Madison Reading Project Offers Free Books to Kids

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MTT News's picture
Katherine Perreth
Top to Bottom: The Big Red Reading Bus; Sophia Skaler, book curator; Rowen Childs founder of Madison Reading Project.

MADISON––Sometimes a great idea doggedly niggles until a healthy dose of empathy launches it. The brainchild of Rowan Childs, Executive Director of the Madison Reading Project (MRP), evolved while she ruminated on childhood: hers, her children’s, and by extension, the children of others.

“I always considered books treasure,” Childs said. “We moved a lot when I was a child, and no matter where we went, I had my books.” 

But what, she wondered, happened to children who don’t have books in the home or can’t get to a library? Books shouldn’t be a luxury, Childs thought.Could I provide free home libraries for others? In this area, was there even a need?

To learn how community literacy fared, Childs met with Will Green at the Salvation Army.

That same week, the Race to Equity Report was published in Madison, revealing discrepancies in reading rates according to socioeconomic factors. 

“It was a serendipitous moment,” she explained, the perfect time to start a pilot program at the Salvation Army, emboldened by the research showing early childhood access to books has a significant impact on future learning, Childs explained. 

People who already own home libraries can take for granted “the knowledge, vocabulary, and exposure to different cultures, adventures, experiences and ways of thinking they’re surrounded by,” Childs stated.

For 18 months she and Greengauged the most effective methods of engaging children with reading. Then the program grew, exponentially. 

MRP was founded in 2013, and the goal of giving away hundreds of books quickly turned into the “craziest number we could think of: 5,000,” said Childs. This year the nonprofit will give away its 100,000thbook to empower a child between birth and teenage years, somewhere in South Central Wisconsin, Childs said. 

To that end, MRP now has brand new and official wheels. The Big Red Reading Bus, (really a van but termed a ‘bus,’ as it sounds more exciting, Childs said), became operational just in time for summer programming. Itenables MRP to transport thousands of books to give away at events, community centers and nonprofits. 

“The bus has been very well received from kids, parents and donors alike,” Childs said. “It's been thrilling to see our dream come true.” The bus, whose sides reflect children of all different races, allows children to board and select books from built-in bookshelves. 

“When kids get to pick out the exact book they want, they’re so excited,” Childs said. “It’s not teacher-assigned or parent-chosen, and it’s theirs to keep.” MRP encourages children to write their names in their books, she said. Watching children’s faces light up inspired Childs to grow the giveaways and add even more programming. 

Programming includes pairing a craft with MRP’s Book of the Month. May was “Grumpy Monkey,” a book on emotions, said Literacy Lead Sophia Skaleris, who staffs story times at East and West Towne Malls. She reads the book, runs the craft and offers free books.

In June, MRP gave away books in two Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District neighborhoods, Childs said, at end-of-the-school-year parties. In addition, the Middleton Endowment awarded an $875 grant in June, for Middleton book events, bus appearance and programming.

Middleton High School Key Club students have volunteered at programming and with sorting and shelving at the book storage center. Donations are curated according to wear and tear, removing the “overly-loved,” as Childs put it, to donate to Little Free Library sites. Top-grade books are made available at MRP events. 

MRP does not accept books with religious or holiday themes, dictionaries, encyclopedias, homeschool or text books, or books with activities, such as stickers, magnets or puzzles. Books with blatantly racist or culturally-inappropriate content are recycled, Childs said. Surprisingly, that has included Newbury Honor, Reading Rainbow and Scholastic books. They didn’t pass muster for content depicting Native Americans, despite seemingly benign storylines. 

“Speaking as a white woman,” Skaleris explained, “I’m not the be-all-end-all on what’s culturally appropriate, so I rely upon ‘cultural insiders,’ people in the culture being depicted.” For example, she consults the American Indians in Children’s Literature website to check for titles marked “culturally misrepresentative.”

To distribute books, MRP works with over 60 entities throughout greater Dane County, and as far afield as Beloit and Baraboo, Childs said. One of their largest partners is Reach Dane has multiple locations, including one in Middleton. The public also can receive free books to stock schools and specific Little Free Library sites, she said. 

In addition, social workers and advocates working with families are allowed to choose 50 books per family, with an additional 20 books per child, which sometimes results in 100 books for one family. Each child receives a red bag labeled “My Library,” as some families don’t own bookshelves, Childs said.

“Going from no books in the home to 100 great books, hand-selected by someone who knows the family’s interests and situation well, can really change a child’s life and that family’s literacy,” Childs explained. 

MRP is always in need of books featuring LGBTQ+, differently-abled or ethnically/racially diverse characters, Childs said. And bilingual, graphic novels and chapter level books from first through third grade “go like hotcakes, they fly off the shelves!” Childs said.

Childs said MRP accommodates special requests from agencies and children alike, whether age-level, topic or type of book, from baby board books onward.

In January, book inventory hovered around 12,000. Despite thousands of books distributed during past five months, the number holds steady as books continue to roll in. If the groaning table, bulging bookshelves and floor awash with boxes of donations are any indication, Childs’ efforts to offer free books to children certainly is meeting a need–or both the children and donors.


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