommended books that she had recently ordered.
"They were gone," she says. "My kids just ate them up."
Trowbridge lists some of the titles her students have loved: "I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter" by Erika Sánchez, anything by Kwame Alexander, "Long Way Down" by Jason Reynolds and "Tears of a Tiger" by Sharon Draper.
"The kids are mirrored in the books, and it's the first time they've seen themselves in books and been able to relate to the characters, and it's their choice what they want to read and the recommendations are coming from their peers," Trowbridge says.
Angelina Ortega can attest to that.
Now a freshman, Angelina was put into Russell's class as an eighth-grader. She had not enjoyed reading in elementary school and walked into the class adamant that she had no reason to read.
"It was something we were assigned to do. ... But once I got into her class, my opinions on books changed, because they really did change my life," Angelina says.
Russell introduced her to titles with characters she could relate to who offered fresh perspectives.
"When I was reading those books, it showed me who I could be and who I could not be. It showed me — if I do this thing, it's possible I'm going to turn into that, and I don't want to be that," Angelina says. "My grades started going up and I started focusing on my work."
Russell believes that by introducing teens to books in their vocabulary range that they actually want to read, they gain experiences and perspectives that serve them as they navigate life.
"If a kid is constantly reading the beginning of a book, he never sees the resolution, so the only experiences he has are his own." Russell says, adding that reading encourages introspection.
She has seen those new perspectives raise grades, change attitudes and transform apathy into hope.
"These books are ultimately about how you don't have to turn out to be like your parents or you can not follow your friends. ..." Russell says. "If you give a kid a book about overcoming, they're going to overcome."