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You may have never heard of Ursula Oaks, but she’s a pioneer. She and her family are one of only a handful of East-Coast bibliophiles who have become stewards of a Little Free Library.
What’s a Little Free Library? Just as it sounds, it’s a small structure—a little bigger than a breadbox—that houses books which are free to borrow. Take a book, return a book, leave a book. Visit as often as you wish. And there’s never an overdue fine!
The brainchild of Todd Bol and Rick Brooks, the Little Free Library enterprise began in 2009 and flourished in the Wisconsin and Minnesota region. Intended to support literacy, social empowerment, youth and community development, the libraries sit on front lawns and places of business, encouraging neighbors and patrons to read…and share great literature.
A map on the LittleFreeLibrary.org website displays registered LFLs around the country. I was hoping to find one in New Jersey, but alas, none exist. (Don’t worry, my neighbor and I plan to change that soon.)
But I did find Ursula Oaks in Silver Spring, MD, living just three miles from my brother’s home. Originally I planned to visit her and the little library-on-stilts in her side yard, but since that didn’t work out, we chatted via email about her experience with being a Little Free Library “home librarian”.
TL: When and why did you decide to open a Little Free Library?
UO: I first heard about the LFL movement on an NPR program out of Wisconsin Public Radio called “Here On Earth: Radio Without Borders”, which is hosted by the amazing journalist Jean Feraca. She interviewed the founders, and the whole thing sounded so fun and meaningful that I went home that night and told my husband and son about it. They were both interested, too, so we started making plans. We thought the idea was a perfect melding of our shared love for building things, for libraries, and for books. Our son Liam loved the idea that we could select books from our own collection to share, and that we could host something in our yard that the whole community could take part in. My husband Craig was excited to have a new building project. And we all loved the creative aspect of designing and painting something totally unique. That was September of last year. It took us five months to actually get it completely finished, due to schedules, weather, travel, etc. The finished library finally went up in the yard on January 25 of this year.
TL: How did it get built and why did you choose the Madeline theme?
Craig is great with woodworking, so he built the structure, complete with copper run-off pipes, tin roof, and clear plexiglass front door. I sketched out the design based on the original Bemelmans drawings in one of our Madeline books, and everyone pitched in to paint, including 7-year-old Liam. Frankly we were surprised at how well it turned out, because none of us is particularly gifted with a paintbrush.
The story of how we ended up with the Madeline theme is a bit convoluted. We knew we wanted to do some kind of stylized approach to the house, so we thought about a barn or a farm house or bird house, and then at some point I suggested we try to come up with an idea that had some connection with a book we love—something that people would recognize and understand. Liam has always loved the Madeline stories, and we had recently returned from a visit to Paris for Thanksgiving, so the idea came to us pretty quickly once we went down that path, especially because while we were in Paris we passed an enormous house that looked incredibly similar to the Madeline house.
We decided to let Liam have free rein with the back of the house, but he needed help because he insisted on including an Eiffel Tower. He did the trees and the bird and the flag on the top of the tower.
TL: How does the Little Free Library work? Can people take any book they want? Do they have to return them? Can anyone add to the collection?
UO: The motto of the LFL movement is “take a book, leave a book”, but there’s no check-out/check-in system, and anyone is welcome to take a book. It’s been amazing to see how well this works, totally organically. Some people take and leave books, some just take, some just leave. I put a small notebook and pen inside inviting comments, and we have had many, all of them very positive. Many of them mention what a nice addition it is to the community, and many comment on the attractiveness of the structure itself. It seems to invite people to stop and linger. All of the books we originally stocked it with have been taken, replaced by an equal number of books from many other people.
TL: Can you share some of the comments you’ve received?
UO: “This is beautiful and a treasure! Can we donate books to the cause?”
“We love it! My daughter has exchanged books three times already! Thank you!”
“Add a toilet.” (from a child)
“Gorgeous! Where did you get the cabinet?”
“We love your library!”
“Such a nice little library! It makes us happy just seeing it!”
