Ruthy’s Reading Room builds a culture of acceptance one book at a time

Michelle McDonald as ‘Ruthy’ of Ruthy’s Reading Room. Photo still from YouTube.

Michelle McDonald wants kids to love to read and to recognize themselves in the stories, so she created ‘Ruthy’s Reading Room.’ The weekly YouTube channel shares McDonald’s love of reading and celebrates Black authors from across North America.

The idea for Ruthy’s Reading Room came to McDonald about four years ago when she was at a Kingston Public Library storytime with her daughter. 

McDonald says, “I was really inspired by the facilitator at the library, how she engaged with the kids. Something that really stood out to me was how, even if you didn’t come every week, she remembered all the kids’ names. So I thought that was really important, to create that connection and even more so, engage the kids to pay attention. When she was reading, she made it really fun and I just thought ‘This was such a great way to start the love of books and reading at an early age.’”

McDonald, a Kingston social worker and mother of two, says, “In my work in child protection, I was seeing a lot of kids who probably aren’t being read to on a daily basis as recommended. So, I was also thinking about ideas to allow these kids to experience that love of reading, as well.”

“At the time, my son was able to, on his own essentially, scroll through YouTube videos and choose what he wanted to watch,” she explained, “So, with all those things together, I thought, if I could create a storytime that was fun and educational, kids could choose to watch that, and it would be a perfect place for all kids to be able to have a storytime if they had an internet connection. All this with the hope of these little ones starting early off loving books and reading and thinking it’s fun. And hopefully, that would follow them as they get older, as well.”

Also, “Building a culturally diverse and inclusive community begins with positive representation,” shares McDonald. “When kids from the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) community see themselves portrayed positively in the books they read, they feel more confident. At the same time, it’s important for non-BIPOC children to read stories about their culturally-diverse neighbours as they begin to develop their own values and views about the world around them.”

“By promoting culturally diverse books throughout our community, positive images and portrayals of BIPOC individuals become normalized,” McDonald adds. “This has a huge impact on the way children (and adults) see and treat each other in their daily lives.”

In the tradition of Mr. Rogers and Reading Rainbow, McDonald as her alter ego ‘Ruthy’ interacts with her “little readers” on their level, in a fun and engaging manner, with lots of silly props and a catchy theme song.  “Ruth is my middle name and, as a child, my friends called me Ruthy, so I just went back to that,” she says.

The hooky earworm of an original theme song was created for McDonald by her sister’s partner who is “really into music and composition,” she said, “I just kind of gave him the concept of the sound I wanted, and he was able to create it.”

Ruthy is not just a YouTube sensation, either. her show is broadcast on Amherst Island Radio, 92.1 FM, where she shares new books with audiences across the Lennox and Addington area every Saturday morning. Her features include children’s books primarily written by BIPOC independent authors.  Ruthy’s Reading Room is on every Saturday at 9 a.m., and she says, “We’ve also launched the podcast version on Spotify and Google, along with other podcast locations. That’s a good place where you can get new content and always remember to subscribe!”

She has also partnered with Kingston and KFL&A public libraries for various programming and will be doing guest readings for kids in the coming months.

“As the impact of COVID-19 persists and limits families from attending library events in larger groups, we’re hoping to help maintain a love of reading all summer long,” McDonald says.

This September, Michelle will also collaborate with Lennox and Addington Libraries to provide children’s book reviews in written and video formats; the segment will affectionately be named ‘Ruthy’s Reviews.’ 

“Ruthy” never takes herself too seriously. Photo still from YouTube.

McDonald is always looking for new books by independent authors to share in Ruthy’s Reading Room, as she is “big on collecting.” Many of the authors highlighted on Ruthy’s Reading Room are independent, as it is more practical and also gives independent authors a hand, she says.

“At first I just figured ‘Oh, I’m just gonna read books,’” McDonald says, however, she then connected with Queen’s Legal Clinic who advised her that, though it isn’t likely that an author would refuse her the right to read their story, legally stories can’t be shared online without the author’s permission.

“So,” she explained, “by then I had already been working with independent authors and I just have them sign a release for me to read.”

With more than 500 YouTube subscribers and a thriving online community, Ruthy’s Reading Room has shared more than 90 stories to date, with stacks of book suggestions still to come.

As parents visit local bookstores and public libraries over the summer months ahead, McDonald suggests three fun ways families can integrate more diverse voices into storytime: 

  1. Be intentional when choosing the books you borrow or purchase. For example, make sure at least one (or more) of your book choices was written by a BIPOC author or is written/features characters from a different cultural group than your own.
  2. Involve your little reader in the experience. When choosing and reading books, start a discussion with kids to celebrate differences, highlight similarities, and ask questions that will further their learning. This will help create a culture of acceptance in the child’s mind.
  3. Check out Ruthy’s Reading Room on YouTube and Amherst Island Radio for regular recommendations and fun story readings.

McDonald also suggests local families check out the following five, fun reads for summer (available at your local public library or bookstore):

  • The Rumble Hunters by Courtney B Dunlap
  • Timeless Love by Julie Thompson
  • Maxine’s Hands by Dr. Lynda Jones Mubarak
  • Young Kap by Kingsley Osei
  • My Daddy Doesn’t Need a Cape by Sheryl Smiley-Oliphant

“Books are one of the earliest ways children’s worldviews are shaped,” says McDonald. “By ensuring the children in our community are exposed to a cross-section of cultural representation through storytime, we are reinforcing positive messages about diversity and inclusion that will last a lifetime.”

You can visit Ruthy’s Reading Room yourself by subscribing to it on YouTube, and follow Ruthy’s Reading Room on Facebook and Instagram.

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