Barron Prize Winner Emily Conrad Reaches Young Readers Everywhere

Written by Kristin Larmore, Relate Intern

emily conrad

“I find this a very important time because it’s kind of a crisis point. Kids during this point in time- they start making choices that will affect the rest of their lives. To be able to offer them a place where they can identify themselves as a community leader is a wonderful opportunity. It’s been amazing to see these kids grow.” -Emily Conrad on NTRBC

Relaters: Meet Emily Conrad from South Carolina, one of the Barron Prize winners this year and founder of the Need to Read Book Club (NTRBC).

After five years of hard work with over $17,000 raised for books, it’s surely paying off. But it must come as no surprise to those who know her. This enthusiastic, young seventeen-year-old had a dream, just a simple idea, and ran with it.

So what exactly is the Need to Read Book Club?

“Need to Read Book Club is a non-profit organization that encourages reading and community service among middle school kids while getting books into the hands of at-risk children,” Emily explains.

Not only does Emily’s organization help kids learn about engaging and educational topics, but it improves reading levels. Club members are required to read a book for each monthly meeting,where they discuss content, themes and deeper meanings. Her program provides facilitators in charge of each chapter with resources like games, dramatizations, crafts, guest speakers, media ideas and snacks that all pertain to the book the children read.  But there’s more.

Through the Reading for Others component of her program, sponsors donate money for every 100 pages read in a club chapter, money that goes to needy children. The first chapter alone read a whopping 24,000 pages.

It became a service organization in 2004 and just two short years later, other organizations and schools requested club chapters. Many more charter models have been developed, and this year, it is condensed and able to be duplicated– web-based, actually. The charter school district is implementing it in five of its schools this year in her area.

RelateMag: What inspired you to start NTRBC, aside from a personal interest in reading?

Emily: I started the Need to Read Book club when I got into seventh grade in 2004. My school developed the reading incentive program, [which] ended after the sixth grade. And I knew I would [be encouraged] to read if I had an incentive, so I decided I would start my own. And what it included was that it was a club for me and my friends and we would get together monthly and read books and discuss them and always have wonderful snacks. It was a wonderful time. But by January of that year, I had decided that we really could step it up a notch. I got in contact with the director of a local soup kitchen who so eloquently described the need for children’s books for the children who received meals there. And it immediately touched me, and so I wanted my club to go out and raise money to buy new books. It was a wonderful success. Since then, more organizations and schools have wanted the program [to encourage] their middle school kids to read. Although the initial inspiration was for me and wanting to make a difference in the community, my inspiration now is being able to see other young people get inspired by this program.

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Emily helping kids pick out books at Reading for Others Service Project book distribution at a soup kitchen

RelateMag: Where did you find the sponsors to do this? Where were you able to find a steady stream of people who were able to support you?

Emily: We went to our family, our friends and during this period we documented all the pages we read, extracurricular of course, and we found sponsors. The money will not only encourage someone to read, but it will also get [books] in the hands of at-risk children. Being able to encourage two things at once. It’s kind of a similar concept of a walkathon.

RelateMag: Have you done any sort of advertising for this or is it more internal?

Emily: We do a lot of web advertising through Google. This year, we’re starting to go to some teacher conferences and starting to show the program that way, as well.

RelateMag: What type of help have you received through the process, especially with the Reading for Others component? Did you do a lot of this on your own?

Emily: Reading for Others takes place in every club chapter. Need to Read Book Club has two major components. One is monthly meetings and the second is the Reading for Others service project. That happens in every club. Personally, as I’ve gone out to raise money, it’s been basically me right now filling out grant applications and going to potential sponsors, going to community relations places, the businesses. It’s hard work, but it’s definitely worth it.

RelateMag: Is there a particular topic you focus on with your books?

Emily: Every single year, the Need to Read book club focuses on a different theme. This is for the club chapter’s purposes. We have monthly meetings, and kids from a part of the book club actually receive six books for their very own to keep. This is a very important thing because we feel a lot of the kids that are attracted to the book club are not necessarily your top readers. We’ve had kids from all socio-economic situations being drawn toward the book club in middle school because they know that through the book club, they can make a difference in the community. One thing we find is they may not have access to a lot of different books, so we provide the books ourselves. [As far as theme], one is community connections. [For this one], every single book discussion and all the activities are about the community. Within that, we offer many different genres. We try to incorporate a classic into a book club meeting each year, mysteries, historical fiction, etc. We’re really trying to make kids look at the world around them. A personal big thing for me is to have them join the Historical and International discussion of the Human Condition so that they can start to associate themselves with someone who can make a difference in the community and through ideas. So when a service project comes around, they are so involved. By the time they actually get the books to the kids, they’ve read classics, biographies, historical fiction. So they go and actually buy the books themselves and distribute them to the charity of their choice. They are so personally connected that they are determined.

