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March 28, 2012
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What we aim to do with our book distributions is really pretty simple: build home libraries for kids who need books. What makes us different is that we don’t want to give one or two books—we want to give a stack of books. We aim to give 12 books to each child so that they can feel like they have the start of a real library. We stamp each book with “From the Library of” to reinforce the fact that these kids, who may not have had a single book, now are book owners.

The other thing that makes us different is choice. We set up a small bookstore at the school and allow the students to make their own selections of half of their books. Their teachers choose the other half. For many of these students, the opportunity to choose whatever books they want by whatever criteria they want is a new experience. They are often the grateful recipients of secondhand items that are handed to them, but they don’t often have the latitude of browsing, evaluating, rejecting, or selecting. RIF writes that the opportunity to make book choices is an experience that may translate into being discerning in other areas of life. Experiences in autonomy build on each other. And boy is it great to see those excited children methodically and thoughtfully reading the backs of books and thumbing through to make their selections.

Because we are giving so many books, students and teachers can pick a range of books. Some children went home with a book that they fell in love with but that was below or above their level. One older boy clung to Richard Scary’s Best Word Book Ever like it was treasure, even though he was a chapter book reader. I don’t know why he was so drawn to it, but it was important to him, so he went home with it and a bunch of chapter books. Another boy chose the longest book he could find, way above his reading level, and also went home with a good supply of early chapter books like Nate the Great and Magic Tree House. Other children got a mix of subjects and genres—non-fiction, sports books, fables, arts and crafts, and poetry.

The other thing we do on book selection day is to make board books available for kids to take home to their younger brothers and sisters. We found that students were sacrificing their own books in order to pick books for siblings. Their generosity and selflessness was very moving, and we were thrilled to be able to give our students their own stack of books as well as additional books for younger siblings. The care and thoughtfulness that went into picking a book for a sister or brother was incredible. One child spent a long time looking for a book for his not-yet-born brother. “I’ll start him off right,” he said.

All of the kids eagerly promised to read to their siblings. When we asked, “What are your sisters and brothers going to want to do when they see you reading your books?” without hesitation, they responded, “READ!” Was it my imagination that they left with their heads held higher? I don’t think so. They left our store as the keepers of their own libraries. Books matter.

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