“Amazing. Makes the world a better place.”
“I love this library.”
“So fun to trade books.”
“What a very sweet and thoughtful addition to our neighborhood. I will have to leave you a treat in return for your great idea.”
“The idea is so amazing. I want to make one when I grow up!!!”
“Thank you so much. We love the house, especially the rain gutters.”
TL: Have any of your neighbors expressed interest in starting their own Little Free Library?
UO: Yes, one person expressed interest. I think people have discovered ours after reading the recent USA Today article about how others have gone about establishing theirs.
TL: What has been the best part of owning a Little Free Library?
UO: The best part of it is seeing it every day and feeling like it is adding a bit of community-building and joy to our neighborhood.
I am always amazed at how it continues to enrich our lives. Let me share with you an interesting anecdote. Craig was getting ready to go to work and walked out to find an enormous FedEx truck in the street. He figured someone had ordered some furniture or something, but then he saw the FedEx guy looking at our Little Free Library. He said “hi” to him and the guy said he had seen a story about LFL on TV and had looked on the web site to see where there might be one in his area (he lives in northern Maryland). He realized there is only one in the state (ours) and said he finally had a chance to come down and check it out! I just thought that was pretty sweet.
Thank you, Ursula and the Oaks Family! I wish you many happy years of home librarianship! Who knows…maybe the FedEx guy will deliver an endless supply of books!
So blog readers, how about you? Are you eager to set up your own Little Free Library? Let us know in the comments. And visit LittleFreeLibrary.org to get started!
What a special week in the Children’s Literature World…two of my favorite “specials” this month are the start of Picture Book Idea Month (plus two days!) and the birthday of Reading Is Fundamental where the 45th birthday will be celebrated Thursday, November 3 with Lilly and her famous purple purse with lots of children and special guests at the Library of Congress!
And you know what? I see PiBoIdMo as seriously connected to RIF and our mission. Each time I write or talk about this year’s major milestone birthday of 45 years for RIF, I talk about the 380 million magical moments, the 380 million books placed into the hands of children over these 45 years RIF has existed. And guess what? The majority of those 380 million moments have been brought about by picture books given our primary audience of birth to 8 years of age.
Within that age group, RIF seeks first to serve those children most in need and sadly, with poverty the greatest indicator of probable difficulty to read well and independently by the end of third to fourth grade, it means according to the latest poverty reports we have that even more children by comparison in years past to ignite, to motivate, to inspire to learn to read. This means in reality, we need so many different books in order to strike that chord deep within a child, to create the birth of that “aha!” moment, that “wow!” experience that has a child believing “If I can read, I can do anything, be anything.”
Last year I wrote in my guest post for PiBoIdMo noting three types of picture books we hear about most as on the “wanted” list by teachers, reading specialists, PTA parents, Kiwanis Club members—RIF volunteers of all stripes and professions: nonfiction that is “eye and mind catching”, bilingual books, and multicultural books. The requests continue to be the same. All three categories are also critical to the family involvement component RIF believes critical to the success of our mission in motivating children to love reading.
Last weekend I saw again in person the beauty of a picture book that had four generations of individuals pouring over a book, sharing common knowledge and experiences elicited by the book in front of them. It is a picture book about animals in winter—“it doesn’t look like a true fact book, they’re usually boring” as generation two noted in his 6-year-old voice. Generation one was intrigued by the pictures, generation two was eager to learn more about the animals he already had discovered, parents of gen two had no idea about some of the more unusual facts and gen three had information to add about ways these animals were viewed in “the olden days.” After going through the book the family discovered information added by the author at the back and headed to the computer, four generations together again! Gens one and two were reading the text even…what a great experience for the family together…it was a spontaneous activity shared following a meal and lasted with no whining for more than 30 minutes. This family is not unique, no reason this animal book would have been predicted to be the one to “catch their eyes” over others. But it connected for them; it was a prolonged magical moment. And to serve the children and families who need us most, we need lots and lots of books portraying life and our surroundings in oh, so many different ways!
