In The News

Remarkable Woman: Karen Thomson

Her program, Literature for All of Us, helps at-risk teens one book at a time

This article originally appeared in The Chicago Tribune

Among the 15 teenagers in a South Side classroom is a girl who was up late with her baby, a girl who wants to talk about a local shooting and a girl who recently got into a fistfight at school.

Karen Thomson spreads a tablecloth and lights a single candle; book group is about to begin.

 Since only one girl has read the whole book, students take turns reading aloud from the final chapters. One girl flatly refuses to do even that, and the girl who was up late with her baby puts her head down on the table and sleeps. Thomson presses on, asking questions, listening with grave attention, until, after 45 minutes of sporadic engagement, the conversation ignites, with the girls speaking passionately about what they dislike about the day’s book: an insecure heroine, an open-ended final scene, an unconsummated romance.

As the 90-minute session winds down, the girl who initially refused to read aloud volunteers to read an inspirational quote. All girls throw themselves into the day’s writing assignment, a poem about building bridges, and two wipe away tears when they are done.

Thomson, executive director of the award-winning not-for-profit organization Literature for All of Us (, is delighted by the response, but not particularly surprised.

Ever since she began her first book group for at-risk teens and young adults in 1996, she has seen young people respond to literature with passion and purpose.

“By the second week, I knew that was it,” Thomson, 65, says of that first group, composed of teen moms on welfare. “I thought, ‘Oh, man, this is going to be big,’ because it was so perfect. They wanted to do it so much.”

Thomson, a professional book group leader with a master’s degree in teaching English from Northwestern University, has expanded with five full-time facilitators running groups serving more than 500 Chicago-area teens and young adults, including hundreds of Chicago Public Schools students. The poet and mother of four has received awards from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, a White House advisory committee and the Illinois Humanities Council. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Watching you lead a group, I thought of a couple of metaphors: symphony conductor, herder of squirrels. How do you do it?

A: It’s multitasking and paying attention to everything that you can, being aware of everyone. One of my favorite images is of word-weaving, only you’re weaving kind of the whole group together. There was a book written called “(A) Door into Ocean” (by Joan Slonczewski), a science fiction book about a world of purple women who lived underwater, and one of the women, when they sat down in circles, she would listen and get everybody’s opinion, and kind of weave it into a communal (statement): “This is the truth of this group.” Facilitating basically means pulling the strings together, maybe like a net, where every person in that circle is part of it, and you have to be aware where it’s loose and kind of pull the tension in.  

Q: Are there kids you just can’t reach?

A: Every once in a while, there’s somebody who, for one reason or another, just can’t trust anybody. Very few though. Once we did a group at the juvenile detention center, and there were a couple of kids that just couldn’t even sit still. There was so much on their plate. I don’t know that they heard anything.

Q: Have you always been a reader?

A: I read early, and then I couldn’t get my head out of books. We had a bookmobile, and that was my salvation. My parents took us to the library too, but the bookmobile came to our neighborhood. I grew up in rural Akron, Ohio, and there was a bookmobile, and, oh, man, I loved horse stories and everything I could get my hands on. My father always kept a journal and read history and read to us, and my mother wrote poetry about the foster kids that she kept. Although neither of them were teachers, that’s what they both wanted to be.

Q: What did they do?

A: My dad was a tool-and-die maker, and my mom was a homemaker, and then she was a foster mother to 50 babies.

Q: What are your dreams for Literature for All of Us?

A: I would like for it to expand. There are so many kids who could use this program. I think all kids need a good, supportive place like this. But we really would like to serve incarcerated youth more, and kids who are wards of the state. Kids who really need every bit of help they can get. We want to develop connections with mentoring programs, so kids in our program can have other resources to help them keep going in their struggle.

I have dreams of other opportunities for the kids, deepening what they can get out of it, because they’re wonderful. We’re a first-step program that kind of gets them connected to books and poetry, and to their own strengths and trusting people, and then they can go on.