Today I got to volunteer for an organization that was seemingly tailor-made for me. Kids Book Bank is a brand new organization in Cleveland; it has been around for about 6-8 weeks. In February, the organization received over 40,000 books. Since then, the amount of books has increased to over 78,000. These books range from board books (books for infants that are difficult to destroy) all the way to books for adults, and everything in between: picture books, easy reader chapter books, young adult, etc.
The books are brought to a warehouse on Perkins Ave. in downtown Cleveland in extremely large boxes, at a guess (because I’m terrible with spatial relationships) 5 feet by 5 feet by 6 feet. Volunteers sort through these books and place them into containers for different reading groups/ages that I mentioned above. The books are given to different groups and projects throughout the city. For example, Kids Book Bank is providing 1200 new mothers with board books, and social workers are teaching mothers how to read to their children. (More on this in a moment.) Other books are given to families to keep and build up libraries in the home, while still others are sent to impecunious schools in the Cleveland area. What an amazing project.
I spent three hours working with Joanne, a recently retired speech therapist, who has volunteered for several weeks. She trained me, and we shared our love of particular books, and I either horrified or amused people with my reasoning for why certain books should be allowed to different readers.
Unwitting volunteer: Well, you can imagine how horrified I was to see that a book about a teenager who becomes a call girl would end up in the young adult section…I moved that one pretty fast!
Me: I don’t know. I think we should allow teenagers to recognize that there are a variety of paths that can be followed. Why close out any career choice?
Silence. Joanne laughs a little. Others turn away. I am pleased.
I also got to defend the seeming endless interest many teens have in vampire books (of course, sharing with all that they should be watching Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and thus further ensuring that anti-call girl volunteer thinks I’m a freak), and I marveled at which books were so popular at one time that there were just piles of them. Go ahead and guess what today’s most (formerly) popular books were? Ah, you can’t. It was the first two books in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. I never read these, but man, there were several high stacks of these. There were a paltry few Harry Potter books to keep them company. My theory? People hang onto Harry Potter.
There was a little sadness with these books. If a book had a signature in it, we were to cross out the names for fear that there might be stalking and later murder. OK—no one actually said that, but I’m guessing that’s the reason. If there was a message in the book but not a full name, we were allowed to leave the name and message in. Still, sad when a book is signed and given up. I also found a book with a hand-written note in it, telling the child, hey, here’s that book we were talking about! Oh well. There’s a story there no doubt.
Mainly, though, there is joy in this project. For the dissertation, I read Reading Matters by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Lynne McKechnie, and Paulette M. Rothbauer. These are Canadian librarians and reading experts, and the book Reading Matters might be the best book I’ve read on not only the value of literacy and reading, but the value of reading popular books. Ross has since the dissertation become one of my heroes, as she strongly advocates for categorizing books in libraries. (One of the arguments I make in the dissertation and in my monograph is that categorization matters.) Apparently, there is a ridiculously large increase in the number of books checked out of libraries when the books are categorized by genre and subgenre. We can see the results of this in Cleveland. Cleveland Public Library throws all fiction together. In the Cuyahoga County Public Library system, mystery gets categorized and separated. I’ve heard it reported from CCPL librarians that there is a tremendous increase in how many mysteries get checked out. I believe this!
The Kids Book Bank illustrate what Ross and her colleagues pointed out about how to increase literacy. After winnowing through 10,000 reports on reading and literacy, researchers concluded the MOST important thing that parents can do is to read to a child. Nothing tops this. Perhaps you begin to see why I am so excited about the program of giving free books and instruction to new mothers. Guess what another key factor is in getting children to read–having access to interesting materials. Wow–Kids Book Bank does this again. I forget now how many thousands of people in Cleveland receive new books each month for free, but I know that those families are being transformed.
I’m sure no one will be surprised to discover that people who read as children were four times more likely to read as adults. Reading is hard and takes time, and the best way to build this skill is to, wait for it, read. Children who only read in school do not accomplish as much or as quickly as those who read outside, independently, and for fun. One of the best ways to get children to read regularly is to provide them with fun books that they can keep and read and reread.
I love that we are doing this experiment in literacy in Cleveland, and I learned today that there is a possibility of tens of thousands of more books coming for distribution, the only problem is that they are desperate for volunteers. If we can’t separate the books and manage to send them to where they need to go, then we can’t accept any more books. If you love books or love children or simply hate ignorance, volunteer once or twice or more often. I plan on going about once a week for the near future. Click on the link in this article and check it out. It’s quite wonderful.