School was out for the nearly two dozen students who gathered in a downtown Long Beach classroom on a recent afternoon. But the children listened with rapt attention as Gabriel Robles read the picture book "Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon."
Using different voices for different characters, Robles read the tale of Molly Lou, a short, clumsy girl who starts a new school and -- relying on her grandmother's wisdom -- takes on the playground bully and wins her classmates' friendship. For Raquel Williams, 7, it was one of her favorite parts of the day.
"We get to learn about different people and about their stories," the second-grader said.
The program at Stevenson Elementary School is one of more than a dozen YMCA after-school efforts throughout Long Beach aimed at increasing literacy among 1,000 of the city's poorest students.
But rather than focusing on rote drills or the mechanics of reading, the program's goal is to instill a lifelong love of books.
"We want to create a habit; we want them to become habitual readers," said Bob Cabeza, executive director of the YMCA of Greater Long Beach's downtown community development branch. "We really want them to have a love of reading."
The YMCA of Greater Long Beach received a $19,000 grant this year from the Los Angeles Times Family Fund to use in such literacy efforts. The fund's annual Holiday Campaign supports programs for children and families at a number of nonprofit organizations throughout Southern California.
The money is used for two literacy programs run by the Long Beach YMCA. The first is the after-school reading program, such as the lesson on "Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon."
Robles, the program's site director at Stevenson, who said no one read aloud to him when he was growing up in Fresno, uses exaggerated impressions and carefully articulates each word as he reads.
The little girl has a voice that sounds like "a bullfrog being squeezed by a boa constrictor," Robles reads, his voice growing screechy. But her grandmother, a wise woman, insists, "Sing out clear and strong, and the world will cry tears of joy."
The children are enthralled and cheer Molly Lou's successes -- beating the bully at football and dazzling her classmates by making an elaborate snowflake out of folded paper.
After the reading, Robles and the children discuss the book's themes of standing up for oneself, respecting individuality and tolerance. Then they use safety scissors to emulate Molly Lou's snowflake creation.
As the students line up to leave, Blanca Vasquez hands each a new paperback book, "Hairs/Pelitos" by acclaimed Latina author Sandra Cisneros. The story about a family is written in both English and Spanish and is meant to be read with their siblings or parents.
"You're going to read the book and come back and tell us about it," Vasquez says. "Read it with your little sister. Maybe you could read it with your mom."
This is part of the YMCA's second effort -- family literacy.
"We work with parents and teach them, even if they don't know the language: 'Read in your language, make up stories, talk about the pictures, always have reading materials in the home,' " Vasquez said.
In addition to two-hour parent-child programs at 10 elementary schools, the YMCA tries to provide books for low-income households.
Cabeza noted that with families struggling to pay housing and food costs, there often isn't money left over to buy books. "A lot of the families in the community don't have books in their homes," he said.
Keairra Taylor, 8, said she loved reading new books.
"It helps you to learn, and when you read it makes you a better reader and you can pass your grades," said the second-grader. And, she said, "I like the pictures."
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