Hitting the Books

Mark Grant

Welcome to a place for passion. I’m Mark Grant. When I was a kid, my Mum would take me to the library every Wednesday night. I’d sit down for story time with Muriel, the librarian, along with another twenty toddlers in PJ’s, listening to her read to us. Then, I’d get to go and pick out my own books to read. I remember looking forward to it every week for years, and looking back, my love of reading really started there. Lately, I’ve realized just how lucky I was. I grew up in a town a little ways north of Toronto. It was sleepy and it was quiet, but it always had every service i needed. Here in the city, not every neighbourhood has the same access to the kinds of programs I was able to take for granted. In 2008, Kim Beatty, a lawyer with a successful practice, left her career behind to open up a non-profit dedicated to just that. She founded her place for passion: the Children’s Book Bank. In a yellow-bricked Victorian house just off busy Gerard St, she and her volunteers made an amazing space for kids to discover reading, kids who would have a hard time getting books at home. Kim has since stepped away to let new hands take the till, and steer the Book Bank towards its future.

Mary: My name is Mary Ladky, I’m the executive director of the children’s book bank here in Toronto. The organization has been around for about 10 years but i am new to it, having taken the position in mid July, and I’m delighted to be here.

Mark: Mary and I sat down to talk about the Book Bank and its new direction, which of course meant talking about her.

Mary: My professional career is really as an educator but I was always in some way associated with reading. I was a high school english teacher then i went back and got my doctorate in my 40’s, and taught teachers or people who wanted to become teachers about literacy and reading and its importance and my thesis was also focused on that subject. I was just so impressed with the mission of this organization, i just thought “how can i contribute? How can i help this organization become a stable part of this effort around literacy?” I really wanted to have as direct an impact upon people upon people who may or may not be able to have that immediate experience in their own lives because of challenges.

Mark: She’s not kidding about challenges. The Book Bank sits at the north end of Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. The city’s 2011 census estimated half of Regent Park’s residents are low-income, with a quarter of residents on social assistance. Despite the neighbourhood’s access to healthy food and green space, its mortality and rates of mental health issues and hospitalization are alarming. The Book Bank’s location here is no accident. Regent Park is a vulnerable area, with a high population of children, 20% in 2011. Just under half of households here speak a language other than English or French at home, with a higher proportion of recent immigrants than the rest of the city. Mary and the Book Bank do their best to help newcomers to Canada, the best way they know how.

Mary: Access to books, primarily. Some of my experiences in the past has been working with newcomers. I was the board chair of the New Canadian’s Center in Peterborough when i was working at Trent. And i saw the importance of access to books, home literacy, how that shapes our engagement with the world around us and as citizens. And I just wanted to be part of an organization that was doing that really at the ground level.

Mark: One thing the Book Bank does at ground level is act as an alternative to the library just around the corner, which begs the question: why have a Book Bank when we have libraries? For someone just approaching reading for the first time, the official, administrative library can be intimidating for kids and their parents. The Book Bank offers an alternative to help folks get comfortable picking out books.

Mary: What we really do is provide a different kind of literacy space because parents and children come in here, there’s no signup, they do not have to get a library card, and the books are for free - they don’t have to return them or be concerned about library dues. So that’s really the main difference, and after the age of 12, students stop coming here and we encourage them to begin taking out books on their own in the library. But in the meantime, during those really important early literacy years, we offer another space that is completely barrier-free. The founder really wanted to mimic the experience of going into a bookstore.

Mark: The arrangement of the books was one of the first things that struck me when I first walked in. Between the two handsome mahogany fireplaces from the original home, the shelves stand wider than you’d expect - I guess I had been expecting a library, actually. The Bank volunteers arrange their wares proudly, facing the covers into the room, not the spines. They show off the books at eye level for a young kid, enticing little browsers to pick up a book which, it seems, they are allowed to judge by its cover. The books are arranged by category and subject as opposed to by author, with some exceptions, like Robert Munsch. On the whole, the place feels like an old, upscale book shop for kids.

