Interview with Books for Kids

Books for Kids, a winner of the 2014 Innovations in Reading Prize, installs libraries and literacy programs in pre-school classrooms across the country, ensuring low-income students have access to literature and experience the benefits of reading. Below is our interview with executive director Amanda Hirsh.

National Book Foundation: Why is reading vital?

Amanda Hirsh: Reading invigorates the imagination, expands our knowledge of the world, connects us to information and people, and is the key cornerstone for education. It is vital to encourage reading in young children and provide adequate access to books and libraries so they can grow up with strong literacy skills and love reading. Children who read more achieve more!

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”Amanda Hirsh” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]We are creating a space where children not only have access to the best books in the market, but where they feel inspired to learn, imagine, and dream.[/pullquote]

NBF: Tell us about some accomplishments or successes you’ve had since winning the prize:

AH: Since winning the Innovations in Reading Prize in May 2014, we have accomplished so much at Books for Kids. In July 2014 we renovated an outdated Books for Kids library that suffered major loss and damages by Hurricane Sandy in Chinatown, NYC. This renovation was made possible through a continued partnership with Homewood Suites by Hilton, adding to their list of six additional libraries throughout the United States. Since this library was finished, programs within the library are flourishing through an additional Literacy Programming Grant from Homewood Suites. Books are being lent each week from the library to children and families and the school receives on-site lending support and weekly StoryTimes from a Books for Kids librarian.

Also in the Summer of 2014, the Mario Batali Foundation sponsored the renovation of five Books for Kids libraries in Brooklyn, NY that will continue to receive meaningful literacy programming from an $880,000+ grant from the United States Department of Education until the end of the 2015 school year. A re-dedication ceremony of these Brooklyn libraries was held at one of the renovated sites in the Cypress Hills neighborhood of Brooklyn and was attended by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez of the U.S. House of Representatives; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; and of course, Mario Batali himself. In November 2014, the Mario Batali Foundation also sponsored the building of a new Books for Kids library in Las Vegas, NV making this the ninth Books for Kids library built through their sponsorship and our first library in the state of Nevada.

NBF: In your application you write: “Our libraries go beyond just books on a bookshelf in a room.” What makes your libraries unconventional, and how do those qualities impact students?

AH: When we build a Books for Kids library, we are not simply placing books on a bookshelf. Our libraries are beautifully decorated with print-rich murals, animals, letters, trees, and child-friendly furniture. We are creating a space where children not only have access to the best books in the market, but where they feel inspired to learn, imagine, and dream. By giving the site programs to go along with the resource, that is when the library truly comes to life.

NBF: Why is the library model, of lending books to students, so central to program?

AH: The library model is central to our program for two main reasons. First, each child in a site with a Books for Kids library will have access to bring home a new book each week to read and share with their families, an opportunity they may not otherwise have, since books are often a rare commodity in low-income communities. Also having a new book to bring home each week encourages more reading at home and engages the entire family. Second, the lending program helps build lifelong library habits so that when children grow older, they will feel comfortable with standard library practices and be confident enough to use their local public library to continue to read and learn.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”Amanda Hirsh” link=”” color=”#FBC900″ class=”” size=””]Once the door to their imagination is open, children are inspired to keep learning and exploring the world.[/pullquote]

NBF: In your program, reading isn’t just about literacy, but also it’s about getting students engaged in a larger world. In your opinion, how do books inspire students to explore?

AH: Books can be the key to many new worlds, places, and opportunities for any child or even adult, but particularly for children that come from low-income communities, since access to travel and new experiences is often limited. Books can take you to faraway lands, can teach you new concepts or about different modes of transportation, or types of food, and can open your eyes to endless possibilities. Once the door to their imagination is open, children are inspired to keep learning and exploring the world.

NBF: What types of books do you find are most successful in accomplishing your vision?

AH: We select a variety of books for our libraries because no two children have the same interests and backgrounds. It is important to have books about all subjects so that all children are engaged and find reading fun and interesting. We also make sure to have many books that reflect the diverse communities in which we are working. For example, in a preschool that has a large population of native Spanish-speaking children and families, we are sure to include many Spanish language and bilingual books so that they too feel comfortable and can make use of the books in their library.

NBF: Your program extends beyond the library; what sorts of reading activities do you share with your parents?

AH: We often give parents a reading guide to go along with a book that their children keep at home for their home libraries. The guides include a summary of the story, and important questions for them to address as they read the book with their children. We also include a fun literacy-extension activity so that reading the book is as much about having fun as it is about learning a new concept or piece of information.

