Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is home to some of the nation’s most striking reading disparities between children of color and white children. The 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that black students in the city had an average score that was 50 points lower than that of white students. Hispanic students had an average score that was 35 points lower. The opportunity gap among the groups is so extreme that it will take effort from every corner of the city to give families the necessary support, knowledge, access to books, and high-quality reading instruction and intervention to turn things around.

One of my favorite efforts to address the challenge is Rooted MKE, a BIPOC children’s bookstore owned and operated by Ashley Valentine, a former teacher. Bringing thoughtfully curated children’s literature to the community is a beautiful mission in and of itself, but Rooted MKE is also so much more than a bookstore. It’s part makerspace and academic support center, too—Ashley calls it a “literacy hub for families.” Milwaukee needs this kind of community literacy initiative times one thousand to thrive.

A former teacher, Ashley shared the inspiration behind her impressive venture, plus:

  • Why reading education shouldn’t happen only at school, and how Rooted MKE is taking it to the community.
  • How many times you (and your kids) should read a book, and why.
  • What it is about owning books—in addition to borrowing them—that matters, especially for underserved kids.
  • The surprising ways that picture books can spark valuable and sometimes uncomfortable conversations and reflection among grownups, too.

Watch our conversation below (or scroll down for the transcript) and then let me know your thoughts!

Maya Smart: Hello, I'm so happy to be joined today by Ashley Valentine, the owner of Rooted MKE, a really phenomenal space in Milwaukee, Wisconsin that combines tutoring and programs with book-selling for children. Ashley, welcome.

Ashley Valentine: Hi. Thank you for having me.

Maya Smart: Now, I described Rooted MKE as a combination of bookstore and tutoring and also programs for the community, but how would you describe it? In a nutshell?

Ashley Valentine: I would describe Rooted MKE as a BIPOC-centered literacy hub for families.

Maya Smart: Literacy hub for families. Sounds like my kind of place. Tell us a bit about how you came to create a physical location in Milwaukee.

Ashley Valentine: I think creating the space came out of me nurturing myself and having a desire to do something for my community that offered an alternative option to literacy support and literacy education.

Maya Smart: Why is it important for families to have a literacy hub?

Ashley Valentine: I think it’s important because the idea that kids learn at school is—it misses so many of the other opportunities that kids could have for learning in the community and learning amongst people who are not teachers, but learning amongst family members and friends. If you isolate reading to one setting, then kids start to envision being readers only in that specific space or when it’s set up in similar ways to that. So I think it’s important to highlight that reading is something that happens outside of the classroom. It can happen with your parents, it can happen with strangers, and reading can be an opportunity to have a collective experience with people who you may not see in other opportunities or in other avenues and still be important and still take away lessons that don’t require you to take a test afterwards to prove what you learned, but things that you could apply in your everyday experience.

Maya Smart: I love that idea of giving kids other opportunities to think about reading and literacy outside of school and, because for in all of our lives, reading is kind of interwoven into everything that we do as—most everything we do as adults. And you're right, after a certain point, most of your reading will take place out of school, so you might as well get familiar with it and the joy of it and love of it and other contexts as well. Can you tell us a bit just about your journey to bookstore ownership? I know that in a previous life you were a teacher in a traditional school setting. How did you end up where you are now?

Ashley Valentine: Yes. So I started out in elementary school teaching fourth-grade reading as my first year. And from there I went into teaching middle school and focusing more on students who have special needs. So teaching in a cross-categorical setting where the kids come in for support towards their IEP goals. But most of the support is in an inclusive classroom setting. I absolutely loved teaching and working with youth in that special-education setting where it’s a lot more focused on the kids who need a higher level of support. Although I appreciated the work, I always felt like there was so much more that I wasn’t even uncovering in the time that I spent with students. And I could be advancing on so many more goals or serving the needs of so many more students who had not technically been recognized as students with special needs, but would always ask me could they join in on sessions or reach out to me at other times during the day to get additional support. 

