Kids’ Booksellers Take Fight for Literacy to Hospitals and Schools

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A recent New York Times article exploring the widening education gap between the rich and the poor prompted several children’s booksellers who are already involved in literacy efforts to ask what more could be done.

A number of booksellers shared their thoughts and ideas on the ABC Group at ABA’s listserv, where a thread was started by Leslie Reiner, co-owner of Inkwood Books in Tampa, Florida. Reiner was shocked by the Times piece, which ended by saying there are no answers to the growing gap between the better educated and the less educated, and no one has the slightest idea what will work. “The cupboard is bare,” concluded one representative of a Washington think tank.

“I thought, as most children’s booksellers think, that the cupboard needs to be full of books,” said Reiner. “As a little bookstore fighting massive competition, I used to think that people were buying books from the chains or online. Now I am concerned that we are simply losing readers.”

Reiner’s literacy efforts include support for Bess the Book Bus, a mobile literacy outreach that brings books into the homes of underprivileged and underrepresented children and families. Inkwood helps promote the organization and donates books and galleys to the bus, which travels to schools, community centers, shelters, and after-school programs, where read-alouds and book giveaways are held.

Reiner and Inkwood co-owner Carla Jimenz have also developed relationships with schools in low-income areas in Tampa. Through one program, for which they enlisted outside sponsorship from a local law firm, they were able to donate 100 books to students and host two author events — one at a full-scholarship private school and another at the bookstore. Inkwood also sponsors a writing contest for students at low income schools.

With the hope of instilling a love of reading from the very beginning of a child’s life, several booksellers are working with new and expectant mothers to explain the impact of reading aloud.

Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Massachusetts, has been visiting hospital birthing classes for first-time parents for about 15 years now. Chittenden discusses the seven stages of language development and stresses that it begins in utero. She demonstrates how to read to babies, emphasizing not only the importance of the content, but also the way in which it is being read. Chittenden has created a flier for the classes that lists children’s titles appropriate for each stage of language development, and she often hands the flier out to customers when they purchase a book for a young reader in the store. “I assure them that that it doesn’t cost anything to read to their baby,” said Chittenden, “but the rewards are lifelong, so why not?”

About 12 years ago, Roxanne Coady, owner of RJ Julia in Madison, Connecticut, was approached by a clinic that hoped to give books to children during doctor visits. The store held a book drive for the clinic and collected about 12,000 books. “The head pediatrician was extremely appreciative and said, ‘You can’t imagine the look on a kid’s face who has never held a book before,’” Coady told BTW.

This was eye-opening for Coady, who consequently organized a group of like-minded people and founded Read to Grow, an early literacy development program that connects with parents in a hospital setting. The organization has since grown to become statewide and has a full-time staff. Coady currently serves as chair of the Board of Directors.

As Read to Grow’s founding sponsor, RJ Julia has held several book drives as well as a major author fundraiser every year. Coady is now looking for a buyer for RJ Julia, but she plans to devote even more time to promoting literacy after the sale is made. In a letter to customers, she wrote, “No sense in having bookstores if we are not developing readers.”

Coady urges booksellers to find out if there is an established literacy effort in their local communities or states that they can work with. “If not, start one,” she said, suggesting they begin at hospitals and health clinics. “Illiteracy rates are staggering,” she said. “There’s a real need for books.”

At Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop, the staff is committed to literacy, said owner Valerie Koehler. This past year, the store sponsored the start of a community library in a neighborhood that services a population with great needs. Blue Willow’s efforts included holding a book drive, raising community awareness of the project, and bringing in grant opportunities — all of which helped the library acquire more than 4,000 volumes. Blue Willow staff helped the library start its storytime program for mothers and is currently working to build an adult section.

“This has been a blessing for our shop in so many ways,” said Koehler. “And it’s definitely a feel-good story for the press.” Blue Willow’s partnership with Family Point, a Houston nonprofit agency working to overcome issues of poverty, has led to partnerships with other organizations, which have used the store’s event space on a number of occasions.

Most towns and cities have literacy organizations, said Koehler. “It just takes a phone call and a cup of coffee to brainstorm how you can partner with them.”

For those with no literacy organization in place, Sam Droke-Dickinson of Aaron’s Books in Lititz, Pennsylvania, has a suggestion. Aaron’s works with the national organization Reach Out and Read, which Droke-Dickinson learned about through a flier in an ABA white box mailing. Droke-Dickinson and Todd Dickinson, the store’s co-owners, chose Reach Out and Read as the beneficiary of their local literacy initiative.

“We really like their approach of getting books into the hands of the under-served community during free pediatric medical exams,” Droke-Dickinson said. “We’ll continue to have them as a literacy charity we support through our festival.”

This week, Aaron’s is raising funds for a local school library by hosting its first “book fair in a box,” a concept Droke-Dickinson learned about from booksellers on the ABC listserv. She was originally planning to hold a traditional book fair, with several tables of books, but didn’t want to deplete the store’s inventory. The “book fair in a box” concept entails a single copy of each book and stacks of order forms.

In honor of Booktenders’ Secret Garden’s 30th anniversary, owner Ellen Mager is giving back to the community in many different ways. Booktenders, located in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, has “adopted” an independent charter school for low-income families in Philadelphia. The school is run by a board of six to eight people, who are responsible for its funding. Booktenders’ donates F&Gs and galley copies to the charter school and was recently approached by another school in need. The store also holds fundraisers for local libraries and museums.

Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney, Doak & Garrett Booksellers (DD&G) in Farmington, Maine, focuses on middle readers in an ongoing quest to prove that reading can be more than a school assignment.

For the Galley Review Project, which he founded many years ago, Brechner visits the nearby middle school equipped with ARCs. He speaks to teachers prior to his visit to gauge classroom reading levels and interests and selects titles he deems appropriate. Brechner explains to the class about the process of reviewing titles to share with customers at the bookstore as well as with publishers.

“Sometimes the reviews are really touching, and I share those with the authors. It’s nice for them to see a review coming from their intended audience,” he said. But what’s more important to Brechner is giving students “proximity to the process, and engaging them in it.”

Another important part of the project, said Brechner, is getting teachers to stray from typical reading assignments. “There’s a big problem particularly in upper elementary and lower middle school, where they’re married to these classroom sets of books. I’ve felt that one of the most important things I’ve done is show teachers that their students can actually enjoy reading.” The first time Brechner visited a classroom, the teacher was surprised to see her students so engaged and peppered him with questions, later saying, “I thought these kids didn’t like to read.”

Brechner also works with school librarians and helps create online wish lists for teachers. They will give him the titles they want to have in their classrooms, and Brechner creates the lists and publicizes them. Community members can then purchase books on the list and donate them to the schools. It’s a good way to highlight the fact that book budgets have been cut, but there continues to be a need, said Brechner.

“As a bookseller, it’s really important to be in the classroom,” he added. “It wakes up the teachers, and tells them these kids do like to read. And this is something we can do as booksellers. It’s truly symbiotic.”