NBF: In your application, you write: “In a middle income neighborhood, the ratio of books per child is 13 to 1, whereas in a low-income neighborhood, the ratio is 1 age appropriate book for every 300 children.” Where does this disparity come from, and what is the danger there?

AH: Unfortunately studies have shown this dire statistic that indicates how rare age-appropriate books are in low-income communities. This lack of access to books has very serious long-term consequences for literacy and learning. When preschoolers do not have access to books and do not learn basic literacy skills at this crucial stage, they face the challenge of starting kindergarten behind their more affluent peers, and unfortunately it is rare that they ever catch up. This has a snowball effect that often ends in an alarming number of high school dropouts and incidences of juvenile delinquency.

NBF: Can you share a moment or two when you saw your program in action and realized that it was really working?

AH: I will never forget a particular email that we received from a parent in Brooklyn. She wrote us to say that she was so thankful for the books her child received for his home library each month because he otherwise was not getting any new books, and she really loves to read with her son.

Other moments of success that we often see are during StoryTime, when the children truly engage with the reader and the book, ask questions, and often ask for the book to be read again. We know our program is working when children are excited to read and want to hear more.

Interview with Chicago Books to Women in Prison’s

Chicago Books to Women in Prison (CBWP), a winner of the 2014 Innovations in Reading Prize, is a volunteer-led collective that provides paperback books to women incarcerated in the U.S. prison system. And they do it all for free. Below is our interview with CBWP’s Linnea Kennedy and other volunteers.


National Book Foundation: Chicago Books to Women in Prison is staffed by a “small but mighty team” of volunteers like yourself. What inspired you to get involved?

Chicago Books to Women in Prison: I first heard about CBWP when Megan Bernard, one of the group’s founding members, came to speak at one of my women’s and gender studies classes in grad school. I was inspired by how immediate and tangible CBWP’s work is—you open a letter, you find the books (or a near match), fill out the mailing label, write a note, package the books for mailing, and done. After my first Sunday at CBWP, I wanted to come back again and again. For me, there is also an element of resistance to the act of answering these book requests—resisting societal forces that largely ignore incarcerated populations (in particular, women), and resisting the larger oppressive structure of the prison industrial complex. A fellow volunteer, Katie Wadell, describes her commitment to CBWP’s mission: “I read all the time, and I would be bereft if I was without books. I volunteer because I don’t want anyone else to be without them.”


NBF: In addition to 3 paperbacks and an order-form to get more books, you send your constituents handwritten notes. What messages do you send out?

CBWP: Usually it’s something simple like, “Hope you enjoy the books!” or “Happy reading!”, or sometimes a “Sorry we don’t have the exact book that you asked for, but here are some others by the same author/in the same genre/ on the same topic, etc.”  If I’ve read the book myself, I’ll write something like, “I really enjoyed this book/author, I hope you like it too!” CBWP volunteer Bill Goosby says, “My handwritten notes usually say something to the point, relating to the order, and something positive, because I regard the inmates as ‘clients,’ not ‘criminals.’…I have noticed that when you sign your name, you may get a ‘thank you’ letter in their next order. Sometimes amounting to several pages of their life story. They seem to be very moved that there is a person ‘out there’ who cares enough to pick books out ‘just for them.’ Sometimes we read the thank you letters to the rest of the volunteers: it seems to inspire them to be more conscientious in their tasks.”


NBF:You aim to offer women “access to a range of literature, free of judgment and with no strings attached.” What are some of the books prison libraries readily carry, and what are the types of books your women are looking for?

CBWP: We get a lot of requests for blank journals/composition notebooks, dictionaries, dream journals, dream interpretation books, meditation, daily affirmation, books on yoga and health. Urban fiction is also a popular request and, unfortunately, not a genre that is donated to us very often. Romance and thriller are also frequently requested genres. GED prep books are also very popular, as are high school- and college-level text books. CBWP volunteer Vicki White explains, “The [availability of books] can vary greatly from prison to prison. We understand that prison libraries are required to make law books available, but, beyond that, budgets, librarian preference and state policy can play a large part. Our limited information suggests that prison libraries carry a variety of fiction and non-fiction. But there may be few copies of particular books that are in high demand. Brief loan periods can mean women cannot hold onto a book for as long as they’d like. And access to the library is often limited. All these factors help create demand for programs like ours… It’s important to add that we get many, many requests for journals and composition books, and we’ve come to see this as an important part of our mission. Women who ask for journals often mention the reasons, which include education (whether as part of a program or self-directed), self-expression and self-reflection. But it has been challenging to meet this need. Some prisons have prohibited journals; we’re not sure, but it could be because they sell them in their own prison stores. Or they may simply want to discourage women’s documentation of their lives in prison. The main issue, however, is that we must send journals by First Class Mail instead of the less expensive Media Mail, and this has meant limiting the sending of journals. We are taking steps to be able to send journals more frequently and to as many women as possible.”