And it was in those moments and through analyzing data and test scores and making decisions about who gets intervention and support, that it felt like almost all the kids needed a higher level of support than what was being offered to them throughout the regular school day. So I spent a lot of time supplementing that support in an afterschool space in what would’ve been my free time inviting kids to sign up for afterschool tutoring. And that was a labor of love for me and a service that I was offering to students completely free of charge. So having kids sign up at least two times a week to get really small groups, so probably three kid or less, or one-on-one academic support in the area of reading, because my specialty and my teaching certification is in reading. And then of course, once you start doing something in the outside of school space, that starts to take on more of your time. 

And the idea that I was spending time with my partner or going to parties, or doing whatever it was I wanted to do in the afterschool space wasn’t happening because I had dedicated all of myself to trying to make more significant gains in the classroom and try to help students to feel more comfortable and confident in their skills and abilities in ways that I knew they were not getting if I wasn’t offering the support. And I started to feel depressed and overwhelmed and anxious and just heavy thinking about the daunting task of trying to reach fourth- or fifth-grade students who are reading at a second-grade level and only getting these very finite moments with me in an afterschool space, knowing that there had to be more that could be offered to them that wasn’t so much of me giving my individual self. 

They needed a structure or some sort of greater level of support that was beyond what I could offer as an individual. And it was in those moments that Rooted MKE was kind of manifested as a dream. If all the stars aligned and I could be doing something different, what would I be doing? And owning the bookstore is what kind of grounded me and gave me peace in moments where I didn’t have clarity about what my future would look like as an educator. So it was a lot of me planning the bookstore in my spare time or on vacations, planning what does an ideal work situation for me look like in a journal. And that’s how Rooted MKE was really born and nurtured through being kind of a space of uplifting and growing for myself when I didn’t have that in the external spaces that I was working in. 

And then as I started to have children, the idea of spending more of my time doing things that truly bought me joy and were of great impact in my community got even louder in my head and bigger in my soul. So I decided after having my daughter that I was going to go all in and try to make these several journals at this point of ideas and plans, a real viable business. And I knew that the need was there because I still had continued tutoring and keeping up with families over the years. And Rooted MKE opened in March of this year.

Maya Smart: Wow. Congratulations on bringing the journals to life, can you talk about how your bookstore on one hand provides wonderful children's literature for kids to enjoy on their own or with their family and then also the tutoring side of the business?

Ashley Valentine: So I think in the development of the plan, I knew that I had to offer some sort of way for all students to have access to the books that are in the store. And I wanted families to know that reading a book or getting your kid a book shouldn’t always just be a one-time experience. It’s okay to revisit books lots of times and have conversations around a book several times, and that those conversations don’t always have to be the same. When you read a book the first time and you read a book the second time, you could take away two completely different messages or two different themes and ideas so that the idea of revisiting a book is just as important as getting a book and reading it together for the first time. So I took all of my knowledge as a classroom teacher knowing that all kids don’t come in with all of the foundational skills needed to be strong readers, and I knew that I needed to support that through the tutoring. 

Ashley Valentine: So we do offer a lot of one-on-one and very small groups. So up to three student focused literacy support where kids are coming in for 55-minute sessions and we are working on the skills that we see they need support in once we do a consultation. So in the consultation session, we’re looking at phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, we’re looking at what letter sounds do they know, what letter sounds do they need support with, what blends or what pieces of the words give them a hard time? And then creating a roadmap for the semester. And we use the roadmap that we’ve developed in the consultation to support the students in meeting those goals and applying them to reading books and answering questions so that when they leave the tutoring session, they’re able to leave with skills that they can use immediately to help them either at home or in the classroom and give them a little bit more confidence about how they feel as a reader on their journey of becoming a better reader. 

Maya Smart: When you were setting out on this journey for yourself, did you ever consider becoming a librarian or was there something about book ownership and curating your own space that appealed to you?

