BOOK SMILES

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Did you know that the average teacher spends $478 dollars out of pocket on school supplies, including books for classroom libraries? BookSmiles gives underserved children in New Jersey and Philadelphia the opportunity to build personal libraries, starting at infancy. Its team collects, sorts, and creatively distributes gently used, new, and like-new books.  They focus on providing students and younger siblings with dozens of high-quality books, which lays the groundwork for great literacy skills before and during the elementary school years. They also provide fellow educators with free books for their classrooms, encouraging them to become literacy activists by gathering and distributing children's books

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

I'm so excited to have our first classroom teacher joining us on End Book Deserts Podcast. Your work is near and dear to my heart as I was a classroom teacher myself and I spend the majority of my time as a teacher/educator so, Larry Abrams from New Jersey- talk to us about your organization, Book Smiles. How did it come to be? What are you doing now? And tell us about your path in overcoming books deserts that you see in your community. 

 

Larry Abrams

All right. Thank you. Really, Books Smiles came around for two reasons. One, when I was a young teacher, I started my career in Moorestown High School. Moorestown is probably one of the more affluent districts in New Jersey. Kids had so much enrichment. They had books. They were smart. They came ready and I really enjoyed teaching there. Well, after a few years, I got laid off and I found myself in Lindenwold which was the opposite. It was on the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. 80% free and reduced lunch, underserved district, title 1, and I taught there for several years. I've been- had a conversation with one of my seniors and she was a mom- the mother of a 2-year-old…just casually one day, I asked her what are you reading to your little girl? And she replied, “oh Mr. Abrams, I don't read to her. “Why”, I asked. “Oh she's too little to understand.” So, that broke my heart and then I went into parent-parent mode and then I was like wow my daughter was two and she was reading back to me every night. And then she looked at me and said, “we don't do that in my culture.” And then my heart really sank. She was from a small town in Mexico and it’s kind of got to me. I need to get her books, but I didn't have any because I had donated them to the library, so I call on my social media and say, “hey I need books.” And I got avalanched with a thousand books and then I thought wow this could go maybe into the elementary school right across the street. And then things started to take off. I spoke at the NJEA and other districts wanted to know what I was doing, and I was in- as a teacher, I was able to speak to other teachers and- you know I get them- we’re part of a tribe. There's much work to do.

 

Molly Ness

So, who are you aiming now? What is the mission of Book Smiles? And talk to us about the logistics of how you operate.

 

Larry Abrams

Well for about 2 years, I was running business out of my garage. I started putting more calls out in churches, in synagogues, youth groups, affluent school district, middle schools- school district books came in. I was able to get them started in my garage. I got to- some of my students at Lindenwood High School store books with me as well. I even store them in my classroom. We were able to collect and distribute well over a hundred thousand books this way, but then a few months ago, it just got out of hand and I couldn't do this anymore. My garage started to be like hoarders, so I put some calls out for some people to help out and I'm so glad that the financing came for the Book Smiles Book Bank which is now open in Cherry Hill. John Landon and Julie Nadel who are the owners of Townsend Press contributed some money to help me open up the Book Smiles Book Bank.
 

Molly Ness

And who comes to that book bank? Are you mostly stocking classroom libraries for teachers themselves or are kids coming to you? What does the book bank look like? And how does it run?

 

Larry Abrams

The book bank is a little over 1,000 square feet and we're getting actually set up for our grand opening on August 29th. And first and foremost, I'm inviting my fellow teachers particularly those serving in Title 1 schools and in Abbott districts. I want them to come in and take what they can carry away. They can bring suitcase- that can carry away books. I want to be able to give them classroom libraries. I don't feel that our fellow teachers should have to constantly dip into their pocket to come up with the money for book fairs because they have kids who can't afford them. This is America. Every child should have books, so once we get the book bank set up, teachers from all around can come and pick up books. We're also going to invite social workers, people who work with churches, soup kitchens, and other venues to distribute books.

 

Molly Ness

Well, I've been a classroom teacher and clearly you are still a classroom teacher. For those listeners out there who don't have first-hand classroom experience, can you explain how classroom libraries work? Most people assume that you walk into the school that you're teaching, and you've got a classroom library ready to go. What is the experience for most teachers in building classroom libraries?

