“I certainly love the transformative experience of reading, of going to other worlds, of experiencing other cultures,” Abrams said.
Abrams began his teaching career in an affluent suburb outside of Philadelphia before moving to a high school in the underfunded community of Lindenwold, New Jersey.
“I had heard of food deserts, but I had never heard of book deserts. And it occurred to me that I teach in a book desert,” Abrams said. “A lot of kids in school are just struggling to read. In my ninth grade class, it’s very common to have kids reading at a fifth grade reading level. And if you’re struggling to read, you’re going to struggle with writing.”
In 2017, when one of her high school seniors told her she wasn’t reading to her 2-year-old daughter, Abrams sprang into action. He appealed to friends and family asking for gently used children’s books, and in no time he had over 1,000.
“It just got addictive,” Abrams said. “There are millions of kids in America who have never owned a book in their life. I want to change that.”
His organization has since collected, sorted and distributed hundreds of thousands of books throughout New Jersey and the Philadelphia area — and will soon reach 1 million, Abrams says.
BookSmiles engages the community to help collect books and drop them off at the group’s large collection bins, which are painted with literary-themed artwork and located outside local businesses, places of worship , schools and homes.
Books are often distributed by teachers, who come to the book bank and select as many books as they wish.
“It’s a feeding frenzy when teachers can walk away with books to take back to their classroom libraries and to their students,” Abrams said. “It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet meets a second-hand bookstore.”
BookSmiles recently moved into its new, larger warehouse in nearby Pennsauken. Abrams also purchased a 16-foot box truck to increase the number of books they can haul. The organization has partnered with two local food banks where it provides thousands of books each month to distribute to families in need.
CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Abrams about her efforts. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
NC: Why is it important that children are exposed to reading as early as possible?
Larry Abrams: Children should be read because it is something joyful. It’s something that connects parent and child in such a visceral and important way. Reading books creates a moment that will never end; he will always stay with the child. Plus, reading books to your kids empowers them. The most important tool they get are words. There are children who grow up hearing a lot of words because they are read to every night. They are used to hearing chained sentences when they are babies. And then there are other children who never have that. Reading and books help level the playing field. He gives words, millions of words to those babies who really, really need them.
I hope that every child who receives our books accumulates their own library and reads the books so that they arrive at kindergarten ready to read. Giving books to children almost ensures academic success. And every child in America should have the chance to succeed academically. Being able to use language and words is power.
NC: Your organization serves areas considered book deserts. What is a desert of books?
Abraham: These are areas where people just don’t have access to books. There are book deserts in rural Appalachia. There are book deserts in North Philadelphia. They don’t have (books) at home. In many book deserts there are no libraries, no bookstores. There are pockets of poverty where people simply don’t have the funds to buy a book. There are many families who survive and make it to the next paycheck. Formula milk is expensive. Food is expensive. The rent is expensive.
Some people are one paycheck away from disaster, and they don’t have the resources to spend money on books. That’s where we come in – to help people like this. We work to irrigate the deserts of books by pouring hundreds of thousands of books. We are changing and improving lives one book at a time.
NC: Why is it so important for you to involve teachers in your efforts?
Abraham: I am a teacher and it is super important to help other teachers. Teachers receive a small stipend to go buy supplies (for their classrooms). But too often we have to spend hundreds of dollars of our own money to provide children with a real quality learning environment. We are the ones who have to buy Kleenex. We have to buy markers. I hate when teachers have to go in line with their hats in hand to beg for school supplies. This shouldn’t happen.
Teachers who really care are committed to paying out of pocket to provide more robust learning environments for their students. And when we’re here to give them hundreds of dollars of pounds, it’s a blessing, and they appreciate it. Some of these teachers become addicted to the book bank, and we want them to because they are the best book distributors we have. In many cities, we teachers are underestimated. But we really are a powerful force. We are an army. Teachers get along well, especially those who love the profession and are long-term. So if I can help them by giving them books, that’s a great thing.