You don’t have to figure everything out yourself. I spent so much time trying to do everything on my own because I had an unexamined belief that I couldn’t really count on anyone else. Not only was that ultimately inaccurate (and kind of arrogant) but it was also bad modeling for my kids. We are not alone, and there are others who can make a powerful contribution to us, and to whatever we are doing. This has been a great, if late, life lesson for me.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bonnie Wallace.
Bonnie J. Wallace’s work is guided by her efforts to live in that sweet spot where the needs of the world meet her passions and gifts. This desire has driven her to write three books, produce a podcast, create online courses for parents, and launch an educational business leveraging technology for offline learning.
Bonnie’s newest creative venture is We Can Books, which allows you to turn life’s best moments into an easy to produce, highly personalized, phonics reading book for children. We Can Books is a series of three books combining the latest thinking in Phonics education, offline learning, and family bonding. Your child will be firmly on the path to independent reading when they complete the series.
Phonics has long been recognized as the best way to help a child decode new words by sound, rather than recognizing whole new words. The power of association, particularly for children, has always been a vital tool for learning. We Can Books uniquely combines these two powerful educational insights, using photos uploaded from your phone.
The app launches October 15th on both Apple and Android platforms.
Mother of Emmy Award winning actress and Columbia recording artist Dove Cameron, and top Hollywood singing coach Claire Hosterman, Bonnie lives and works with her husband Simon in Los Angeles. A past non-profit theatre board member for 12 years, Bonnie is a Bainbridge Island native and holds a Masters in Sustainable Business.
Personal: We Can Books:
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It may have begun when I was in preschool-! I was lucky to learn how to read early and well, because my dad sat down almost every night and read to me, and then taught me to read when I was four, using phonics. By the time I was in school, reading was fun, and easy. It made school itself fun and easy and gave me a strong sense of “I’m smart, and I can do this.” That solid sense of self-esteem is critical for a child. It helps them not give up when things do inevitably get challenging. It helps them feel the confidence to try things that others might not even attempt. My entire life — and the lives of my children — have been impacted by this ease with the written word, and the belief in ourselves that has given us.
Years later, when my first daughter Claire was approaching the time when she would learn how to read, my dad began thinking about how he might make something special for her. He came up with the idea of combining phonics with the power of association.
His great idea — a familiar image with a simple key word — unlocked all the related words on the page, and helped Claire make sense of the letters and sounds and meanings. And so… We Can Books was born.
The first book was called Claire Can and used photos he borrowed from our family photo albums, photo copied and pasted with simple phonics word sets onto pages in a 3-ring binder. It was a massive labor of love. That book covered two and three letter words with short vowel sounds, and on every page, one of the words connected with an image from Claire’s world. For example, on the cat/mat/sat/fat/bat/mat page, there was a photo of little Claire with our family cat.
He went on to make Claire Can 2 and Claire Can 3, moving progressively into long vowels, vowel combinations, double vowels, consonant blends, and so on. When my second daughter Chloe was ready to learn how to read, he did the same for her, making a series of Chloe Can books.
A couple of years ago I was sharing these beautiful family heirlooms with my husband Simon and the story of how my girls learned to read with them, wondering if there was any way we could share this special innovation my father had created. Simon pointed out that in the 30 years since the first Claire Can book was created, smart phones, apps, and print-on-demand had come into being, and we might be able to create an app where parents could upload photos from their phones and then get a full color, hardcover, personalized phonics book delivered to them.
It’s been almost two years of work since that conversation, and I am so excited to make We Can Books available to parents (and grandparents!) of prereaders. I’ve had an interesting career path that I have loved — from designing jewelry in India, to writing books and hosting a podcast and consulting with parents of young actors — and this is the thing I wake up in the morning excited about. I feel like I’ve finally found my life’s work.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began We Can Books?