 

Larry Abrams

It's an excellent question. Most teachers finish up with their programs in schools and come with that and they want to do what we have to. Think about putting up posters. We have to think about getting board displays. It cost a lot of money for new teachers to begin the profession and some of us really think that it's important that we have a book rich environment. Our classroom, particularly, when we’re dealing with underserved kids. So, of course if they're paying for the books, they want the students to return them just like a library would. Books Smiles is doing- is that it's taking that concept and empowering the teachers…hey certainly you can hold on to these extensive classroom libraries that you pretty much get for free. We do like teachers to contribute a small donation just to get some skin in the game, but teachers can then tell their students, “hey if you like the book…take it home.” We also stock classroom libraries with baby board books because we believe that our students should be emissaries- who take books home to younger brothers and sisters and what’s more, read to their younger brothers and sisters if they're not getting that by parents.

 

Molly Ness

So how long have you been running? And can you talk a little bit about the impact of your work and what you're noticing in your community- and with your students as well as with fellow teachers?

 

Larry Abrams

Well, we've been running in Lindenwold, New Jersey for I guess- technically three years, but I started doing this in Earnest two years ago when I decided to come up with our mascot Brooke, the book. I decided to give it a name and actually that my son came up with Book Smiles. So, then about a year-and-a-half ago when people started saying, “look, I have no books. I'd like to contribute in some way. Can I give a donation?” Well, at that time, I decided I need to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and so we've been that for about a year-and-a-half. What I've done with my district is I'm insisting first, I'm taking care of my own in my district- so, in my district alone, we've distributed about 25,000 books. We do this by directly giving books to teachers. We have vigorous- little free library outside of school 4. But mainly what we're really good at is setting up pop-up book fairs and when school 4 lets out, so many of the kids are walkers or their parents come, pick them up. And we have tables set up. It's a buffet- a crazy buffet and parents come to pick their children up. And I have high school students doing volunteer hours passing out books to sometimes younger brothers and sisters. We have two elementary schools in Lindenwold. I’ve given a lot to them. We also have a middle school. For the past two years, they've received a couple thousand books just before the winter break to take home, wrap them up. We have wrapping stations and they take them home to younger brothers and sisters and for themselves. And finally, the high school I lead books out so students can take home.

 

Molly Ness

And how do your kids and your families react to those pop-up book fairs?

 

Larry Abrams

Oh my gosh. It is joy. It is a feeding frenzy. When the kids get to see the books that they can take- on the table with our pop-up book fairs outside of school 4, they just attack the tables and it's not so important that they choose the age appropriate book. I really don't care; whatever they get into their hands; and whatever is appealing is just fine with me. And they’ll grow into it, if they can't read it. The idea is to get as many books in the home as possible. We have had students sometimes say how much does this cost. In one of our affiliates, teachers, Vineland…because we do have two branches- one in Vineland, New Jersey and one in Glassboro. And Renee Seabrook-Heart- our Glassboro teacher said, “how much are the books… you only have to pay with a smile, and you can take up to five books.” And the kids were just ecstatic- they’re not used to this.

 

Molly Ness

And my hunch is that you get a lot of great smiles from parents and fellow teachers and kids themselves. So, as I'm listening to you, I'm thinking about the community where I live. And I'm very tapped into a network of mothers who are constantly looking for ways to pass along the resources and items that their children have outgrown. So, I'm putting myself into the perspective of a parent or a teacher or a mother who is listening to this and saying wow. I know in my community, there are tons of books that our kids are done. How can I pass them forward? So, I'm wondering if you might be able to give advice for somebody who is looking to start something along the lines of Book Smiles. What advice would you give somebody starting out? And what are some of the lessons that you've learned in growing your organization over the years?

 

Larry Abrams

All right. Well, for moms and parents whose kids have a lot of books and their kids have outgrown them; I’ve cleared out some children’s libraries- some have 300 books- that’s about 5 or 6 paper cases of books. Normally, parents bring books to the library which is what I did and I want them to continue doing that- giving to the library is critical, it's essential, it's an excellent option, but as far as families in South Jersey, I would like them to give their beautiful books to Book Smiles. We have several donation stations which can be found on our website, www.booksmiles.org and the same people also need to understand that when they donate books to thrift stores, thrift stores will take the cream, will take a few beautiful books- an immaculate copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid and they'll sell it for a few bucks- usually to a middle-class family. And the truth of the matter is that when you donate to thrift stores, most of the stuff gets recycled or trashed- it makes its way to landfills. Book Smiles and other book charities that you’ve covered make sure that the books go into the hands of children. 

