THE BOOK FAIRIES

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Founded in 2012 by Amy Zaslansky , The Book Fairies has collected and distributed almost 2 million books to over 500 schools and organizations in the New York metropolitan area. They offer three main programs: (1) community book fairs where teachers stock their classroom libraries, (2) school book fairs for children, and (3) summer totes for children to access books when school is out.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

This is the End Book Deserts, the podcast created so that all kids have access to reading materials and book culture.   

 

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Molly Ness

Welcome to End Book Deserts, the podcast featuring the innovative people, and programs, who spread the love of books and reading culture in our nation’s high poverty areas.  I'm Molly Ness, lifelong reader, book nerd, teacher-educator, and the founder of End Book Deserts.  This episode’s guest is the ultimate reading rock star since creating the Book Fairies, based in New York’s Long Island, Amy Zaslansky, and her team of volunteers, have donated over one million books to over 500 schools and organizations.  Her non-profit accepts donations of new and gently used books and connects them with libraries, schools and organizations, throughout the New York metropolitan area that don’t have funds to foster the love of reading for their children.  

 

Molly Ness

I'm so excited to talk to Amy, who is the founder of the Long Island based, Book Fairies organization.  Amy, thank you so much for your time in joining us today.  I'm just going to turn the floor to you so that you can start explaining how your organization came to be, its roots, its origin, and how you got involved with this work.  

Amy Zaslansky

Sure, thanks for having me, Molly, I really appreciate it.  So, this started, not so much in that I knew I was starting a charity, but more that I saw a problem in my local community where teachers were trying to raise money to buy books to send home with their students over the summer.  Knowing how many books I have many books I have in my own house, and all the local communities, and all my friends, how much they have, I decided to do a quick book collection so that was we could give these books to the school and they didn’t have to spend the money, since books are expensive.  It ended up that we collected over 3,000 books in just under a week, and that’s more when I had that ah-ha moment of, okay, we really have two groups of people on Long Island – we have one group that is flush with books, and they have a need to get them out of their house, and yet five miles from wherever you live on Long Island, it seemed that there was a community that was in desperate need of books.  So, that’s how the Book Fairies began, and that we just connect the people that have.  We bring those books in through book drives, check them all for age and condition, and then we donate them back out to high need schools and organizations across Long Island and the five boroughs.  

 

Molly Ness

Well, as a former classroom teacher, myself, and as a current teacher-educator, and somebody who spends the vast majority of my time working with teachers, I can hear all the teachers out there applauding your work as we speak, because classroom libraries are so often funded by out-of-the-pockets of teachers themselves, who obviously, are certainly not making a whole lot of money.  Book access in classrooms is really a key element, and it sounds like you just came up with a creative solution for that.  So, that was the origins of how you started.  What is the work that you’re doing today?  How has that evolved and transformed over the decade, or so, that you guys been around?  

 

Amy Zaslansky

So, when we first started, which was just about seven years ago, I donated 35,000 books my first year, and I was super excited, we were able to give to that school in need, and start finding other schools, who could also utilize the books.  And, seven years later, we’re now running at about 500, 000 books a year donated.  So, we’ve kept the same model of the books coming in that people no longer need, and giving them back out.  Once a month, we invited teachers and non-profits to come into our warehouse to shop for all of the books that they need.  And, our last one that we just had in July, we had over 20,000 books go out in three hours.  So, I hear what you’re saying, there is such a pressing need to get books into the classroom, and for most of the teachers that we work with, because they’re working in high-need communities, not only do they use their own money to buy the books, but so many times we hear that they’re using money to buy clothes for the kids, school supplies, food.  So, if we can take that burden off the teachers, and increase access to books for the students, we’re really hoping to change the face of literacy in our area.  

 

Molly Ness

So, talk to me then, about who is the…who makes up the body of people who volunteer and donate books.  Where are they coming from?  

 

Amy Zaslansky

We have a really unique group of people.  So, we have everybody from retired individuals; we open up on weekends; we have families that come in and volunteer together; everything in our warehouse is color-coded.  So, we’ve had kids as young as two come in and help volunteer, because that’s such an important part of my life with my family, so I made sure to institute that into the Book Fairies.  And, we also have the backbone of our organization, which came as quite a surprise to me, and it has been one of my biggest pleasures is that we engage the special needs community to help with the pickup and delivery of our books, and if they are in a pre-locational group, to come into the warehouse to help sort books. So, we engage about 180 opportunities a week for the special needs to be involved with the Book Fairies in giving back to their community.  

