FLINT, Michigan — Flint native Kellen Brandon developed a love for reading at an early age, due largely in part to two childhood mentors: his grandmother, who was an avid reader, and Mr. Grant Whitehead, his fourth-grade teacher at Pierce Elementary.
“[My grandmother] would read with me every day when I was like four or five years old,” he said. “So when I finally got into elementary, I was reading two grade levels ahead.”
When he saw an African American man wearing a jogging suit enter his fourth-grade classroom on the first day of school, Brandon thought he must be the janitor.
He had never seen an African American male educator before. That man was his teacher, Mr. Whitehead, who would go on to have quite an impact on Brandon’s life and career.
“That had a huge impact on me, in terms of who I could be, and seeing in myself in different roles, especially in Flint, that weren’t necessarily associated with GM or something like that,” Brandon said.
Whitehead then served as Brandon’s basketball coach for three years before the two lost touch for a time.
In adulthood, that lifelong passion for reading led Brandon to establish Brandon Publishing in 2010, a company dedicated to providing youth and adults with opportunities to publish with full creative control.
Participants and volunteers at 2018's BP Reading Takeover at Freeman Elementary in Flint.
Upon moving back to Flint after living in Texas for two years, Brandon felt compelled to give back to his hometown by creating an event that would help inspire the youth to foster a love of reading.
He placed phone calls to a handful of elementary schools in the city, including Pierce Elementary, but he didn’t get a response. That’s when a friend suggested he reach out to Mr. Grant Whitehead who was now serving as principal of Bryant Elementary.
Brandon headed over to Bryant where he reconnected with his former teacher and coach who remembered him after all those years.
“We talked for about an hour and he was like, ‘Whatever you need, just bring it over here. I’ll support you in every way that you need,’” Brandon recalled.
The pair began planning an event that would create positive memories surrounding reading for third-grade students at Bryant.
The flier for the BP Reading Takeover event.
Third-grade students were prioritized after Brandon read a study that showed that “failed literacy skills at the third-grade level have the potential for urban students to have a pathway to prison,” he explained.
The result of their collaboration was the Brandon Publishing Reading Takeover, the first of which was held at Bryant Elementary in 2010.
The pair then spent eight years hosting the event every March in celebration of National Reading Month, improving upon the experience each time.
This year’s event will be held in honor of Mr. Whitehead who died in 2018. “I just want to honor him and his vision for young African American students, and men and boys especially, like myself, who have had the ability to have some success from those mentor relationships,” said Brandon.
The event will take place Friday, March 24 at Flint’s Freeman Elementary with help from about 60 volunteers and sponsorship from Domino’s Pizza.
Volunteers will begin by spending time getting to know each child and then breaking off into groups to all read the same book.
A copy of the book “KT and the Radical Roundball” by Kellen Brandon and Kelvin Torbert.
Every child will be given a copy of the book to take home with them at the end of the day. This year’s read will be a story authored by Brandon himself entitled “KT and the Radical Roundball.”
After reading together, the groups will return to the gymnasium to discuss the book they read, enjoy a pizza party hosted by Domino’s, have a dance party, and play games before returning to their classrooms.
Thanks to the partnership formed with Domino’s Pizza, the Reading Takeover event will serve as a kickoff for another new program, called Pizza and Pals, which will bring professionals from diverse backgrounds to read to the same group of third graders on a monthly basis.
Pizza will also be provided for each of those sessions to continue building positive memories associated with reading.
It was important to Brandon that each child participating in the Reading Takeover would receive a free book. As a child, he remembers how events like the Scholastic Book Fair were not necessarily a positive experience for every child.
“You're hyped up to come and get this book, and then when you go to ask mom or dad for the money for it, you know, there were a lot of us who couldn't afford to get those things,” he said.
Children who weren’t able to take home a pile of books were now left with a negative memory associated with reading. “And so that was like a real deterrent for reading,” Brandon explained.
Participants and volunteers at 2017's BP Reading Takeover at Freeman Elementary in Flint.
A newer barrier that Brandon believes can prevent children from becoming readers is technology. “How do you get them away from YouTube and TikTok and all of that stuff?” he asked.
Having three daughters of his own, Brandon has seen how challenging it can be to encourage young people to foster excitement surrounding books and reading. “It starts with the parents, understanding the importance of reading, or really implementing that early on from the beginning,” he said.
His two younger daughters, ages 7 and 9, will be there alongside their dad to help out with the Reading Takeover at Freeman next week.
Brandon has visions of expanding the event in the future, with the main goal of turning it into a nationwide event with the help of Domino’s Pizza as a sponsor.
He believes that reading can serve as a key that opens doors for children throughout their lifetime, and wants as many children as possible to develop more positive associations with reading.
“[Reading] gave me the opportunity to dream about things that I never would’ve been able to see at that time in my life. It really made me think about bigger and better things that I could do and accomplish,” Brandon said. “Reading allowed me to dream.”
For more information about Brandon Publishing, visit: brandonpublishing.com