Ann Braden didn’t mean to start a movement.
The former middle school teacher, whose debut middle grade novel, The Benefits of Being an Octopus, will be published in September, simply had a stack of books from a recent conference and remembered a recent Donalyn Miller Nerdy Book Club post. It’s not complicated, Miller wrote, kids need access to books.
With that inspiration, Braden decided to offer her stack of books to a teacher or librarian whose students needed them. In early May, she posted a picture of the books on Twitter, asked teachers or librarians to reply if they wanted a chance to win them, and added the hashtag #KidsNeedBooks. She figured she would randomly select a winner, ship the books off, and that would be the end of it. Only that’s not exactly what happened.
Author Jarrett Lerner saw Braden’s post and decided he would give away a stack, too. “That is what really set off not just the avalanche of need but the avalanche of generosity, too,” says Braden.
Less than a month later, 87 people, mostly authors, have offered stacks of books on Twitter, with more than 500 books given away.
The response from educators has been overwhelming—much more than Braden expected, although she admits she shouldn’t have been surprised.
“We all have a sense that schools and libraries are under-resourced,” she says. “In retrospect [the response] makes sense.”
Anyone who has books to offer and wants to help can do it. As Miller said, it’s not complicated.
“A lot of us in the book world love reading and love books,” says Braden. “We accumulate books over time, and you do not have the shelf space. [You have] that thought of, ’I love this book. Yes, I want it on my shelf so I can recommend it to someone and give it to them,’ but how often is that going to happen? How much better would it be if kids were just reading it over and over again in a classroom? Why is this book sitting on my shelf without getting read?”
Post a picture, add #KidsNeedBooks, pick a winner, pack up the books, and then mail them. It’s an easy and accessible process. For those so inclined, contact Braden with the winner’s name and school, so she can keep track and make sure the books are being spread out among those in need. She has two Google spreadsheets going. One keeps tracks of which schools received books, to make sure that they “spread the love,” as Braden says. The second is a crowdsourced list of organizations that already give books to kids in need and which areas are missed.
“The need is so great, and we want to figure out how can we make this a long-term thing that helps kids get books,” she says. “We’re trying to get a sense of the landscape in terms of what programs already exist, where are the spots where schools and libraries are falling through the cracks, and figure out how can we be helpful without reinventing the wheel.”
Despite her previous commitments, the upcoming book release and the lack of the original intention to do more than give away some books and move on, Braden is committed—with the support of the author and book-loving community—to doing something about it now and in the long-term.
“Authors love kids and books, teachers love kids and books,” says Braden. “Bringing these two together is a really powerful force.”
Lerner has talked to Braden about a program in the United Kingdom called Book Buddy, where authors have ongoing relationships with schools. She would love to see something like that come out of this. She envisions an “informal book delivery” in October, followed by a visit from the author (in person or via Skype) in March. The writer would ask the children which books they liked and which they didn’t and engage with them about writing and books.
“Let the kids ask questions about the writing process and show that idea that authors are readers just like they are and that they can be writers just like this author,” she says. “Just break down the barriers of seeing books, and the people who write books, as something that would never come into the school. When you go to a school that can’t afford [author] visits, you’re broadening [the kids’] world in a huge and really powerful way.”
She hopes the current #KidsNeedBooks campaign and any future endeavor would not only fill schools with books but homes as well.
“I taught a lot of kids who were forced to deal with the realities of poverty and didn’t have books at home,” she says. “A good book has the power to help them see their situation with new eyes and help them recognize their inner strength, even when they have to be surrounded by people that are making snap judgements about them that do not recognize their inner strength. I see it as a lifeline for them. It can be a really powerful way out of your situation.”
This idea of books as a lifeline is not new to Braden. She has a children’s book podcast with author Saadia Faruqi, whose children’s book Meet Yasmin will be out in August. The podcast, Lifelines: Books that Bridge the Divide, is “conversations with librarians, educators, and readers about the children’s books that can be bridges across our cultural divides…the books that can open minds and the books that can be the lifeline a child needs to remember they’re not alone.”
She hopes this impromptu #KidsNeedBooks movement can shed some light on the state of education and need in the country.
“I feel like this brought attention to just how there is a really big push for literacy, a focus on standardized testing, but we know that most kids won’t learn to love reading unless they have access to great books,” she says. “This is kind of a Band-Aid. We really need institutional change that recenters things on the whole child, not just the part of them that can do isolated literacy skills in a test bubble. We need a whole shift in our culture, but let’s put a Band-Aid on while we need to. I’m hoping that over time, whatever voices we have can help draw attention to how under-resourced a lot of schools and libraries are in terms of books.”
For now, she just wants to give some books where they are needed most.
“We know how important it is that kids have books to bring home with them in the summer,” she says.