TAMPA — Sonya Bryson-Kirksey has fond memories of her childhood.
Growing up with her sister, Phillis, in Greensville, S.C., the Lightning’s national anthem singer recalls sitting on her aunt Evelyn’s lap while her mother, a hairdresser, worked on Evelyn’s hair.
Whether it was family tales or children’s books, Bryson-Kirksey loved hearing her aunt’s voice, the way she put words together and her inflection.
“If you ever sat at the feet of this woman, you’d be amazed,” Bryson-Kirksey reminisced. “She just got engulfed into what she was saying, each and every time.”
Bryson-Kirksey has carried on the tradition and reads to the youngsters in her family. During quarantine last summer, the storybook sessions were held over Facebook Live.
While she read The Wonky Donkey, one of her all-time favorites, the children giggled at her rendition, which included Bryson-Kirksey braying like a donkey.
“The best applause from kids are the giggles,” she said. “You know you’ve done your job at that point.”
That’s when Bryson-Kirksey got the idea to start the Sonni Reading Project with her sister.
“I knew I had to do this for other kids,” she said. “At least give them something to focus on in a pandemic other than the pandemic.”
Since launching the project last fall, Bryson-Kirksey has read and recorded more than 40 children’s stories on platforms like Spotify, Google Podcasts and YouTube.
Aside from The Wonky Donkey, Bryson-Kirksey said her favorite story to date is The Magic Hockey Stick.
The fictional story derives inspiration from a real-life event in which a little girl’s parents win a Wayne Gretzky stick at an auction. The child is told not to play with the stick, but she can’t resist and becomes a star player herself.
As “The Great One” hits a slump in his career, the child tries to reunite him with his stick, helping him get over his 1,000-goal hump.
“I thought that was just a really cool little story,” Bryson-Kirksey said. “I like those kinds of stories, the kind that make kids feel like they’re in control of certain situations.”
For Bryson-Kirksey, diversity in what she’s reading is a huge key for the project’s success. She didn’t want to lean on well-known authors, like Dr. Seuss.
“I knew at the beginning I couldn’t just read Sonya’s favorite stories,” she said. “I knew I was going to have to diversify, so I started looking online.”
With the political and racial unrest the country was going through at the time, Bryson-Kirksey at first wanted to share stories from African-American authors.
That led her to branch out to stories about the pandemic, the LGBTQ+ community, Native Americans and other topics that children might not be typically exposed to as new readers.
“I tried to pull in all the different ones that I could that would ... introduce people to all of these different stories that are out there,” she said. “Now that maybe you heard this story online, maybe you go out and pick this up for your child.”
And Bryson-Kirksey’s project is making an impact. When she recorded The Wonky Donkey at the beginning of the year, she heard from a listener whose child ran around the house for an entire week braying.
“She said, ‘We couldn’t make them stop,’ ” Bryson-Kirksey said, chuckling. “I thought it was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen, so that was cool.”
Some families have added her project to their hockey night routines, listening to stories after the games. It emphasizes why Bryson-Kirksey started the project.
“One guy said his daughter won’t go to sleep on a hockey night unless she hears a story first,” Bryson-Kirksey said. “That makes me feel good. That makes me feel like I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do.”
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