- Associated Press - Saturday, April 20, 2019

LINDENWOLD, N.J. (AP) - The new Little Free Library in front of Lindenwold School No. 4 is painted in cheerful shades of yellow and blue, with a few cottony clouds thrown in.

When students asked teacher Nancy Bragg why she included clouds, she said she wanted them to know the “sky’s the limit.”

But it seems a group of third-graders at the school already has figured that out.

After reading the book “Little Free Libraries Everywhere,” five children told their teacher they wanted a library for their school - in a very specific spot.

“They said, ‘What if we had a library on the playground?’ “said Marie Aberant, who shared the book during a guided reading lesson in her team-teaching classroom.

The freestanding “take-a-book, leave-a-book” Little Free Libraries - inspired by and registered with a national nonprofit - are common in some New Jersey towns. Aberant told her students the libraries are plentiful where she lives in Moorestown.

Now they just had to figure out how to get a library filled with books for their Lindenwold school. They decided to ask “The Book Man,” aka Larry Abrams, a Lindenwold High School teacher.

Abrams earned his nickname through his nonprofit group, BookSmiles, which collects and distributes new and gently used books. BookSmiles has held pop-up book fairs at Lindenwold School No. 4 and other district elementary schools to help children build up their home libraries.

Third-grader Nely Beltran-Salazar wrote the letter in neatly penciled hand, explaining, “We want a little Library at lindenwold school #4. Because we want to read new books we haven’t read. We would like to put the little library at the playground. We need the library because we want to read new books. also, we want to read outside durring (sic) recess.”

The letter, sent in the fall, was also signed by the other children in Aberant’s guided reading group: Dominic Roberts, Anthony Rubio-Belis, Edwynn Maldonado and Valerie Corona.

When the kids got a response from Abrams, they learned they were in luck: A Little Free Library structure had been donated to BookSmiles, and was just waiting for the right home.

As Aberant’s reading group gathered in the main office ahead of Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting for the Little Free Library in front of the school, they were brimming with excitement and proud smiles.

“Our idea actually came to life and it’s actually happening,” Aberant said.

The kids even drew models of what they thought the library should look like, from Dominic’s basketball-inspired design from Nely’s picture of an emoji, heart and flower propped on stands.

Success story

Abrams said he began BookSmiles after recognizing a need among his students, and asking himself “How can I get students coming to high school being better readers and better writers?”

The difference for students, he concluded, centered around who had books in the house at an early age.

While a “little bit of it is cultural,” Abrams and other Lindenwold educators say finances are the main obstacle to filling kids’ bookshelves.

So Abrams launched BookSmiles in 2017 with a user-friendly formula that involves setting up collection boxes, then enlisting school volunteers to help sort books by age group and category. The books are then distributed at the pop-up fairs.

But the kids are really the key to the program, Abrams.said.

“We’re using these elementary school kids as the emissaries by saying ‘Take these books back to the babies and read to them.’ ” he said. “That’s the secret sauce.”

Abrams’ high school students are also involved, helping sort and distribute books as a community service.

“We think it’s cool these kids are really excited and want books,” said Rachel Cerrate, a Lindenwold High senior who was helping at the elementary school on Tuesday. “When we were in elementary school, we didn’t have this just because nobody cared this much to get us books in this way.”

Outside of Lindenwold, BookSmiles is also active in the Glassboro and Vineland districts, distributing thousands of free books for kids to take home. Abrams hopes enthusiastic teachers will help more schools adopt the program.

“If we could get one teacher in every underserved district … boom, it takes off. It’s a no-brainer.”

Backing from principals, such as Lindenwold School No. 4’s Dana Lawrence, is essential to the program’s success, Abrams said.

Lawrence welcomed the Little Free Library as an extension of book donations the students receive from the school and BookSmiles.

“We just hope that it supports kids’ love of reading and they get the opportunity to read outside of schools.

“All the research tells us the kids need to have books in the home in order to become readers.”

Creating opportunity

The Lindenwold educators acknowledged that working-class communities like their students’ neighborhood are less likely to see Little Free Libraries.

“In the urban community, they’re not coming together the same way they are in the affluent communities,” said Lawrence.

The Little Free Library organization does its part to spread the program to all areas, said spokeswoman Margret Aldrich,

“Often we see the first Little Free Libraries in a community sprout in middle- or upper-income areas, but then the network grows to include schools, businesses, and lower-income centers. The LFL movement is an inclusive one, and we try to get the word out to folks of all backgrounds through social media and other types of communication,” she said via email.

The nonprofit’s Impact Library Program welcomes needy communities to apply for a Little Free Library and invites the public to donate, Aldrich said.

Bragg, who teaches English as a Second Language at Lindenwold School No. 4, said she hopes Little Free Libraries can spread in lower-income areas.

“The parents are busy paying the bills. Books are a priority, but they’re not in the budget.”

After seeing the impact of BookSmiles’ pop-up fairs, she collected hundreds of donated books herself by placing a collection box at Tuckerton Seaport.

“I saw the energy of the kids leaving with bags full of books,” Bragg said.

She makes sure her classroom has Spanish-language books for children who are not yet reading in English.

“A lot of my kids come and can read in Spanish,” Bragg said. “I take them to the shelf with the Spanish books and their face just lights up.”

But English books also accomplish a lot, as students can use them to help their parents learn the language, Bragg said.

Book bonanza

By third grade, when children begin reading chapter books and series, their appetite for books goes through a growth spurt, Aberant noted.

“They get excited about what they’re reading and they want to read more.”

The Lindenwold students will get their chance after the ribbon was cut on the fully stocked Little Free Library. A pop-up BookSmiles book fair followed the ribbon cutting, giving the students even more books to take home.

Many of the school’s students live in the apartment complex across the street and will be able to easily walk over with their parents to get books all summer long, Lawrence said.

When she spoke at the ribbon-cutting, the principal told the students the library was equipped with a camera to prevent any “funny business.”

She is optimistic that the library will be easy to keep full.

“Our hope is our kids start to recycle books as they grow out of them in their own home library,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence congratulated the children who asked for the library for using their “powers of persuasion.”

For Nely, who read the students’ letter at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, seeing the Little Free Library come to fruition was a surprise,

“I didn’t actually know we would have a little library,” she said.





Information from: Courier-Post (Cherry Hill, N.J.), http://www.courierpostonline.com/

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