Mary: I certainly remember when my mother used to take me to Schwartz's Bookstore in Milwaukee Wisconsin, and  I could be so excited because, well any time you have the opportunity to know someone’s going to buy you a special thing, that you’re going to take home and put on the shelf and read when feeling down or even when you’re extremely happy, it’s yours to keep. She really believed, the founder really believed that that was an essential experience for young early readers, that book ownership. And research does bear that out, that children who own books and have the opportunity to have their own personal library, tend to do better in school, tend to be more successful down the road.

Mark: She’s right. In fact, an Israeli study found not only did children who were read to and read at home do much better at school, as early as kindergarten, but that ownership had another big advantage. It turns out kids do well reading the same books over and over again. The study found that the children who owned books were the ones starting reading sessions with their parents. The kids themselves would try and simplify difficult parts, and would interrupt the reading to ask questions. Their confidence came from reading the same book until they could start taking charge. No two week library loan allows for that kind of time. Kids know what they want, and respond to a place that tries to give it to them.

Mary: What i see here over and over again, and I’d say this is particularly true [in my experience with] boys, where we’d come down and we look for a book and they wait patiently ‘cause they’re really keen on this book that they want and then you find it. And you see this over-joy, like “wow, i’ve got the book i want, I’m so excited to read” and if you can actually stoke that kind of passion, and get them excited about reading, and maybe sow the seeds for later in continued engagement as readers in the world. I think that’s pretty darn great. So I’m willing to spend my days making sure that happens as often as possible.

Mark: And we need that to happen as often as possible, because the problem extends past vulnerable kids not having access to books. A 2016 report by OCED, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, put Canada in the lower half of countries studied in teen literacy. For a country that prides ourselves on our education system, we have a long way to go. Where can we improve our educational system? What is the answer? Part of the problem, according to Mary, is that we’re looking for just one answer.

Mary: I think that I’ve always had a personal philosophy of the perspective that there’s no one, fits-all answer. My early teaching experiences were in the private system, and then i went on to Trent and taught teacher candidates to work in in the public system, and i sent my kids to the public system. Does that mean that the private system is bad, and should never have existed? No. Because I just think that, A: there’s no one-size, there’s no one answer to any large question. Everybody can contribute a piece. So i really believe that as a community, as a larger community, we can all contribute in some way to making, improving literacy outcomes, for example. So, sure, we work in partnership with public schools, we work in partnership with private schools because they donate books. Anyone who wants to come and engage in lifting up literacy outcomes for the toronto community, that’s ok with me. I don’t think any one institution [can solve one problem.] So I feel like I’m a partner in a larger project.

Mark: And this is a larger project, and an older one than you’d expect. It seems wherever we try to look at the problem and solve it, we’re missing a piece. As early as 1993, researchers like Kris Gutierrez were drawing attention to the needs of bilingual literacy learners - the newcomers Mary and the Book Bank try and help. Gutierrez hits on the ideas of language being a social and socially learned thing, that we need to pay individual attention to children. He even points out how sensitive the context of where the child learns to read can be - we’ve already seen the difference between a bookshop and a library. But can you see the thing he misses? It’s a big one. He assumes book access won’t be a problem. To be honest, I had never considered that issue, either. It’s not something a middle class kid from Newmarket would consider as Muriel the Librarian helps spark his reading passion. Of course every kid has a Muriel, of course every kid has books, right? So then I think boom - easy. We have the Book Bank to provide that one missing piece. Well, it turns out I was still missing part of the equation.

Mary: The name of the organization, “the Book Bank,” I sort of struggle with, because it has a very narrow  definition, doesn’t it? You sort of conjure up this idea that there are there are just a bunch of  boxes on the floor and you go through them and you find the book that you want. But actually what we do is for greater than that. We have over 40 people volunteering here, so we provide the experience for people to actually use their literacy expertise, to engage younger people, so looking at the other side of that coin, yeah we give away lots of free books, but we're also helping other people in the community who want outlets, positive outlets for the experience they have as readers and literacy experts. We also work in partnership with about 8 health clinics in the community to train nurse practitioners to become more knowledgeable about the importance of literacy and we provide them literacy materials, and we have community partners all over the GTA who run their own literacy activities, maybe out of a space in a mall, or who knows, but they use our books to support those activities. So i really feel like the name the children’s book bank does a little bit of a disservice to the enormous capacity we have, and the reach we have, but that’s who we are, so i’ll have to live with it, for the time being.