With Thanksgiving now on the horizon, our Hampton multi-generations will for the 32nd year read sometime before the meal begins “Thanksgiving at the Tappletons’” by Eileen Spinelli (1982 version) which was given to my son on his 6th birthday that year. It is a tradition every child entering the family savors when old enough to follow the laugh lines and even more when old enough to be a reader!
A magical moment…that is what you are creating in a picture book…memories that plant the seeds of a lifetime love of reading. My best wishes to all of you as you put those ideas into writing this month! Hurray, more magic is on the way!
by Carol Rasco, CEO, Reading is Fundamental
At first glance, it seems almost too simple, offering children the opportunity to choose the books they want to read and own. But since 1966, choosing books has been the key feature of RIF programs where children often select multiple books per year. Does it make a difference?
In late September of 2010 results were released from a RIF-commissioned, rigorous meta-analysis conducted by Learning Points, an affiliate of the American Institutes for Research. Those results showed that giving children access to print materials is associated with positive behavioral, educational, and psychological outcomes. I invite you to study the results more fully as these results then move us to the importance of picture books in the early years of the children targeted by RIF. Detailed information about the study and its results can be found on the RIF website: www.rif.org.
How exciting it has been to learn more this year about PiBoIdMo by following carefully the informative guest posts each day as well as looking back over past year’s PiBoIdMo materials. Reading Is Fundamental deals more with picture books than any other genre, and this is all the more reason I appreciate this opportunity to visit with those of you participating in PiBoIdMo this year. I sincerely hope this opens a dialogue between you and RIF as I know you have ideas and information that could be of benefit to RIF.
Our coordinators in the field who might be teachers, reading specialists, PTA parents, Kiwanis Club members—volunteers of all stripes and professions—tell us repeatedly they seek more of three types of picture books: nonfiction that is “eye and mind catching”, bilingual books, and multicultural books. And at RIF, we do not necessarily see these three as mutually exclusive.
One example I have found of a book that certainly combines the nonfiction and multicultural features is HOW MANY SEEDS IN A PUMPKIN? by Margaret McNamara. I have shared this book numerous times in classrooms across the country and almost without fail, each time I read it some student or even multiple students will talk about the magic in the book. They have no idea they are learning math and science. At the same time the illustrations are clearly multicultural in portraying the world around the students – but would most people label it at first glance a ‘multicultural book’? No. It is a natural portrayal of the real world of mirrors and windows we stress in our Multicultural Literacy Campaign.
As part of our commitment to motivate young readers, RIF has increased efforts through our Multicultural Literacy Campaign to reach more African American, Hispanic, and American Indian children at risk of academic failure. We are deeply concerned about the growing number of quality reports and research studies showing the large gaps in literacy accomplishments too often found between these children and their peers. We know one aspect of promoting improvement is to provide more culturally diverse books so that children nationwide can discover the value of their own heritage while learning about the importance of others. You can learn more about our Multicultural Literacy Campaign at http://www.rif.org/us/about/literacy-issues/multicultural.
Choice is a key reading motivator. Allowing children control over what they read can help them build a lifelong, life-changing love of reading. We also believe choice is power. For underserved children, who have fewer opportunities than more advantaged children to make positive choices in life, offering a choice of books provides a taste of the dignity of personal autonomy. Even such small opportunities and encouragements to choose can inspire children to make greater choices: to choose learning, to choose success in school and life, to choose a brighter future. Quite simply, given the power to choose what they will read, children will chose to read to learn.
In addition to choice of book, RIF has two other key components to our book distribution program: motivational activities during the distribution (and nothing is more exciting than an author or illustrator coming to read!) and parent engagement.
I invite you to visit with us at RIF regarding ideas you have about how we can provide more books like those I reference and other inputs you may have on our various program components. I also encourage you to determine if there is a RIF program in your community where you might give one reading/presentation a year as part of our effort. Use the locator map (www.rif.org/maps) where you can easily access program sites near you; should you need assistance in making contact with a program(s) or you have questions/suggestions of any type for RIF, please contact me at crasco[at]rif.org.
