Cherry Hill, NJ
High school English teacher Larry Abrams has always considered himself a nerd. Growing up, he enjoyed visiting used bookstores and reading books that others loved before him.
“I certainly enjoy the transformative experience of reading, going into other worlds, and experiencing other cultures,” Abrams said.
Abrams began his teaching career in an affluent suburb outside Philadelphia before moving to a high school in an underresourced neighborhood of Lindenwald, New Jersey.
“I’ve heard of food deserts, but I’ve never heard of book deserts. It occurred to me that I was teaching in a book famine,” Abrams said. “Many kids in school just struggle with reading. In my ninth grade classroom, it’s very typical to have kids read at the fifth grade reading level. If you struggle with reading, you will too Struggling with writing.”
Abrams took action in 2017 when one of his high school students told him she wasn’t reading to her 2-year-old daughter. He called friends and family for some lightly used children’s books, and soon he had more than a thousand copies.
He started distributing the books to young mothers and local elementary schools. That was the start of his nonprofit organization BookSmiles.
“It’s just addictive,” Abrams said. “Millions of kids in America have never owned a book in their lives. I want to change that.”
His organization has since collected, organized and distributed hundreds of thousands of books in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area, and will soon reach 1 million, Abrams said.
BookSmiles works with communities to help collect books and place them in the organization’s large collection boxes, painted with literature-themed artwork, located outside local businesses, houses of worship, schools and people’s homes.
Books are usually distributed through teachers, who come to the library and select as many books as they want.
“When teachers are able to leave with the books they brought back to the classroom library and students, it’s a feeding frenzy,” Abrams said. “It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet meets a second-hand bookstore.”
BookSmiles has recently moved into new, larger warehouse space in the neighbouring town of Pennsauken. Abrams also purchased a 16-foot box truck to increase the number of books they could transport. The organization works with two local food banks, who bring thousands of books each month to distribute to families in need.
CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Abrams about his efforts. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: Why is it important to expose children to reading early?
Larry Abrams: It should be read to children because it is a joyful thing to do. It creates a bond between parent and child in a visceral and important way. Reading creates a moment that never goes out; it stays with the child forever. More importantly, reading to children gives them strength. The most important tool they get is words. Some children grow up hearing many, many words because they are read aloud every night. When they were babies, they were used to hearing sentences strung together. There are other kids who never get it. Reading and books help level this playing field. It provides millions of words for these babies who really need them.
I hope that every child who receives our books can accumulate a library of their own and read hard so they can be ready for kindergarten reading. Reading to children is almost a guarantee of academic success. Every child in America deserves the opportunity to succeed academically. Being able to use language and words is power.
CNN: Your organization serves an area considered a book desert. What is a book shortage?
Abrams: These are areas where people don’t have access to books. There is a book shortage in rural Appalachia. North Philadelphia has a book shortage. They don’t have (books) at home. In many book shortages, there are no libraries and no bookstores. In poor areas, people simply don’t have the money to buy a book. There are many families who just survived and got their next paycheck. Infant formula is expensive. Food is expensive. Rent is expensive.
Some people are far from disaster paychecks, and they don’t have the resources to spend money on books. That’s where we come in – helping people like that. We irrigate the book shortage by pouring in hundreds of thousands of books. We change and improve lives one book at a time.
CNN: Why is it so important to you to involve teachers in your efforts?
Abrams: I am a teacher and helping other teachers is very important. Teachers receive a small stipend to buy supplies (for their classrooms). But we often have to spend hundreds of dollars of our own money to give our kids a really quality learning environment. We are the ones who have to buy Kleenex. We have to buy markers. I hate that teachers have to go online with their hats and beg for school supplies. That shouldn’t happen.
Teachers who truly care are committed to providing students with a stronger learning environment out of their own pockets. When we give them hundreds of dollars worth of books here, it’s a blessing and they appreciate it. Some of these teachers are addicted to coming to the library and we want them to because they are the best book dealers we have. In many towns, our teachers are undervalued. But we are indeed a powerful force. We are an army. The teachers just help each other, especially those who love the industry and have been in it for a long time. So if I can help them by giving them books, that’s a wonderful thing.
Want to get involved?Check BookSmiles website See how you can help.
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