Cherry Hill, NJ
High school English teacher Larry Abrams has always considered himself a bookworm. Growing up, she loved visiting used bookstores and reading books she liked before others.
“I definitely like the transformative experience of reading, entering other worlds, experiencing other cultures,” Abrams said.
Abrams began his teaching career in an affluent suburb outside of Philadelphia before moving to a low-income community high school in Lindenwold, New Jersey.
“I’ve heard of food deserts, but I’ve never heard of book deserts. And it occurred to me that I teach in a book desert,” Abrams said. “Many school children struggle with reading. In my ninth grade class it is very common for kids to read at a fifth grade reading level. And if you’re struggling with reading, you’re going to struggle with writing.”
In 2017, when a senior at her high school told her 2-year-old daughter she couldn’t read, Abrams sprung into action. She put out a call to friends and family asking for gently used children’s books, and before long, she had more than 1,000.
She began distributing the books to young mothers and local primary schools. That was the start of her nonprofit, BookSmiles.
“It became addictive,” Abrams said. “There are millions of children in America who have never held a book in their lives. I want to change that.”
Since then his organization has collected, sorted and distributed hundreds of thousands of books in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area, and will soon reach one million, Abrams says.
BookSmiles engages the community to help collect books and drop them off in the group’s large collection bins, which are painted with literary-themed artwork and located outside local businesses, houses of worship, schools and people’s homes.
Books are often distributed through teachers, who come to the book bank and select as many books as they want.
“It’s a feeding frenzy when teachers are able to get away with the books they take to classroom libraries and students,” Abrams said. “It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet meets a used bookstore.”
BookSmiles recently moved to a new, larger warehouse in the neighboring town of Pennsauk. Abrams also bought a 16-foot truck to increase the number of books they could haul. The organization teamed up with two local food banks, and each month they bring thousands of books to distribute to families in need.
CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Abrams about his efforts. Below is an edited version of their interview.
CNN: Why is it important to read to children as early as possible?
Larry Abrams: Children should be read to because it is something that is joyful. It is something that creates a bond between parent and child in such a visceral and important way. Reading books creates a moment that will never fade; it will always stay with the child. Also, reading books to your children gives them strength. The most important tool they have is words. There are some children who grow up hearing lots and lots of words because they read them every night. As babies, they are used to hearing connected sentences. And there are other kids who never get it. Reading and books help level that playing field. Words, millions of words to these children who really, really need them.
My hope is that every child who receives our books will build their own library and read the books so that they come to kindergarten ready to read. Giving children books almost guarantees academic success. And every child in America should have the opportunity to succeed academically. Being able to use language and words is power.
CNN: Your organization serves areas that are considered book deserts. What is a desert book?
Abrams: These are areas where people do not have access to books. There are book deserts in rural Appalachia. There are book deserts in North Philadelphia. They don’t have (books) in their homes. In many book deserts there are no libraries, no bookstores. There are pockets of poverty where people don’t have the money to spend on a book. There are many families surviving and making it to the next paycheck. Baby formula is expensive. Food is expensive. Rent is expensive.
Some people are far from broke and don’t have the resources to spend money on books. That’s where we come in, to help people like that. We work to water deserts of books pouring out hundreds of thousands of books. We are changing and improving lives one book at a time.
CNN: Why is it so important for you to involve teachers in your efforts?
Abrams: I am a teacher and it is very important to help other teachers. Teachers receive a small stipend to go shopping for materials (for their classrooms). But we often have to spend hundreds of dollars of our own money to give kids a real quality learning environment. We’re the ones who have to buy Kleenex. We need to buy markers. I hate that teachers have to go online hat in hand for school supplies. That shouldn’t happen.
Teachers who truly care commit to paying out of pocket to provide students with stronger learning environments. And when we’re here to give away hundreds of dollars in books, that’s a blessing, and they appreciate it. Some of these teachers become addicted to coming to the book bank, and we want them because they are the best distributors of books we have. In many countries, we are undervalued teachers. But we really are a powerful force. We are an army. Teachers get each other, especially those who love the profession and are in it for the long haul. So if I can help by donating books, that’s a great thing.
Want to participate? Revise BookSmiles website and see how you can help.
To donate to BookSmiles via GoFundMe, click here