 

Molly Ness

Where are you hoping to grow? And what are your future plans for Book Smiles? Ideally, you wouldn't exist because book deserts wouldn't exist- knowing that- that’s not the current situation or on the immediate horizon, where do you see yourself going?

 

Larry Abrams

Well, excellent question. For now, I have about 4 more years of teaching left before I can retire. So, what we're going to continue to do is grow Book Smiles in really- a smart, methodical way in South Jersey. I don't want to get overwhelmed- I will not be overwhelmed. Teaching is my number one priority and Book Smiles is this wonderful unpaid, side hustle that I have and it's my pleasure. It is my joy. By spreading the work out to other teachers who will also volunteer. I’ve met some big-hearted teachers out there- who will continue to do what we've been doing, but within a year, I expect I'll eventually need to hire somebody to just do things during the day because again during the day, I'm tethered to my school which- as it should be, but right now we're concerned with staying in New Jersey. We’re interested in connecting affluent districts with high-needs districts and making sure those affluent districts do their own big book fairs and this is an idea for the moms out there to help perhaps initiate that. But we've been eventually- we want books harvested in affluent districts to go to underserved districts and part of our numbers- we've already done that. Kingsway Middle School down in Woolwich Township- over the past two years has harvested almost 10,000 books and just last summer- last June 9th- they were able to- five thousand of them transported to Glassboro which is a Title 1 school. I never touched the books. It was just teachers getting their kids to sort and transport- and getting them transported to the underserved district where they had big book fairs. I'm trying something a little experimental. I had no idea when I started this that I would become like a fundraiser and I have to do that. I constantly think well, what if my- the guy who's financing the book bank decides next year, I don't want to do this anymore. This is thousands of dollars a year. Several thousands of dollars a year so, I become by default a fundraiser. So, I found this service called Kids Can Give Too. You ask about moms and how they can help. Well one thing that these moms that you mentioned- have in common is that when they give birthday parties. We all do the same thing. We invite kids to birthday parties and the kids bring a present and it’s always a pain for parents like I was- to come up with. What does Johnny want? Okay let's go get a $20 gift certificate or let's go get this toy. Well with the service, kids can choose to- I signed up for a subscription and this beautifully enables families to say look- how about this year let's not make it all about presents that you get, let's make it about people donating to Book Smiles? But with the really nice thing is that the service was able to divide the money- half goes to Book Smiles and half goes to a gift card for the child and then the parent and child can- then go maybe buy books with it or buy stuff with it that the kid wants. I also want to transform birthday parties.

 

Molly Ness

So one of the things that I love to ask people as we wrap up our time together is about a book that influenced them as a reader or as a person and the reason that I ask about this book is that my belief in overcoming book deserts is a lot more than just flooding areas with books. It takes creating cultures that embrace reading and you're constantly having conversations about reading life and reading culture. So, to put you on the spot, but I know you're a teacher yourself and so my hunch is that you’re a reader and it will be nearly impossible to just choose one, but tell me about a book from your past or present that has really shaped you as a person and as a reader.

 

Larry Abrams

I'm right now reading the biography of Frederick Douglass and it just came out. It's by David Blight and I'm really getting to know Frederick Douglass- an autodidact. He looked at books as something truly precious. He’s self-educated and it seems to me that if we can just get these books into the hands of these precious children who will never really get a chance to go to Barnes & Noble- they don't get books as gifts. If we can get books into those hands and homes, we can have more kids growing up to be like Frederick Douglass. There is- continues to be an inequality in our country- in our wonderful country in so many ways and by enabling kind of book rich areas to get books into the hands of kids in underserved areas is- I think a beautiful thing- is transformational and that is where I'm at with reading.

 

Molly Ness

Well, the work that you're doing is truly transformational. You are showing how precious books are just as Frederick Douglass embraced. And I know that we would also need to give a shout out to the army of volunteers that helped the important work that you're doing with Book Smiles. For more information about Book Smiles I know you've referenced your website, but we will also put it up on the End Book Deserts website along with some of the fabulous media coverage that you guys have been gathering over the years. I'm so excited to follow the work that you're doing and hear more about your new Book Smiles space that is taking the place of your garage. And we wish you all the best. And thank you for the work that you're doing.

 

Larry Abrams

Well, thank you so much. It has been a pleasure talking to you.

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