Building an Empathetic, Intuitive Book Group Model

Karen Thomson is the founder of Literature for All of Us and served as our first Executive Director until 2018. As a professional book group leader, Karen has been making literature come alive through book group discussion since 1981. In 1997, she started Literature for All of Us.

Founding Literature for All of Us was an adventure of the heart. She began with a group of fourteen teen mothers enrolled in a GED program on Chicago south side. Karen introduced these young women to using literature as a means to look inward, to understand themselves better and to create relationships in which it was safe to share these discoveries. Personal resilience was built and interpersonal relationship were made. The impact was profound. Program attendance on Book Group day doubled. The young mothers returned to the nurturing circle of the book group week after week to read books, write poetry, and discuss their struggles and triumphs. The GED program requested more groups and Literature for All of Us came into being.

Karen intuitively created the model that Literature for All of Us uses today: opening each book group meeting with a ritual, reading aloud out from culturally relevant literature, having a facilitated group discussion and writing poetry from their personal reflections.

She has since trained educators, community service providers, and others to replicate this model. She has facilitated women’s literary retreats for girls and teen mothers, and taught literature courses for community colleges. In 2006, Karen traveled to the White House to receive the “Coming Up Taller Award” for excellence in programming from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

Literature for All of Us now offers more than 15 book groups across Chicagoland, reaching more than 700 youth and adults each year, including young parents and their children. Until her retirement as Executive Director in June 2018, Karen continued to facilitate as a professional book group leader.

In 2019, Sonia Velázquez assumed the role of Executive Director.



  • Lifetime Achievement Award, Chicago Writers’ Association, 2015
  • Inspire Award, Circle Foundation, 2012
  • Mayor’s Award for the Arts, City of Evanston, 2009
  • Harlequin More than Words Award, Harlequin, 2009
  • Those Who Make a Difference Award, Family Focus of Evanston, 2003
  • Mercedes Mentor Award, Mercedes-Benz USA, 2002
  • Rosa Williams Women in Ministry Award, Lake Street Church, Evanston, Illinois, 2000
  • Studs Terkel Humanitarian Service Award, Illinois Humanities Council, 1999
  • Nominee, Hartstein Award for Academic Excellence in Teaching, Oakton College, 1991