Mark: For the first time, I saw the Book Bank the way Mary did, as part of a web of services and help for people, all through the city. And if the success the Book Bank has seen is any indication, it’s working.

Mary: I have my moments, i think i said earlier, when i go into the book bank itself, kids are maybe there’s a class here, and there are 30 kids sitting listening to a story, i started in the summer, and there were many days during the summer we had 350 people here. And I was like “what the heck is going on?” and i was told, and i looked back in the books, and i could see that was pretty standard. And i thought “this is important, people need this place.” and i still feel that way. So it’s just really a matter of ensuring  its sustainability, long-term.

Mark: Imagine that, 350 kids sitting and listening to a story. 350 pairs of bright eyes scanning shelves of books laid out just for them. I actually got to meet a class as they came in to read - they looked just as excited as I had to go into Muriel’s story time every week. But Keeping the Book Bank alive and moving, ensuring its survival and relevance is no easy task. Fortunately for the Book Bank and its kids, Mary leaves no stone unturned in her search for new ways forward, and allies in the fight for literacy.

Mary: I come from an academic background, and my works has always been trying to connect community organizations with school environments. I don’t think we do that very well, i think that we tend to sort of regard schools  as stand-alone operations, and the kinds go in and they come out and go home. But i’ve always viewed school as more of an integral part of the weave of the community. So i think that community organizations such as our and others can do a far better job of having an impact on educational outcomes.

Mark: She’s right about that, and we’ve seen it. In 2007, a research team from the Ministry of Education in Ontario tired to tackle the issue of immigrant families being shut out of the education process. Parents were encouraged to avoid using their mother tongues at home, and to only talk to their kids in English. But the research team was able to help them with the same tool as the Book Bank: books. They helped the parents self-author books for their kids about their identities, their culture. Looking at the school system as the only resource had shut out an entire aspect of not only the kids’ development, but their parents’ involvement in that growth. Its programs like these Mary hopes to work closely with, as well as any allies she can win in the private sector.

Mary: So for instance to night after work i’m going to the cabbagetown business association's meeting. Not because i necessarily want to know what’s happening in the business community as such, but we have to say you know we’re part of something here, and what are you doing, and how can we be supportive, and maybe there are connections with partnerships that i can grow from those initial meetings. So i really like to see people say in ten years, oh yeah, that Children’s Book Bank, that’s an essential part of what we’re doing to tackle the challenges of literacy and literacy development in the city. If people could say that, i’d be pleased.

So we’re a charitable organization. We take no government funding. One of the things i’d really like to see change is how money is given out in cities. Toronto’s not unique, so this problem occurs everywhere. There are many other literacy organizations, and we’re all competing for the same dollars, the same charitable dollars. From banks, form corporations, from the toronto foundation. And yet we’re not really competing in terms of our services. We’re doing something, and someone else is doing something else, and yet we’re asked to compete for the dollars.

Mark: They’ve been asked to compete with groups like The Bookworm Club, which would send packages of books and materials directly to kids in Ontario’s Children’s Aid program. Different service, same pot of money. And that can hurt these groups. The Bookworm Club isn’t around anymore. But Mary plans on a different fate for the Book Bank.

Mary: In 10 years, i would really like for people to say “oh wow, the book bank was the leader in getting all these funders to sit down and just split up the pot of money you have to give to literacy organizations,” and let us get on with the work of solving the problems instead of competing with each other, and writing proposal after proposal for the dollars are already there. The books are there, the will is there, the clients are there. I have statistical proof our services are accessed, and the research to back up why it’s important. So all those pieces are there, and all we have to do is extend and support and grow those services, and make sure they continue to run well, and see what we can do in terms of expanding them. So those are taken care of. So what  i really need to do as an executive director is turn my attention to the program development on figuring out how and where I’m going to get the money to do it.