 

Molly Ness

And, for people who don’t have the time to staff the warehouse, or what have you, how do they get involved?  What sort of organizations and people are just the donators of books?  

 

Amy Zaslansky

Right.  So, we engage the majority of schools across Long Island, our hope is that you’re either a donor or a recipient, and we ask the schools to host a one-week book drive, that has since expanded out to corporations doing team-building events, hosting book drives for us.  We have the scouting groups, religious organizations, and individuals who are just looking to clear out their house.  So, we have at this point, a wide range of books that are coming in.  We’re roughly 50,000 books a month that are donated back out.  So, our hope is really to engage all people, whether they’re donors of books, or financial donors, or they’re people that really could benefit from having equal access to books.  

 

Molly Ness

And what sorts of guidelines do you set for people who want to donate books?  Are you looking for books in particular condition or particular age groups?  What would somebody need to know if they were looking to donate?  

 

Amy Zaslansky

We’re very particular about the books that we give out.  Let me start that way.  I’ll go in reverse order.  So, what I tell all my volunteers that come into the warehouse is that our goal is not to pad people’s bookshelves.  Our goal is not to make sure that every kid has a huge range of every book that comes in.  Our goal is to make sure that we’re getting out high interest current excellent condition books.  That’s our main focus.  We want kids to be really excited about the books that they’re getting, and not feel like these are yellowed that are ripped or torn, or the stories are outdated.  So, that’s the first guideline that I give is: is this a book that you would have read when you were a kid?  Then, we break the books down by age group, so we have everything that goes from board books to picture books, chapter books, young adults, adult books – we really try to segment that way so that when our recipients are requesting books, they can get the right book for the age group that they’re looking to target.  

 

Molly Ness

I'm so glad to hear how particular you are about the books that you collect and donate, because you’re so right in that we want to entice young readers with books that they are thrilled to get their hands on; they don’t want the outdated, torn, covers that are…look ancient.  We really want them to feel like they are readers who matter and not sort of the readers who get the leftover books.  So, I'm so glad to hear that that’s such a vital part of your organization.  Can you talk to me then about the schools that you donate these books to?  How have you been getting in contact with them?  How many schools are you involved with?  Give us a sense of the other side of your organization.  

 

Amy Zaslansky

Sure.  So, we donate out to over 500 different places.  We are not specific just to schools.  But, the schools that we do give to, 50%, or more students, are on free, or reduced lunch, that’s our minimum guideline for the people that can receive books from us.  We really want to give to other organizations who are serving clientele that are considered to be living in poverty.  So, besides schools, we are in soup kitchens, homeless shelters.  We’re in correctional facilities.  We try and think outside the box to make sure that we’re giving equal access to all.  So, we’re also in train station waiting rooms.  We’re in grocery stores.  We try to find: where do people go most that we can flood those communities with the books that they need to succeed.  I think that’s the biggest thing that I’ve learned from the Book Fairies is that you need to be able to read in order to succeed in life.  There is this cycle of poverty that stems from illiteracy, and one of the main reasons is that books are so expensive.  So, if I can take that element out of the equation and give these books out for free, our hope is that students will start making it through the education system, reaching higher levels of education, and then moving on to be functioning members of society that are then giving back and helping to build a better area.  

 

Molly Ness

As I’ve been collecting the stories of people who are doing work similar to yours, I keep hearing, in my mind, the phrase from one of my all-time favorite movies, Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”  If you give access to books to kids and people who need them, we grow readers.  And, it really is that simple that we are filling the void of where access is an issue so that kids can become lifelong readers.  Talk to me just a bit before we wrap up about where you see yourselves going in the future.  Any big plans or projects coming up?  Are you hoping to branch out in a different way, or just keep on doing the great work that you’re doing now?  

