Fighting Illiteracy by the Book

Stacy Ratner '94
Photo by Paul Natkin
Stacy Ratner '94

The minute Stacy Ratner ’94 learned that 53 percent of Chicago’s adult population reads at or below a fourth-grade level, she knew she had to do something about it.

“I couldn’t believe it, especially in a first-world city like Chicago,” she says.

The timing for Ratner was perfect. It was early 2006, and after working at a few successful start-up companies, she was looking for a new venture. Entrepreneurial as well as a voracious bookworm, Ratner was a natural for taking on entrenched illiteracy. While she initially assumed adults might be her focus, what she discovered after meeting with literacy groups was a dire need for child- and teen-focused literacy organizations.

In May 2006, only a few months after throwing herself into the project, Ratner launched Open Books Ltd. with the mission of providing literacy enrichment programs to Chicago’s youth. She also planned to open a used bookstore to help fund the operation, but lacked one crucial component — books.

“I thought our biggest challenge would be getting books, but, wow, was I wrong,” says Ratner. “Once we put the word out, Chicagoans came in droves with their used books, and pretty soon we had to rent storage units to accommodate all of them.”

But literacy is not a function of having books alone, so in 2007 Ratner proceeded to launch Open Books Buddies, a program in which volunteers visit classrooms for one-on-one reading mentorship. She also introduced Adventures in Creative Writing Field Trips, where children in grades four through 12 spend time writing stories and sharing them out loud, and created VWrite, a virtual mentoring program for high schoolers.

Meanwhile, Ratner and her team collected books. In November 2009, the organization opened a 5,000-square-foot used bookstore painted in bright colors and complete with couch-filled alcoves for reading. “We have 50,000 books in our inventory, but we have more in waiting,” Ratner says. “Each year, we receive more than 130,000 books.”

Last summer, Open Books began offering ReadThenWrite, an immersive program geared toward adolescents that Ratner is especially excited about. “This one is my favorite. In addition to reading, teenagers are mentored through the writing process and come out writing a full novel,” she beams. “We then hold author book-signing parties for them.”

Last year, Ratner co-founded the Chicago Literacy Alliance, a group of nonprofits working toward the common goal of fighting the city’s literacy crisis. While Open Books already works with more than 40 schools, Ratner says she is always looking for more schools to recruit, and she hopes to expand her reach by signing on additional nonprofits to the alliance.

Ratner says she is “the luckiest person ever” to be able to combine her passions for improving literacy and helping community youth. And she credits Brandeis for steering her toward a life with books.

“I landed a fellowship one summer that really cemented my love of literature,” she says. “I was responsible for indexing documents from the Spanish Civil War that had never before been seen, and I remember finding treasures such as letters to soldiers from loved ones. I spent the summer in the basement of a library and loved every minute of it.

“If I’d never had that fellowship, I would probably be a copywriter somewhere,” she says. “It was the best thing I ever did; it brought me back to my love of reading.”

— Katie Morell