By: Caitlyn Richtman
On a chilly November day, a young child skipped down Pulaski Street in Athens, his pudgy hand clutching his mother’s. He broke away from his mom when he spotted a small, red and white wooden box shingled with roof tiles standing tall in a Pulaski resident’s front yard. The child ran up to the box, opened it with a creak and snatched a children’s book out of it before shutting the box again and hurrying to catch up with his mother who had stopped to wait for him a few paces ahead. The boy grabbed his mother’s hand again while looking down at the prize the box had just given him and he continued to skip down the street towards downtown Athens.
The box that the little boy ran up to is one of Athens’ Little Free Libraries which are structures that have been built by the community to encourage Athens residents to read. Little Free Libraries are wooden boxes that are filled with books which anyone can freely take. There are over a dozen of these libraries scattered throughout the Athens area.
The book distribution points are part of a national trend. The Little Free Library project was started by Todd Bol in 2009 when he built a wooden box filled with books to put outside of his home in Wisconsin. Bol wanted to give his community access to free books 24 hours a day. The Little Free Libraries run on the hope that everyone who takes a book will one day come back and replace the book with a new one.
A major portion of the Little Free Libraries in Athens were built by the 2013 LEAD class, a year-long leadership program of the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce. The 2013 LEAD class, mainly referred to as READ Athens after choosing to focus on literacy in Athens, built five libraries for the Athens community.
“It was a self-sustaining project, and the community really did adopt them,” Sarah Freeman, a member of READ Athens, told Ampersand Magazine in 2016.
Books Coming to Schools
The Athens community goes above and beyond to promote reading in Athens, mainly for children. Organizations such as Books for Keeps strive to promote reading and prevent “summer slide” for Athens children. Summer slide is when children leave school for summer vacation and they lose their reading skills because they don’t have access to books. Summer slide is more prevalent in low-income communities such as Athens-Clarke County, according to a study done at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2015, 41.6 percent of children living in Athens-Clarke County were living in poverty.
Books for Keeps was started in 2009 by Athens resident, Melaney Smith, after she heard about a second-grade student not looking forward to summer vacation because she had no books at home. After finding research that linked third grade reading levels to high school graduation rates, Books for Keeps was officially launched as a nonprofit in Athens in 2011.
“When students don’t have books to read during the summer, they’re at risk for falling behind,” said Leslie Hale, the executive director for Books for Keeps. “It’s really a big contributor to the achievement gap, driving a wedge between students who have access and students who don’t have access.”
According to Hale, Books for Keeps serves 15 elementary schools and 6,000 students. For this summer, 72,000 books that have been gathered throughout the school year will be given out over the course of one month. Each child gets 12 books to hold them over throughout the summer months.
“Once we start to give away the books in the schools in late April, I will be in the schools almost every single day,” Hale said.
Hale, the rest of the Books for Keeps staff and volunteers will work tirelessly during the giveaway month to ensure every child gets their books. According to Hale, there are “innumerable” improvements to children’s lives through books.
“If children can change the notion of reading from something they have to do into something they want to do,” Hale said. “When they’re assigned something later that they have to read, they are going to approach it with more of a sense of possibility than as a burden.”
Books Hit The Road
Cameron Brooks is about to wrap up his 10th year as a third-grade teacher at Chase Street Elementary School, a Title I school in Athens. Brooks is no stranger to summer slide and calls it a “perennial problem.”
After reading “That Book Woman” by Heather Henson and “Richard Wright and the Library Card” by William Miller to his class over the years, two books that depict people who have difficulty procuring literature, an idea popped into Brooks’ head.
In response to the “guilt” he felt for holding hundreds of books hostage in his classroom that his students could be reading over the summer, Brooks came up with the idea for what he calls the “Bibliobike.” The Bibliobike is a bike that has a trailer filled with books attached to the back of it which Brooks can ride around to students’ houses during the summer- a sort of mobile library.
On March 4, Brooks started a GoFundMe page to raise the almost $6,000 he would need to complete this project. After posting a video explaining the Bibliobike to the page, Brooks raised the $6,000 in 24 hours.
Brooks recognizes that the Bibliobike could not happen without the “extraordinarily supportive” Athens community who have been there in many different aspects of his teaching not just this specific project.
Brooks started to teach for the “greater good,” and he believes that giving children books over the summer with the Bibliobike can be a part of the good that he is trying to put into the world.
“All subjects build upon a foundation of literacy,” Brooks said. “But more importantly, literature provides a scaffold for skills that are more difficult to quantify than reading, writing or math. Soft skills such as empathy, critical thinking and social emotional learning often begin with a book.”
Books Changing Lives
According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 93 million adults in America read at or below the basic level needed to successfully contribute to society.
For University of Georgia English major, Ginny Morris, reading was an important part of growing into the person she is today.
According to Morris, giving children the opportunity to read and instilling a love of of reading at a young age is an important step to producing literate adults.
“It started out with my mom pushing me towards books. I don’t quite think she realized what she was doing. In high school, I realized how powerful and moving reading can be. My English teacher in high school taught me that books can teach us what it means to be human,” Morris said.
Morris remembers her summers being filled with books and enjoying investing more of her time in the world of books.
“Reading has advanced my ability to critically think,” Morris said.
Books Finding New Homes
In a world muddled with technology which preaches it is the most convenient way to consume books, Avid Bookshop, a local Athens favorite, is here to convince you otherwise.
“Print is not dead. I get personally offended when people say that. I’m tired of that narrative and it’s bullsh*t,” Rachel Watkins said, the events director at Avid Bookshop.
At least in Athens, print is very much not dead thanks to Avid. A hallmark of Prince Avenue since 2011, Avid opened a second location at Five Points in November 2016.
According to Rachel Kaplan, the events assistant at Avid Bookshop, bookstores will always be around because nothing beats “reading a book in the flesh.”
Along with providing a location for Athens residents to buy books, Avid also hosts author events, book clubs, children story times, culinary events and poetry events to name a few.
Avid strives to support the community that supports them which includes planning events for children in Athens.
“If you’re a reader in your childhood, you’re going to be a reader as an adult. That’s how we ensure we’ll have business in 20 years,” Watkins laughed.
Avid hosts book fairs, brings authors to schools, and has a weekly story time for children in shop. They even have a full-time school engagement specialist.
“We don’t want to be seen as a one dimensional place,” Kaplan stated. “We want to be able to provide programming for all ages, people from various walks of life. We want to serve the community as a whole.”
Watkins describes Avid as a “third place.” A place where the whole community can come to when they need to.
“Reading helps you feel known,” Watkins said. “It provides an outlet for you to discover emotional support. It can make your world bigger even when you’re trapped by finances, economics, your station in life, and how old you are.”