By Pam Leo, literacy activist and author
“There’s no such thing as other people’s children.“
– Glennon Doyle, Untamed
When someone uses the phrase, “all hands on deck”, there is usually a crisis and what they are saying is …. “everybody needs to pitch in and do the task at hand.”
We are ushering in 2024 in an early literacy crisis. The “task at hand” is maintaining literacy equity for ALL of Maine’s youngest children. Literacy equity will cease in
Maine unless everyone pitches in to make sure the families of every preschool child continue to receive free books.
For 24 years Maine has had literacy equity through the unparalleled, no-barrier, literacy program, Raising Readers. Generously funded by the Libra Foundation, Raising Readers handed free, age-appropriate books to every child in Maine beginning at their birth and at every well-child doctor visit through age five. This beloved, irreplaceable program will be ending in March 2024. We must now create other ways to make sure the parents of every preschool child have books in their home, from birth, so they can read to their young ones and build the early literacy foundation their children need to be ready to learn to read.
It is every child’s human right to learn to read. Their future standard of living and quality of life will depend on learning to read. Since “there is no such thing as other people’s children,” it is every adult’s responsibility to contribute, in some way, to literacy equity for all children. We all have something to contribute. What if every person donated one book to one child, or told one story to one child? What kind of difference would that make? In the 7 years since founding Book Fairy Pantry Project I have had many opportunities to see the kind of difference one person can make. At the height of the pandemic, when schools and libraries were closed, families who had no books in their homes were suddenly without access to books. A local Eagle Scout responded by building two Little Free Libraries that we were able to install in two under-resourced neighborhoods. Now those neighborhoods have 24/7 access to free books for all ages.
When Book Fairy Pantry Project lost all its book donation locations, at doctor’s offices, because of the pandemic, (just when we were needed most) Maine Needs saved the day by offering to become our donation location. They also support early literacy by instructing their volunteers to include age-appropriate books in every request for children’s clothing whether they request books or not.
When I put out a request for the homemade pillowcases we needed to create “First Night Comfort KiTs,” for children spending their first night in foster care, the response from the community was abundant. We have already given out over 100 KiTs to foster parents. Without exception, when I thank them, they thank ME for giving them the opportunity to be a volunteer, from home, doing something they love, sewing, and a chance to make a difference.
We all have a chance to make a difference. Book Fairy Pantry Project, a small but mighty grassroots, all-volunteer, all-donation community literacy resource, is making a difference. Young children donating their outgrown books to help us make sure there will be “no child with no books” are making a difference. The state of Maine is working to enlist the cosponsors needed to make Dolly Parton Imagination Library available to families statewide and the Reach Out and Read program will also be coming to Maine, these programs will make a difference.
In the meantime, we need many volunteer book fairies, receiving and distributing donated books at every childcare facility, every elementary school, every library, every church, and every food pantry. We also need volunteer reading buddies in the schools to assist the teachers in helping the students who are struggling to read because they fell behind as a result of the pandemic.
“Literacy is inseparable from opportunity, and opportunity is inseparable from freedom. The freedom promised by literacy is both freedom from — from ignorance, oppression, poverty — and freedom to — to do new things, to make choices, to learn.”
— Koichiro Matsuura”
In the ancient Chinese philosophy, it is said that “opportunities often arise from crisis.” This early literacy crisis can be an opportunity for creativity. Whether or not Maine continues to “raise readers” will depend on how many ways we can find to increase the number of books in every household with young children. We are all stakeholders in the future literacy of Maine’s youngest children because they are Maine’s future.
Pam Leo, is a family literacy activist, the author of Connection Parenting, and a new book, Please Read To Me. Her enduring love of children's books, her passion for literacy, and her commitment to empowering parents, are combined in her new role as the founder of the Book Fairy Pantry Project, whose mission is "No Child With No Books," because "Books change children's lives... For good."