Alumni’s nonprofit aims to turn the page on teen reading habits

A teenage girl reading a book outside with trees surrounding her

Teen Readers Society hopes to transform young adults into book lovers

As the world began to shrink for many in March 2020, Michael Norris’ world opened in new ways. After completing his final semester in San Francisco State University’s Executive MBA program that spring, he embarked on a new career path that provided a lifeline in the form of books to teens in all manner of crises — from wildfires to illness to refugees seeking asylum.

Charitable book donations are just part of the mission of the Teen Readers Society (TRS), the Santa Monica-based nonprofit Norris helped found during the pandemic with another Gator. The organization’s goal is to reverse declining reading rates among teens, make books accessible to all communities and spread the joy of reading for pleasure.

Children lining up outside of a classroom at an army base

Children lining up outside of a classroom at the Fort Bliss Army base in New Mexico.

The organization is less than two years old and has already launched several ambitious projects. When wildfires raged through Oregon and Santa Cruz County in fall of 2020, Norris and the organization’s other co-founder and executive director, Judit Langh (MBA, ’05), saw an opportunity to provide teen evacuees with a welcome diversion: books.

“There were all these teen students who lost their homes and their home libraries,” he said. “We wanted to help them to rebuild their home libraries.”

To do that, Norris and Langh approached the publishing company Penguin Random House and received 5,000 young adult books for wildfire evacuees. TRS also linked up with UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco and Oakland to start a book program for adolescent pediatric hospital patients.

But the effort Norris is currently buzzing about is a new book donation program for Afghan refugees residing at Fort Bliss, New Mexico. The program aims to increase English literacy among Afghan youth who fled the Taliban. So far, TRS has provided more than 500 instructional materials and books for young English learners. They partnered with other agencies who will provide instructors and other services.

“English is extremely important. People who don’t have any English comprehension [in the United States] have poor health outcomes,” Norris said. “They are not able to access basic services, and it can lead to some really negative consequences.”

Before TRS was an organization, it was just an idea hatched by Langh, a marketing and communications consultant, who noticed a decline in teen reading. She even saw a dip in her own teenage daughters’ reading habits. As a lifelong reader herself, she found it troubling. Langh’s former marketing professor at San Francisco State, Subodh Bhat, approached her about developing real-world projects for his MBA students. So, in 2019 she approached the Lam Family College of Business with a project proposal — develop a communications plan aimed at getting teens reading.

Norris and a handful of his classmates got to work creating a targeted strategy. They researched reading rates and the communication habits of Gen Z. They pored over national studies, like one by San Diego State University that found that between 1976 and 2016 the number of 12th graders who read for pleasure declined by 30%. The group also interviewed 30 teenagers about reading to understand their attitudes toward it and their habits. The teens gave a variety of reasons for not reading more: dissatisfaction with school reading assignments, more interest in physical activities and distraction by social media.

“Digital platforms are replacing reading, and that was concerning to us,” Norris said. “[Due to the pandemic], a lot of kids are going to be home in front of computers all day, and we wanted to see what we could do about it.”

With those Gen Z habits in mind, the group’s communications plan focused on social media. Norris, who is now the head of marketing for TRS, helped put the plan developed at SF State into action. With the help of a team of social media strategists and creators, they developed clever and engaging posts. One post asks the obligatory Harry Potter-themed question: “What Hogwarts house is yours?” There are also short profiles on authors, Instagram lives with “bookstagram” and “booktok” influencers and much more.

The goal of their social strategy? Meet teens online in hopes of shifting their attention offline and into a good book. In a way, social media and natural disasters are the same — they’re both barriers to reading, Norris says. “Our mission is to bridge the access for books and reading,” he added.

TRS is accepting donations for its book program for Afghan refugees.