Mark: I hope she does, because we need places like the Children’s Book Bank. We can’t rely on any one avenue for education - that just isn’t working. In only ten years, the Book Bank has already made a difference to hundreds - hundreds of kids, and in the next ten, they hope to strengthen the culture of assistance and advocacy here in Toronto. This is a place to get passionate about. It took me all of ten seconds to fall in love with the Book Bank after walking in. Just imagine how it makes kids feel. People like to disparage kids, they like to talk about how they never read, how they’d prefer a screen to a page. I like to talk about the place that proves those people wrong. Kids love reading. And the Children’s Book Bank gives everything they have to make sure every kid can find that love. I know how amazing that feels.

Thanks, Muriel.



References

Bernhard, Judith K.  “Immigrant Parents Taking Part in Their Children's Education: a Practical Experiment.”  Re-Situating Canadian Early Childhood Education, edited by Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw and Larry Prochner, Peter Lang Publishing, 2013, pp. 106-121.

Brown, Louise.  “Syrian refugee kids get lessons in literacy—and fitting in—at special camp for newcomers.” thestar.com, Toronto Star, https://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2016/07/24/syrian-refugee-kids-get-lessons-in-literacy-and-fitting-in-at-special-camp-for-newcomers.html

Gutierrez, Kris.  “Biliteracy and the Language-Minority Child.”  Language and Literacy in Early Childhood Education, edited by Bernard Spodek and Olivia N. Saracho, Teacher’s College Press, 1993, pp. 82-101.

Field, Kuczera, Windisch.  “Building Skills For All: A Review of England.”  OECD Skills Studies. 2016, pp. 12. Web. http://www.oecd.org/edu/skills-beyond-school/building-skills-for-all-review-of-england.pdf

Feitelson, Dina, and Zahava Goldstein. “Patterns of Book Ownership and Reading to Young Children in Israeli School-Oriented and Nonschool-Oriented Families.” The Reading Teacher, vol. 39, no. 9, 1986, pp. 924–930. www.jstor.org/stable/20199270.

McLane, Joan and McNamee, Gillian.  Early Literacy, Harvard University Press, 1990.

Patel, Arti.  “When it Comes to High Literacy, Numeracy Rates, Canada is Low on the List: Report.”  Huffpost Living, Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/09/01/canada-literacy-rates_n_11817262.html

Rootman, Irving, and Barbara Ronson. “Literacy and Health Research in Canada: Where Have We Been and Where Should We Go?” Canadian Journal of Public Health / Revue Canadienne De Sante'e Publique, vol. 96, 2005, pp. S62–S77. www.jstor.org/stable/41994460.

Statistics Canada.  “72. Regent Park”  2011 Neighbourhood Demographic Estimates, StatsCan, https://www1.toronto.ca/City%20Of%20Toronto/Social%20Development,%20Finance%20&%20Administration/Shared%20Content/Demographics/PDFs/NIA_2014_Profiles/72%20Regent%20Park.pdf  

Additional Resources

Brown, Louise.  “Syrian refugee kids get lessons in literacy—and fitting in—at special camp for newcomers.” thestar.com, Toronto Star, https://www.thestar.com/yourtoronto/education/2016/07/24/syrian-refugee-kids-get-lessons-in-literacy-and-fitting-in-at-special-camp-for-newcomers.html

“Child poverty continues to be Canada’s shame.”  DurhamRegion.com, Metroland Media, http://www.durhamregion.com/opinion-story/6917404-child-poverty-continues-to-be-canada-s-shame/

Pinnell, Gay Su.  “Reading Recovery: A Literacy Program for At-Risk Children.”  Language and           Literacy in Early Childhood Education, edited by Bernard Spodek and Olivia N. Saracho, Teacher’s College Press, 1993, pp. 102-119.

Truch, Steve.  “7 Ways to Asses & Help develop Your Child’s Reading Readiness.”  Canadian Family, Canadian Family, http://www.canadianfamily.ca/kids/child/assess-develop-reading-readiness/?platform=hootsuite