Published January 3, 2018
For Melanie Bunch, the heartbreaking tragedy that took place in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, brought the death of her beloved cousin.
The loss of Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, who worked to instill a love of reading in young schoolchildren, now drives Bunch’s commitment to raising awareness of illiteracy in the United States.
A senior corporate and foundation relations officer in the UB Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations, Bunch will tell you her efforts toward building a movement to address a national problem she sees as widespread can be traced to deep admiration for her late cousin, who served as principal of Sandy Hook and also was dedicated to literacy.
Bunch says Hochsprung inspired students at Sandy Hook with her passion to instill in them a love for reading from an early age.
“I visited her at the school once in 2011 and saw how the kids reacted to her, walking down the hall, they would enthusiastically shout out, ‘Hi Mrs. Hochsprung!’ They absolutely adored her,” Bunch says. “She went above and beyond to make sure that her students had the best possible experience in school.
“Dawn created a character — the Sandy Hook book fairy — outfitted with string lights that twinkled and sparkled. She would make rounds visiting classroom to classroom with her wand, granting children extra reading time,” she says.
When Bunch had the opportunity to meet two of Dawn’s students after her death, she asked them about their favorite memory of Mrs. Hochsprung.
“Their eyes lit up and they were so excited to tell me about her being the book fairy. She truly had made an impact in getting them excited about reading,” Bunch says.
“It was a ‘Wow!’ experience for me.”
Another moment that has stayed with Bunch was when she first heard that an estimated 93 million individuals in the United States are unable to read.
“It wasn’t until 2015, when I had left UB for period of time. I was in Alabama, driving from the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, to Mississippi State in Starkville, working for a fundraising firm that focused on higher education institutions,” she recalls.
“I was listening to the radio, and the host began talking about the high illiteracy level in the U.S., stating: ‘There are 93 million individuals in this country who are illiterate or functionally illiterate.’
“I remember thinking, wow, that is close to a third of the population. And I said to myself, ‘My God, everybody needs a book fairy. This country needs a book fairy.’”
Bunch began looking into the 93 million figure and says she learned that it is a generally accepted fact.
“Functional illiteracy means not having the ability to fill out a job application, manage daily living or read and write simple sentences,” she says.
“And as you research this issue, you learn that it is cyclical: If your parents can’t read, it increases the odds that you will probably either not learn to read, or not be able to read past a very rudimentary level in your life.”
A brief time after her cousin’s death, Bunch had an idea of writing a book about Dawn: “She had an effect on so many. She was an important part of so many lives.
“I thought a book would be something to memorialize and honor her. I just never really had a concept of what that book could be.
“I always kept the concept of a book in the back of my mind, but I wasn’t sure a book would really accomplish much,” she says. “It wasn’t until that moment driving that the concept of the ‘book fairy’ came to life.”
Bunch says as she thought through it, she realized she would need a doll to accompany the book to make reading exciting.
“Dawn’s ability to transform into the book fairy was my inspiration,” she says.
“And through that came the concept of having a ‘fairy’ that lights up to not only encourage daily reading, but also to make the experience of reading magical by having a twinkle setting that sends a message to the book fairy, letting her know that it’s time to deliver a new book.”
Seeking feedback from a number of people she knew, Bunch found strong support for her idea.
“Then one day in early spring, 2016, I was on a plane heading back to Buffalo from Atlanta,” Bunch says. “I was sitting next to someone who turned out to be an entrepreneur and we were talking. So, I said: ‘Oh, I have an idea. And I told him about the book fairy.’
“He listened patiently, and finally said to me, ‘If you don’t get off this plane and call an attorney to find out if this trademark is available, you will be missing out on something truly extraordinary.’”
The conversation, along with the advice, had an impact on Bunch: Here was someone she did not know offering the same advice as people whom she did know. Asking herself, ‘What do I have to lose?’ Bunch followed up, calling an attorney and pitching the idea.
“While he was waiting for the database to load up in his computer, he said, ‘The Book Fairy is probably taken … do you have any other names?’ Then all of a sudden, there was complete silence.
“He said, ‘Somebody let that trademark die. The Book Fairy™ is yours.’
“And, in a way, that is when this journey really got going,” she says.
During this entire time her passion for literacy just kept growing, Bunch says.
As she worked through the research, she says she developed a deep focus on this issue: “I feel it is not something that is at the forefront of the critical conversations this country is having. And it needs to be. Having a literate society can solve so many issues.
“What if the cure for cancer lies within the brain of someone who did not learn how to read? What grand challenges would be solved if people were given the gift of reading?
“Not being able to read doesn’t mean you are not smart … you just weren’t given the tools needed to fully realize your potential.”
Bunch believes a cause-related marketing program will be essential to raising awareness and building a movement to address illiteracy in the U.S.
“Through the Book Fairy, my plan is to give $1 for every set sold to literacy groups,” she says. “They are the true warriors fighting this battle and can do so much more than I can on my own.”
Once The Book Fairy is out on the market, Bunch hopes it will be used in classrooms and libraries to excite children about books and inspire them to read.
“More importantly, I want her to be used by families, in homes. Reading to your children is critical,” says Bunch. “Just reading to them 15 minutes a day will increase their success in school and in life. Take away the iPads, take a break from television and read. It will be the best investment you can make in your child.
“You can make a difference early in a child’s life by exposing them to books,” she says, “so that as they grow to school age, they will already have a habit of reading, which will hopefully stick with them for life.
“That was Dawn’s mission. That is The Book Fairy’s mission and mine as well. I want to inspire the next generation of passionate readers.”
Additional information about The Book Fairy can be found on Bunch’s website.