RelateMag: Could you give us some more details about the activities of the chapters?

Whenever I first started this, my club chapter gave books to a Boys and Girls’ club. And they were so encouraged by this distribution that they wanted a Need to Read club chapter. So I had a book club with them. And they were so excited and raised over a $1,000. This is a club that is normally recipients of this service. So they bought new books for a children’s shelter, a girl’s home. The girl’s home was so inspired that they went and bought books to give to another girl’s home. And the [second home] was so inspired by the whole reading chain that they had an interest a club chapter, as well. Before, they would have only considered one girl a reader and now they consider just about all of them readers. Often, the book club members go withthe book recipients and they just read to them at the book distribution. [On our website,] you can see a lot of pictures and the interaction between the book recipients and the book club member. The book recipient can tell that they worked hard for this and the member is so happy to be able to give this.

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Mabry Middle School book club member at Spartanburg Soup Kitchen reading to child at book club distribution

RelateMag: So some kids are actually learning how to read?

Emily: The book choices I offer are around a similar genre or theme, but are of different reading levels. If there’s a WWII book, there might be an easier book on WWII that takes place in, let’s just say, Japan. And there might be a harder book on it that takes place in Germany. But yet, you can still talk about your book and what you’ve learned. Different level; same topic. It’s very open. You have kids of lower reading levels and higher reading levels coming together and discussing these big-picture ideas.

RelateMag: What do you think has really driven the growth of your organization as a whole?

Emily: The most exciting thing for me as a whole is the enthusiasm of the kids involved. It’s one thing for me to say this is a great program, but I have pages and pages of quotations of kids, book club members, who say without the book club they wouldn’t be the same person they are today. It taught them about service, about history, lots of different things. All their enthusiasm and their support has been catalysts for growth. It inspires me because if I know these kids were so deeply affected, then this should be a national organization. I believe all kids need to read and they need to serve.

RelateMag: What does reading mean to you?

Emily: I can say my favorite place in my whole town to shop is the used book store. I can get soft backs for 50 cents and hard backs for $1.00. I go there all the time and get books on different subjects. Reading to me is very important becaseu it can teach you about so many different things. I read many different genres, and I try to incorporate that in my club. It opens doors to a bright future.

RelateMag: Are there any new locations you’re sending these books?

Emily: One thing about us is we allow the kids to seek out a need in their community. While we have suggestions, it’s really what the kids see in their community and being able to fill that need with books. Some needs in this area are the kids that eat at the local soup kitchen, kids at the Boys and Girls Club, kids at children’s shelters and other non-profits around this area [in South Carolina].

Visit for more information about the growth of Emily’s organization. Get updates on new projects or even get involved yourself!

Here’s what members of NTRBC are saying about it:

“I have been a member of NTRBC since I was in 7th grade.  I joined because I absolutely love reading and all my friends were joining.  It has truly been an eye-opening experience.  I’ve seen what it is like to have absolutely nothing when we gave books to the children who were at the Soup Kitchen.  Just the look in their eyes when you hand them a book rewards you for all the work you did.  Their expressions made my day and I wouldn’t change that experience for the world.  The NTRBC is an amazing experience. ”

-Casey Brower, member of NTRBC 2007-2009 at Mabry Middle


“When I joined the NTRBC last year, I really didn’t enjoy reading.  Mrs. Pressleywas keeping me after school to make up some work, and the book club was in progress.  I found out that the NTRBC gaveus FREE books each month and we weren’t the only ones reading the books…other members got to choose from the same list and were choosing the same books that I did, so that meant we got to set and talk about what we were reading.  I could discuss with them the parts that I didn’t understand.”

-Kyle Marlow, member of NTRBC in 2007-2009 at Mabry Middle


Last year at Mabry and the year before at Holly Springs Elementary, I was a member of the Need to Read Book Club.  Participating in it for two years made me think a lot about my life and how fortunate I really am. 

It never occurred to me that in our small community, there are so many people who are suffering; they are homeless, don’t have the means to get regular meals, or are on the run from abuse.  With them are the innocent children who just don’t understand all the harshness they must face.  Call it innocence on my part, but I just didn’t think that these situations took place anywhere except for big cities.  I had not thought much about others until I became part of their lives through the Need to Read Book Club.

The book club has affected me in so many ways.  It taught me to be more compassionate and understanding towards others and to not take things for granted.  If I had not joined the book club, I don’t think I would be the same person that I am today.”

-Mary Farmer, member of NTRBC 2006-2007 Holly Springs-Motlow Elementary, 2007-2008 Mabry Middle