Ashley Valentine: I never thought about being a librarian really, because I knew that meant I was going to have to go back to school again. [Laughs] I was not interested in any more student loans, but I am also a really strong believer that black and brown kids need to own books. You get opportunities to borrow books at school and from the library, and the level of excitement you have when something actually belongs to you as compared to it belonging to someone else, I thought was really, really important. When I think about the experience of black and brown kids in Milwaukee, we know that not many black and brown people own homes. So just owning something as a kid and growing up knowing that something can belong to just you and it was brand new and it didn’t belong to someone before you, and this was intended for you to have in a brand-new state and you invested a little piece of yourself to have it was important to me.

Maya Smart: Oh, I love that idea of ownership and having something that's yours that you've chosen and treasure. Can you talk about how that idea of those books going home to be owned by children of color, how that affect how you curate the books that are available in your store?

Ashley Valentine: I’m very, very intentional and probably too meticulous about curating collections in the store, because I know whatever I choose and whatever’s in the store is going to be showcased for at least two or three months. So it’s like every book needs to be important and every book needs to be able to resonate with a black or brown kid. I think is a place where I can get too caught in the weeds because I want to make sure that I’m really thoughtful and intentional and that the wrong book doesn’t make it on the shelf for two months. 

So it is a lot of me researching and reading what’s coming out, what bodies of work are upcoming, what are classic titles that kids may not have been introduced to, what are some titles that are not brand new but still highlight black and brown characters and spotlight black and brown protagonists. And then what stories are amplifying voices that we don’t hear too often. So kind of putting together this soup of different types of books with different themes and different ideas, hoping that when kids come in, something resonates with them and gets them excited about the books that we have in the store.

Maya Smart: Do you think that most of the people who visit the store recognize the length you've gone through to curate the selection? Is that part of what attracts people to your store in particular, or what do you think brings people in through the door?

Ashley Valentine: I think the idea that all of the books highlight or spotlight a black or brown character brings people into the store. And when, if people don’t know that, they come into the store and it’s very evident. Picture books are beautiful and you’re looking at the illustrations and all of the covers have a brown character on them. So I think people, if you don’t know the store that you’re coming into when you get there, you catch that in the first two or three minutes. So that was definitely my intention. Even if I don’t say anything to someone except hello and welcome to the store and what brings you in today, they can sense what we’re trying to do and what the mission of the store is really quickly through the curation of the titles. And it’s, I think, important that people know that that’s what to expect when you come into the store. 

Weirdly, we have had people come into the store and they’ll get a book and then they’ll get home and bring it back, and say, Hey, I was offended, or This book doesn’t make me feel good about who I am or what I want to teach my kids, and I want to bring the book back and I’m going to write the author and let them know that they hurt my feelings. So in those couple of situations, it’s given me the opportunity to educate the person getting the book like, Hey, although this is a perspective that you may not have seen or you may not have thought of independently, this is who the author is—doing the research. Hey, this author is actually an activist and she’s a professor, and this body of work has been well researched and well studied, even though it’s a kids’ book. And although you want to write a letter to let the author know how you feel, in doing that, how are you supporting the work of amplifying black and brown voices? And then people kind of thinking to themselves, you’re right, maybe I’m not going to write a letter to the author, but can i bring this book back and exchange it for something else. Sure.

Maya Smart: When you've had those conversations with people, and it sounds like it's happened more than once, do they typically still want to exchange the book, they're kind of committed in that, or are they swayed by your explanation of why you stock it and what they might gain from it?

Ashley Valentine: Yeah, that’s happened about five times, five or six times.

Maya Smart: In a year, in a year's time?

Ashley Valentine: Yeah. Some of the time someone’s like, Hey, I didn’t see it that way, or I didn’t have all this information when I made my decision, because anytime someone does that, the first time I was really offended, I’m just going to let her bring the book back and it’s her loss. And then as I processed it more, it was like, Hey, this is a part of the work, so this is a perfect opportunity to find a research-based article that talks about what the themes are in the book and send that to her and send her an article about who the author is and all the work that she’s doing so that she has all the information to make a well-informed, non-biased, all-factual decision about if she wants this book in her classroom and in her home. And if she doesn’t, offer her the opportunity to get something else.