My interest in PiBoIdMo has escalated over recent weeks, and I have started my own beginning short list of books I wish I could write. Who knows, I may figure out how to allocate the time to learn even more about this process over the next year and actually sign up—book one is one I have carried for three years in my head and there are two more beginning to take root. I want to take the excitement I have seen in children at the sea organ in Croatia and the pure awe I witnessed on the faces of students as they watched the making of smoke by an American Indian as he rubbed sticks together at a recent RIF distribution in DC and figure out how I can share those experiences with children who may not the opportunity to visit with an American Indian visit or take a trip to Croatia.
Children’s interests matter at RIF. We strive to develop their freedom to ask and answer questions, to experience adventures and new ways of perceiving the world around them through the books they choose. We are honored to have played a part in offering the millions of choices connected to the more than 366 million books provided to children since our founding…and we look forward to providing millions more.
Reading Is Fundamental, Inc. (RIF), founded in 1966, motivates children to read by working with them, their parents, and community members to make reading a fun and beneficial part of everyday life. RIF’s highest priority is reaching underserved children from birth to age 8. Through community volunteers in every state and U.S. territory, RIF last year provided 4.4 million children with 15 million new, free books and literacy resources. For more information and to access reading resources, visit RIF’s website at www.rif.org.
Come visit a new website that lets kids spread their storytelling wings.
Storybird is “collaborative storytelling for family and friends.” When I first heard the tagline, I scratched my head. What is this all about? Then I got the beta tester invite. And I played on the site for hours. Days. My daughter begged, “Mommy, can we make another Storybird?”
So what is this high-flying new creature?
Storybird helps you create a tale with an intuitive book-like interface and a whimsical selection of artwork. (We’re not talking stick-figures here. These are high-quality images from some of the most talented “undiscovered” children’s illustrators today, like Irisz Agocs and Victoria Usova.)
Select an artist’s work to begin. A page appears in the center of the screen, surrounded by thumbnail images. Simply drag and drop an image onto a page, then write text to accompany the picture. Add as many pages as you like and you’ll soon have a bonafide book—one that looks professional, one that can be read online over and over again. You can choose to keep your Storybird private, or you can share it with the Storybird community. And they can read it online over and over again.
But the smartest feature of Storybird brings family and friends together. Is Grandma in Gary, Indiana? Cousin Kate in Kalamazoo? You can invite them to write a page in your story. Or two pages. There’s no limit…and what’s better, there’s no fee to join Storybird. According to CEO Mark Ury, “Making, sharing, and reading Storybirds online will always be free. Printing and premium services—when we introduce them later this year—will have a fee associated with them.”
(Uhh, Mark, could you please hurry up with that? My daughters want a copy of The Runaway Rabbit in their hands right away.)
Other planned features include the ability to: choose artwork based upon theme, upload your own images, and record your voice to accompany Storybirds. For those on the go, an IPhone app is coming, too.
What’s more, Storybird wants your ideas to improve and enhance the service. The site has only been live for 6 days, but educators in over 100 countries have already asked for a multi-user platform to help teach literacy skills in classrooms. Ury says his company is working on a teacher log-in that would enable students to work under that account without having to submit their information. Storybird be nimble, Storybird be quick.
And Storybird be popular! Some stats from their not-quite-a-week online:
- 1,000 users in 100+ countries
- 8,000 unique visits
- 76,000 page views
- 7-minute average visit
- some Storybirds viewed 325+ times each
Families and teachers will see enormous benefits in Storybird, as will artists. Storybird creates a marketplace to share your work and develop a fan following. If you’re an aspiring children’s illustrator, I encourage you to sign up.
So what are you waiting for? Slide a kid onto your lap and flap your wings on over to Storybird. (Or, if you’re like me, you don’t even need a kid. The child inside you will have plenty of fun on her own!)