NBF:Can you talk more about opportunities for “self-empowerment, education, and entertainment that reading provides”?

CBWP: In thinking about these important benefits of reading—key to the mission of Chicago Books to Women in Prison—there is one obvious conclusion: these are the same reasons anyone reads. In providing books to women prisoners, it becomes impossible to see them as the “other” because they are (of course!) like us in vital ways. We believe that connection is conveyed to the women we serve, which makes a difference beyond the physical books.

In her book Reading is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons, Megan Sweeney documents extensively the reading practices of incarcerated women. According to Sweeney’s research, drawn from hundreds of interviews conducted with women in three different U.S. prison facilities, reading serves multiple functions for incarcerated women. Reading in prison allows for escapism and entertainment, is a crucial part of self-making and identity creation, and provides a foundation and context for prisoners to understand their past actions and former selves, especially in relation to larger socioeconomic forces and systems. We frequently receive thank you notes from the women who order books from us; they often detail the relief that reading provides—the solitude and moments for reflection that can come from a good book. Sometimes women request books on specific topics related to jobs they are interested in procuring once they are released. I recently answered a letter from a woman who was enrolled in a pre-release job training program in environmentally friendly landscaping. (She was asking for gardening books, an illustrated plant encyclopedia, etc.) Books can be a part of a larger process of planning for life post-incarceration.


NBF: One of your application sponsors described how library access is limited because prisons may view a library as a security risk. She also explains that many books are banned. What do you think is the perceived danger, and what can be done to help prisons see books as a resource rather than contraband?

CBWP: Personally, I wish I knew. I feel like the answer lies somewhere in an ideology shift—less focus on punitive measures and potential sources of profit for the prison system, and more focus on the restoration of prisoners’ humanity and agency.  CBWP volunteer Vicki White explains, “In general, prisons today are more interested in control and pacification than in rehabilitation. For example, we have read that in recent decades television has been made more available to prisoners, while reading has received less support. Prison authorities seem to view thinking prisoners as potentially disruptive. (Perhaps they’re right, in that a prisoner who reads may be more likely to know her rights and pursue them.) There are exceptions, and we’ve read about individual officials who see the benefits of reading in the prison system and have introduced such programs. It does appear that much of the initiative for reading and other enrichment programs comes from the outside, and this is likely to continue until the overall philosophy of the prison system changes. At the same time, there is evidence that reading, along with educational programs in general, tends to reduce recidivism. This should help in gaining the support of prison authorities. But perhaps there are fewer incentives for reducing recidivism than for keeping prisons full? If so, that again suggests that the general situation will change only with changes in the system as a whole.” CBWP volunteer Bill Goosby adds, “A male prisoner who I correspond with, is a gang member from the Crips-Bloods franchise in Los Angeles.  After a recent prison riot, sparked off by some accidental foul during a basketball game, he was put in solitary confinement for two weeks. He was not allowed any personal mail, soap or deodorant, nor any of his books (he is quite literate and articulate), but they allowed him a color TV in his cell! Even he pointed out to me that this is one way they keep inmates from thinking!”


NBF: How can books and the act of reading help prisoners “reclaim their humanity”?

CBWP: To quote one of our dedicated volunteers, Katie Wadell: “Imagination, empathy, curiosity, and the ability to think for ourselves are all part of being human, and are all things that can be repressed in an institutional environment. Reading is a quiet way to get all of that back. I find that reading (especially fiction) stimulates my imagination in ways that can help me find solutions to my problems. I can’t be the only person who feels that way.”