She still brought the book back, but—it’s hard to tell a tone in an email—but her demeanor when she came in the store was still super light, super excited. She asked way more questions about what she was getting before she bought the book the second time around. But I think she appreciated having the information to make a full-circle decision about if this was a book that was going to be in her classroom or not. And unfortunately, she didn’t choose it. I wish she would’ve, but that choice is not up to me. I can just give you the information and you do with it what you want.

Maya Smart: And as an educator, are you excited about that part of the work? You got into it, thinking about children of color and teaching them to read and curating books that would affirm them and inspire them, etc. But is educating white people about those same things part of the work that you're jazzed about?

Ashley Valentine: I think it is part of the work. Am I excited about it? I’m a little nervous and I’m a little scared, but it’s children’s books, so that gives me a nice resting place. Children’s books are typically non-intimidating, convey messages in a very light, understandable way, and it’s typically centered around love, or they come back to a place of unity. And I think that helps me to be able to share a message in a way that’s not like, Hey, white people get it together tomorrow. And people feel like I can receive this message and share it with my kid. And it’s okay.

Maya Smart: In terms of parents, it sounds like that may have been an educator that came in and returned the book. Yes. With parents. Have you had those sorts of conversations or questions about how best to present the book for the kids?

Ashley Valentine: I have had questions from parents. So a lot, really, a lot of the questions about how to present the book are white parents with mixed-race children. Either they’re adopted or foster children, or they’re their own children concerned about how to share messages of race and skin color, and the idea that we don’t see race and everyone should be treated the same. So trying to reteach that to their kids and looking for support or looking for advice on what books can help with that messaging, or if we offer any programming around reading that type of book and having that conversation. 

I appreciate parents coming in and being vulnerable and sharing that and looking for resources and tools and even a safe space to have those types of conversations. And then there are some parents who come in and they ask for the tool and then they take it home and someone else doesn’t appreciate the message and wants to know why they chose that book and why they brought that book home, or why they chose it as a birthday gift. 

Was it appropriate to choose this book at this time? So them coming back and then having a follow-up conversation like, Hey, we went with this book, it ruffled a little feathers. Is there another book that we could use to help start to have a conversation with a larger family about what it means to be inclusive or to respect people’s identity or whatever the conversation is? So it kind of just opens the door to more conversations of, okay, we’ve tried to shine a light on this. How do we continue this conversation? Or how do we support a conversation that’s pivoted and gone this way?

Maya Smart: You mentioned that sometimes people are asking for programming to support them in teaching some of these things. Can you describe the programs you do?

Ashley Valentine: Yes. Really, the programming that we offer that supports in that way is our family gathering series. So one Sunday a month families come together and we read a book together, answer some of those literal and inferential questions around the book, and then we open the floor for a conversation about themes or ideas that came up in the book. And we may start with some questions, otherwise people already have questions or they say things that they noticed in the book. So we just hold space for families to engage in those conversations in a safe way. 

And then we do a hands-on art activity or a big family game where everyone is playing, whether they’re from your household or not. We’re playing a game all together to kind of bring us back to a high place where everyone’s in a good mood and having a good time. And then we share a dinner catered by a local restaurant or a black or brown owned caterer or entrepreneur. And then in those times, families are following up on conversations or thoughts that came up in conversation. They’re sharing phone numbers, scheduling play dates, scheduling dates to come to the next event. So it’s really a time where people can get to know other people and build community around literacy, and then the families return, invite other families. So every month it gets bigger and bigger.

Maya Smart: And what are some of the other programs? I believe you did a summer book club program for kids as well?

Ashley Valentine: Yes. So this summer we had kids come in for reading support, which was in the form of reading—It was for third- through fifth-graders, that program specifically. So reading a book, doing a lot of annotating, so highlighting what are some main ideas, what are some supporting details, what are some claims? Who are the different characters? What are their attitudes, what are their motivations? So a lot of those comprehension skills that kids kind of struggle with if they’re still learning how to read, and then offering support around that with other students who participated as well. And the facilitators.

Maya Smart: Thanks so much, Ashley.

Ashley Valentine: Thank you.

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