 

Amy Zaslansky

There is something when you start working with non-profits that’s called Mission Drift.  That’s when you start losing your focus as to what the purpose was of your charity, and we have just remained very solid in that the goal of the Book Fairies is books coming in and books going out.  So, in that regard, we look to always increase the amount of donations that we have going out.  But just to remain focused, we have so many other organizations that are already doing literacy programs, but they need the books to make those programs successful.  So, our goal is really just to court the community and support the other organizations that are doing such great literacy work.  I'm excited to say that it took five years for us to reach our first million books, and it will take only two years for us to reach our second million, so we are working very hard to a fun project, where we’re going to work to break the Guinness Book of World Records on the longest book chain created, and the goal is to do this in a high poverty school district where we’ll lay out…it’s going to be between 25,000 to 30,000 books, and then those books will remain in the community.  So, that’s going to be in the fall.  We’re super excited about that.  Our main goal is just to really flood these high need communities with the books that they need in order for the kids to start succeeding academically.  

 

Molly Ness

Well, I know our listeners are going to want more information about the Guinness
Book of World Records work that you’re trying to beat, because how fun is that!  And so much of reading and literacy work should be innovation, pleasurable, making kids in communities really see the joy of reading.  I was poking around a little bit on your webpage and I just wanted to boast about the work that you have been doing.  I was looking at some research that showed in 2017, only five years after you guys started, you had created or contributed to 486 classroom libraries; 120,000 kids benefited from the books that you guys collected; and teachers in their classrooms reported that reading well was up by 400% because of the books that you guys provide.  So, those numbers certainly speak for themselves about the work that you guys are doing, and I'm just so impressed by how innovative you guys have been, and how you’ve really tapped into all different parts of the community, both at the donor level, as well as the school community level.  So, the last question that I always ask people, when I think about the work that I'm trying to do with End Book Deserts, I'm not only trying to flood communities with books, but I'm also trying to stimulate into celebrate book culture and reading life.  And so, one of the things that I always try to do is to ask the people that I interview to tell me a book, past or present, from their life that changed them as a reader or as a person.  So, what would that book be for you?  A book that just never left you as a reader or as a person?  

 

Amy Zaslansky

Oh goodness!  I have an entire library full of books.  This could be a very long podcast.  

 

Molly Ness

Yes, it’s very hard to narrow down to one, and I understand that if I asked you this question tomorrow, it would probably be a different answer.  So, just on the spot, the one that just bumps into your head.  

 

Amy ZaslanskyOkay.  So, I'm going to give you a book that I read and a book that I need to read.  

 

Molly Ness

Right.  

 

Amy Zaslansky

So, a book that I read, I happened to enjoy young adult reading books, they’re so informative.  I read a phenomenal book on Eleanor Roosevelt, and I was blown away by the work that she did and how she really helped build and shape America.  I had a volunteer just tell me the other day that a brand-new book is coming out about how Eleanor Roosevelt was able to call a lot of books from the urban libraries and start pushing them out to the rural locations, and to really get books out into the undeveloped America.  And so, that is a book that is on my to-do list.  

 

Molly Ness

Well, I will certainly have to add it to my never-ending pile of books to read, and I will try to take advantage of Amazon Prime days and add it to my shopping part.  Well certainly, Eleanor would be proud of the work that you currently are doing, you know, no woman more so than Eleanor Roosevelt exemplifies social justice and working for people, and absolutely that’s the work that you guys are doing today with Book Fairies.  So, thank you so much for your time and for your work.  For the listeners that are interested in getting involved with Book Fairies, we will be happy to share out their contact information, and we can’t wait to find out how you’re work in the fall goes with that Guinness Book of World Records book chain.  How fun and what a great way to draw attention to the work that you guys are doing.  Thank you so much for your time, Amy.  

 

Amy Zaslansky

Thank you so much for having me, Molly, I really appreciate it.  

 

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Molly Ness

That wraps it up for this episode of End Book Deserts.  If you know of a person or program doing innovative work to get books into the hands of readers, email me at molly@endbookdeserts.com.  For more about my work and for the program featured on this episode, check out our webpage www.endbookdeserts.com.  Follow me on social media at End Book Deserts and share your stories and reactions with the hashtag #endbookdeserts.  Thanks to Duane Wheatcroft for graphics and copy, and to Benjamin Johnson for sound editing.  Until the next episode, happy reading.  

 

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