Talia Bailes, Founder of Ballet and Books, Takes Her Nonprofit to the Next Level
When we first met Talia Bailes in 2020, she was a Cornell University college student and lifelong dancer balancing school with running the literacy nonprofit she founded, Ballet and Books. The program, which combines movement with reading to promote literacy in children ages 3 to 9, was starting to expand outside of Ithaca, New York when the coronavirus shut down in-person dance.
Instead of being slowed down by the pandemic, Bailes has been determined to grow her organization and adapt to meet the needs of the children it serves. Now, in addition to rapidly expanding its reach nationally, Ballet and Books has just released a new children’s book designed to bring a taste of its curriculum into homes.
Bailes’ nonprofit works through a system of chapters, working with local university students as teaching artists and partnering with nearby libraries, schools and community centers to host programming. The organization trains dancer volunteers to provide one-on-one mentorship to children who are most at risk of falling behind in their enthusiasm and ability to read. Before the pandemic, Ballet and Books had three chapters. Today there are nine across multiple states—at least 100 college students work with more than 100 children every semester—with four more planned to open by spring of 2023.
“During COVID we realized that our kids were going to be among those most impacted,” says Bailes, especially with regards to school closures. “It was so unfair that some children were able to get tutoring online, or were learning in pods, but our kids were not having those opportunities. We really wanted to make sure that they had access to what they need, which is what led to the creation of all these new chapters.”
Bailes also wanted them to have access to literacy materials at home. But, she says, “I was frustrated because I couldn’t find a lot of books that try to get the kids dancing and moving, or that had characters that looked like them. So, I was like, ‘Why don’t we just write one?’” Bailes authored When We Read: A Movement Book (available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble), which was released in July of this year. The illustrations by Julia Schultz integrate diversity, including children of different abilities, backgrounds and ethnicities.
When We Read is refreshingly simple. Young readers are encouraged to dance while they read or are read to—for instance, wriggling like a worm, using an imaginary ribbon to draw letters in the air, or stamping out syllables to words. “It kind of brings our curriculum directly into the book for the kids who don’t have our program near them or who want to learn what Ballet and Books will be like,” says Bailes.
Bailes wants all children to feel safe and included in dance. “That’s really what Ballet and Books is about,” she says. “We integrate literacy and dance, but also how do you create a space of belonging for everybody no matter who you are, or what your background is?” As she started medical school this past July, all while managing her growing organization, Bailes’ ambition shows no signs of slowing. “Ideally in the coolest world, every child in every community would have access to free dance and literacy programming.”