Pam Harcourt, a longtime CBWP volunteer adds, “It’s important to note that we don’t serve just clients in women’s prisons, but also trans women who write us from inside men’s prisons. We had a lengthy letter from a woman in her early thirties who’d been inside a men’s prison for 10 years. She described being assaulted many times and said that reading helped her pass some suicidal early years inside, and that she’d since built community with many of the younger women who came to the prison, taking on a mentoring role with them. This mentorship included general care and safety as well as seeing them through GED and other studies. The girls were thrilled (as were we) that they had recently won a victory, getting their own pod (group of cells). But when the prisoners who had previously been in those cells moved, they ransacked that pod’s library, leaving very little left. We had a list of requests from each trans prisoner, but we voted to break our three-books rule and send them a large box with their requests and more. There were some requests for trans-related books (one of the few categories which we purchase, as we get few donations), but many for spirituality, romance, horror— the usual requests. In some cases the small service we provide is one of the few instances of a woman being recognized, in any official way, as a woman. We think being able to determine one’s gender, rather than it being determined by the state, is important to one’s humanity.


Interview with Books on Bases’ Janet McIntosh

Books on Bases, a winner of the 2014 Innovations in Reading Prize, provides free books and reading programs to children of military families across the country, helping them to develop a sense of community, stability, and essential literacy skills. Below is our interview with program manager Janet McIntosh.

National Book Foundation: How did you come up with the idea for Books on Bases?

Janet McIntosh: Blue Star Families (BSF) created the Books on Bases program in 2009. The goal of the program is to positively impact military children and inspire a love of reading through free books. Military children face many challenges when a parent serves in the military and many of these challenges affect their education. The Books on Bases program focuses on working with parents and children to enhance literacy skills and create a life-long love of reading. The Books on Bases program was also created as a morale program for military kids, giving them a program full of children-focused events. When a child is dealing with a parent being deployed or separated, it is nice to have an afternoon where you get to be a part of a program designed just for you.


NBF: In your application essay, you write that certain difficult features of the “military lifestyle—long separations, recurring geographic relocations, and frequent school changes—have resulted in greater emotional, behavioral, and educational challenges for military children.” Books on Bases has an obvious educational benefit, but how does reading improve emotional and behavioral issues?

JM: In addition to offering free books for children, Books on Bases is a resource to parents. When a child is dealing with a deployed parent or has been separated from a parent for long periods of time, they can experience a lot of different and often difficult emotions. Some children may act out during these periods because they don’t have a way of expressing themselves. Books on Bases aims to assist parents by giving them a program that will not only boost their child’s morale but also support their literacy skills, helping children better experience their feelings. Children can lose themselves in a book and reading can provide an escape from the everyday challenges. Books on Bases also provides children with fun events where they can connect with other military kids, build new friendships, and have some fun. Being able to interact with those going through similar situations can also be a very valuable resource for a child.


NBF: Can you tell us more about how technology, especially your online reading groups, has helped foster a sense of community for “milkids”?

JM: Books on Bases helps military children stay emotionally connected and educationally prepared. During the summer when most military families move, children often miss opportunities to participate in community summer reading programs. Consequently, BSF created an innovative, interactive online summer reading program specifically for military children, allowing them to take part in a summer reading program virtually, no matter where they are in the world. Children download a reading log, track summer reading, and submit their logs via email or mail. At the end of the summer we recognize the kids through certificates and prizes for all the great reading they did over the summer. Interacting through this online program, children receive a sense of connection with other “milkids” that might otherwise be lost.


NBF: What are some titles that particularly resonate with “milkids” and their families?

JM: Our military children are diverse and so are their tastes in books. Many of our older children were very into popular series, such as the Percy Jackson series, Hunger Games, and the Divergent series. Our younger kids are always fans of Dr. Seuss books and books that involve super heroes or Disney characters, like Cars and the Disney Princesses. We were fortunate to be able to offer children a variety of wonderful books specific to their age group and reading level. The children and their families are also very fond of books that speak to military life. Dr. Jill Biden’s Don’t Forget, God Bless Our Troops and Debbie Fink’s The Little C.H.A.M.P.S books have been big hits with military families.


NBF: What was the moment when you knew Books on Bases was having the impact you’d hoped for?

JM: I think we see the biggest impact through the families and their response to the program, especially at events. We have had many families who attend our events and are so appreciative of the free books and the opportunities those books offer their kids. Parents see Books on Bases as a valuable tool for their children and something that can make a true impact on their lives. Another gratifying part of the program is the numerous thank you letters from schools and libraries that have received Books on Bases book donations and are better able to serve their local military families. There is a need in our communities, and it is very rewarding to know that Books on Bases is making a real impact in the lives of our military children and families.