We’re just launching now, so the stories are just beginning of course. But it seems like almost everyone has a story about how they learned to read and how that has impacted their life. Reading is taught in a very inconsistent way in this country. A lot of people have been taught with the “whole word’ approach, which basically means you have to memorize what a word looks like. This can be fine when you are in the first few years of school and the words are simple, but once you begin to encounter words you’ve never seen or heard before, it falls apart. You have no tools to decode them. You don’t know how to break them down, or pronounce them, which makes it hard to decipher their meaning. This is the moment a lot of kids suddenly start having real trouble in school and falling behind.
We hired a young filmmaker to create a short video for the website, featuring a chat between me and my Dad about the origin of We Can Books. After spending the day with us, she became very emotional, and said that her entire school experience would have been different if she’d had something like this. She’s extremely intelligent and a gifted artist, but she struggles with reading. I’ve known this young woman since she was born, and she went to good schools. It broke my heart. But it also reinforces the social impact of what we’re doing.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Even though this project has literally taken twice as long and cost twice as much as I expected to get off the ground, I’ve been lucky that there haven’t been too many mistakes, per se. I think that’s because I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have gathered a brilliant team to build We Can Books, including our incredible app developer, our brand designers, printing partner, and of course my amazing husband Simon who’s a partner and investor as well as my confidant in all things.
One rather funny mistake is that we spent a lot of resources creating a feature where you can drag and drop the relevant word onto the image on each page, and the first person who tested the app completely missed the feature — and still thought it was wonderful! So, then we went back in and made a little animation at the front of the app experience to SHOW people the drag and drop function, because — of course — people don’t really read the directions, do they?
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Our impact is twofold. First, every child who learns to read with their own We Can Books will have a great head start in school, and in life. There’s no way to measure the impact of that. But the statistics of what happens to children who don’t read well are grim. Kids who aren’t reading at grade level by the 4th grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Nearly half all people at the lowest level of literacy live in poverty. And seventy percent of people in prison read at below 4th grade level. This means a child’s learning to read well matters not only to that child and their family but to society.
Of course, we understand that we can’t reach every family with a pre-reader, and not every family can afford to purchase one-of-a-kind phonics books for their kids. So in addition to our primary mission of directly helping children learn to read well, we donate 10% of our profits annually to several nonprofit organizations that support the gift of reading for as many young people as possible, particularly children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Since we’re just launching now, I’ll have to get back to you this time next year with some stories. But I can say that both of my rather amazingly successful daughters learned how to read with the original cut-and-paste We Can Books, and there is no question that their ease with the written word has been central to their success. My youngest, Chloe, is better known as Dove Cameron and is an award-winning actor and musical artist. My oldest, Claire Hosterman, is one of the top vocal coaches in Los Angeles. They may be outliers, but there is no question that their lives would be quite different without learning to read early and well, and they did it using the We Can Books approach.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Yes! First, we need to stop politicizing how we teach children to read in school. There is effectively a war going on between the “whole language” approach and the phonics approach. It’s complicated by the fact that millions of dollars are at stake over which curriculum materials are purchased by school districts, and what teachers have been taught to teach. But phonics has been shown over and over to be the most effective, and we are failing our kids by ignoring the science. The problem with “whole language” is that it provides no tools to break down unfamiliar words. It works pretty well in the first few years of school when kids can guess at a word based on context. But once they hit fourth grade or so that approach falls apart as the young reader has no idea how to pronounce or spell unfamiliar words. The problem is that while speech is natural to humans, reading is not. Children can’t just magically learn how to read by simple exposure to lots of books. They need to be taught.
Second, kids need exposure to books in the home. Real books, not eBooks. Multiple studies show that more than an hour or two a day of screen time is correlated with lower levels of development in the brain’s white matter — an area key to the development of language, literacy, and cognitive skills. Other studies find that comprehension and learning is better on paper rather than screens — for all ages.
It doesn’t have to cost a fortune. I’m a big fan of public libraries. Make a ritual of going to the library every Saturday or once a month. As a community, we need to make sure that those libraries stay open, are well funded, and available to everyone.
