Friday, December 30, 2011

The Children's Book Bank

On our last visit to Toronto, the Husband and I were fortunate to receive a tour of The Children's Book Bank from our friend, Jackie Flowers, the organisation's assistant executive director.

I first read about The Children's Book Bank in 2010, in this article in the Toronto Star. Later that year, we parked directly outside the Bank on our way to the newly-renovated Parliament Branch of TPL. The Book Bank was definitely something I was aware of, but, to be honest, the impact it has on children's lives was most powerfully observed in person when we visited last month. Both the Husband and I were getting misty-eyed.

From its website, "The Children’s Book Bank is a registered charity that provides free books and literacy support to children in low-income Toronto neighbourhoods." The books are new and gently-used donations received from publishers, organisations such as First Book Canada, schools, groups, and individuals. The Book Bank is located in Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood (Canada's oldest and largest social housing project), on the main floor of a lovely old rowhouse. Founder Kim Beatty, a litigation laywer, began the organisation as a search for meaningful work. She reasoned that since there were other types of "banks," (eg. food banks and clothing banks), then why not a book bank? Considering that many families would be willing to contribute old children’s books, she and her husband set up the Children's Book Bank in May 2008.

The Book Bank now averages 150 - 200 books given away each day. A small staff, and a large contingent of dedicated volunteers, sort incoming donations (in bins, at left), arrange the shelves (focusing on thematic displays and sections divided by age and popular series reading), provide readers' advisory services, and offer literacy support and programming. Local schools and daycares visit, as well as families from the neighbourhood and further afield. The Book Bank has a complementary relationship with TPL's Parliament Branch across the street: they noticed a dip in visits to the Book Bank when Parliament closed for renovations, and Beatty said in the Star interview that she "will often send children across the street if they are looking for a particular title or popular series." As a librarian, I can see the merit in both organisations: while the library is a great place for voracious reading across a wide range of subjects and levels, there is something very uniquely important about owning a book, both in terms of lifelong learning habits and in terms of personal pride and self-worth.

When we visited The Children's Book Bank on a busy Saturday morning, it was hard to find a place to stand where we weren't in the way of one of the visiting families. In the front room, where the desk and infant / parenting books are, people were coming in and on their way out (every book is stamped before leaving with a personalised stamp that reads "This book came from The Children's Book Bank and now belongs to _____"). In the back room, a girl and her father were offloading a half-dozen boxes of donations from a book drive she organised at her school. In the early readers room (heavy on series such as The Magic School Bus, Junie B. Jones, and the other usual suspects), a young girl stared shyly at the Husband and I (he smiled at her; she hid) as we perused the warmly-decorated wooden bookshelves and the spectacular table display of medieval stories. In the back room (more novels, and many picture books), we came upon a mother reading to her son in an oversized armchair, and a family sitting on a back bench under a window, also sharing a story. The walls and tops of bookcases are decorated with stuffed animals (all book characters; Jackie says occasionally some find their way home with visitors!) and photos of visiting children with their hand-written book recommendations (see above, at right - "Hannah recommends Ms. Nelson is Missing"). The sense of excitement and wonder was palpable.

For more information about The Children's Book Bank, please check out their Facebook page and blog. They are also on Canada Helps as BN: 844532952RR0001 (registered as: The Children's Bookbank and Literacy Foundation).

At the moment, the Children's Book Bank exists only in Toronto; for more information about future plans, write me (alexandrayarrow -at- yahoo -dot- com).

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