Last night, I wrapped a box of the Boxcar Children books I’d written for a friend’s granddaughter. She is nine and into the Boxcar Children. I autographed each title, added a note as to why I am not Gertrude Chandler Warner, the original creator of the Boxcar Children, but a ghost writer, revealed a secret “Easter egg” that identifies which books are mine, boxed and wrapped the package in cheerful Snoopy paper. It took two hours to track down the books, autograph, and wrap. I loved every minute of it.
As I tied the ribbon into a bow, I remembered that many years ago I launched my own “books in the classroom, books in the home” literacy program. In the late 1990s, I read about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. In her program one free book was mailed each month to registered children in Sevier County, Tennessee, until those children reached school age. I was so inspired, I decided to start my own program.
I had visited southwestern Virginia on many school visits. My father was from Saltville in Smyth County, and I always felt I was coming home. I’d seen the school libraries. Many had books that were out of date. But the enthusiasm of the reading teachers, librarians, and the kids themselves followed me home after each trip. If only there was some way to give each child a book to keep, like Dolly Parton’s program.
But I had no way of reaching individual children. After much thought, I decided I would send a box of books to a classroom each month. The students would share the books during the school year. At the end of the year, each student would chose a book to take home. In 1998, Book Buddies was born.
At our new Borders bookstore, I chose 30 paperback children’s books for fourth graders. Then I picked a school in southwestern Virginia and mailed the box to a fourth-grade class. A letter to the teacher explained my program.
And that’s how I became a Book Buddy to random elementary classrooms in my native state. I filed paperwork to achieve non-profit status to make sure I was legal. I had an illustrator friend design a logo and printed stationery. My license plate read BKBDDY. I was all in.
I cut large muslin squares and signed them to add to each book box. Quilts with author’s signatures were a thing back then. I’d autographed many squares for schools around the country. I hoped my Book Buddy schools would send muslin squares to other children’s authors and stitch their own quilts.
Month after month, year after year, I sent out boxes. I loved going to Borders and carefully choosing the best books. I loved going to the post office to ship boxes filled with books and my hope that each child would become a reader. I reviewed children’s books so I could sometimes send hardcover books. When I spoke at conferences in other states, I mentioned the program. Sometimes cartons of donated new books landed on my porch. Our extra bedroom was turned into the Book Buddy room where I stored, catalogued, and packaged monthly deliveries.
I kept records of the schools and classes and asked only that the teacher return my self-addressed, stamped postcard so I knew they had received the books. Sometimes I got packets of letters from the students. I answered each letter, even the one from a boy who said he would read the book he got after he and his dad went for a truckload of sawdust. Hey, you’ve got to have your priorities. But as time went on, I received fewer class packets. The SASE postcards weren’t mailed to me. I wondered if something was wrong.
At the 2003 annual state conference of school librarians, where I was asked to sign books, I looked up to see five women approaching. When they circled my table, I smiled. They did not smile back. Their spokesperson told me bluntly they did not need my charity. Stunned, I didn’t know what they were talking about. Then I realized they meant Book Buddies, and they must have believed I was some upper middle-class do-gooder from Northern Virginia.
I explained I had ties to southwestern Virginia—my father’s side went back nine generations—and when I was growing up the only books I owned were 25 cent Golden Books. I knew how important it was to have books in the home, no matter where you lived. But those librarians made it clear I should stop sending “charity” boxes. I ran to the ladies room and cried.
That fall Hurricane Isabel tore through Virginia. Hard hit was the little seaside town of Colonial Beach. When I learned the elementary school had suffered severe damage, I packed up my room full of books, drove to Colonial Beach, and gave them to the school. Later, I was presented with a certificate of gratitude. I was glad to help, but it was a sad ending to my beloved program.
These days, I feel distanced from my readers. I don’t do many school visits any more. Schools plead budget cuts (though there seems to be plenty of funds for sports) even after I’ve cut my rates by half. I miss being around kids, miss their energy and enthusiasm. I especially miss letters from boys who promise to read their new books after they go get truckloads of sawdust.
10 thoughts on “I Once Had My Own Literacy Program”
This is such an inspiring and humbling post. Everything you did was a loving deed from the heart. I feel as you do. Tech has moved us into the past and it only sad-however you look at it.
Brava to you, the books, the readers and the idea. It is never a mistake to share.
Hi Ashley: I had so many ridiculous notions years ago. I wanted to open a library just for kids in the mountains and my husband and I would live next door in a cottage called Bramblewood Cottage. But the literacy program gave me a real opportunity to give books to children, one at a time. There were no books in my home when I was growing up. No one read. It’s a wonder I became such an avid reader. Book Buddies was a labor of love and I had hopes to expand. But…
Candice, as always you are generous and ever-interested in helping children. You project was a blessing to everyone involved. Perhaps it is true that there is a time for everything and this sad nudge will undoubtedly unleash your brain for a new blessing to others. I have no doubt and great confidence in you. So glad we were in the same Salon. Love Sally
Sally, what a delight to hear from you! I still think of your smile, our Ohio gal. I think you’re right–the time for that program has passed, but there is something new yet for me to do. I’ll wait for a sign. Thanks so much for stopping by. Much love, Candice
Such a sweet, yet sad story. Thank you for reaching out. I am sure you touched many lives. Frieda Wishinsky
Hi Frieda: I had forgotten about my program until I was gathering those Boxcar books as a Christmas present. Giving books has always brought me joy, since I was 17 and working at my first job as a secretary. With one of my first pay checks, I bought a one dollar bookshelf and ten Yearling paperbacks for my niece, who was six. I still remember how much I loved giving that present, and how much she loved receiving it. Fifty years later, we both still talk about it. Thanks for stopping by my blog.
What is wrong with people? To take offense at this is just bizarre. It is a strange new world….I prefer the older one with generous folks like you who are appreciated!
Well, you know how I feel about this century. I miss the “old world,” too, where every action was taken at face value and not misconstrued or “read” into the way everything is these days. I hope you and Ken and the girls have a very nice holiday. And that new cat!
Golly this makes me sad. As I read the first few paragraphs, my brain raced wondering how I could help with this wonderful program. I feel like the kids were the losers, and I’m sorry it happened the way it did. Hope you are well and if you ever think of another way to donate books, let me know so I can help out.❤️
Hi Sharon: You hit the nail on the head–the kids are the losers. I know there are plenty of well-funded book donation programs out there, but mine was–well, mine, and aimed at kids I knew. Maybe it was the right time to end it. Maybe a new idea will come along. If so, I’ll reach out to you! Happy holidays! Candice