Finally, as parents, we need to be better role models. If our kids see us looking at screens all day, why would they want to do any different? Given what we know about kids and screens, it’s worth setting limits on screen time and spending more time with paper-based reading. It’s a lovely thing to sit and read with your child. Also, don’t be afraid to use big words with kids, don’t dumb down your vocabulary for them. Part of reading successfully includes having a big enough vocabulary that you might know the meaning of a word you’ve never encountered in print before. Exposure to a rich vocabulary is an important part of literacy.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I’ve tried to lead by example with my kids, and when I’ve been in positions where people are looking to me for guidance. To me that means to live with integrity, and to be a stand for what’s possible. To be my word. To be a stand for the greatness in each person, and if someone falls short, to slow down and get curious rather than making a quick judgment. I think a lot of mischief and drama happens when we make assumptions. We’re all operating with incomplete information, all the time, and then making up stories about the world and the way it is based on those stories. I think that leadership makes room to understand that and have some empathy for the way we humans operate. And then to look for ways to frame a shared narrative.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You don’t have to figure everything out yourself. I spent so much time trying to do everything on my own because I had an unexamined belief that I couldn’t really count on anyone else. Not only was that ultimately inaccurate (and kind of arrogant) but it was also bad modeling for my kids. We are not alone, and there are others who can make a powerful contribution to us, and to whatever we are doing. This has been a great, if late, life lesson for me.
- You don’t have to be 100% ready before you start. Maybe because I’m a reader, I’ve tended to want to do endless research about how to do something before starting. Of course, the problem with that is you still might never feel ready, and you might never make a move! I’ve come to appreciate doing a baseline of research, and then letting myself iterate. It can be stressful, but not as stressful as never getting started on a passion project.
- It’s OK to ask the universe for everything you want. Only in the last few years did I come to realize that at a deep core level I didn’t really believe I could have everything I wanted. My life was full of good fortune in so many ways that asking for what was missing — a wonderful relationship, for example — felt ungrateful. I became conscious that I was playing small in that area. Once I saw that clearly, I realized how ridiculous it was, and I made a clear request, in writing. And more or less immediately my life was transformed. I wish my younger self could know how much love and happiness was coming my way.
- Most of what feels important in the moment you won’t even remember a year from now. I don’t want to think about how much of my life I’ve spent stressed about something that was ultimately of minor importance, if any. Some things are critical of course, but a lot of what feels urgent or important is ultimately just noise distracting you from the one important thing. Focus on the one important thing each day, and let everything else find a place around that, or just fall away.
- Every one of the best things in my life will come from taking a risk. From deciding to have my two daughters, to throwing everything I owned into a truck and moving to LA with Dove, to reaching out online to the man who would eventually become my husband Simon, these risks have delivered what is most precious to me. There are many more examples, but it’s consistently true. If I’d understood this earlier, I think that would have been helpful.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Obviously, I’m focused on early literacy right now, so if I could inspire a movement to make sure every child — all over the world — had what they needed to learn how to read competently by the equivalent of fourth grade, I believe that would be transformational. I’m always impressed at what people can accomplish when they really commit to something. If we could create a movement of people who were genuinely committed to this result, we’d change the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it… this will miraculously transform your whole life.” — Eckhart Tolle
There are many variations on this quote, but for me, the notion that it’s necessary to be present to what is, to not resist what-is-so, is foundational to the way I try to lead my life. Until you can look clearly at a given situation, you have no chance at engaging with it successfully. People spend a lot of energy resisting reality, and it’s futile. This doesn’t mean we have to approve of the way things are… in fact, it’s especially important if we want to create meaningful change, that we acknowledge whatever is so to work most effectively with it.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’d love to sit down with Dolly Parton. Her Dollywood Foundation, and Imagination Library, have been extraordinarily impactful in the cause of literacy. Her mission is to inspire kids to love to read, and the Imagination Library currently gives a book a month to over one million children globally. And her work has gone far beyond literacy. She makes the world better in other amazing ways, for example as an early funder of the vaccine research program that helped us tackle Covid. I would love to sit down over a little meal and discover what has been her life’s inspiration.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Check out our website, and follow us on social media:
Bonnie’s Instagram: @bonniejwallace
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you! I appreciate your work.
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Bonnie Wallace Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.