It’s raining today, and I have a list of jobs as long as my arm that need to be done – none of which I want to do. I am feeling trapped by obligation, paperwork and a sense of frustration, which is why today’s post from Cheryl Krocker McKeon, a fellow volunteer at Project Second Chance, is particularly timely.
Cheryl demonstrates the same passion for books that I reserve for chocolate. In addition to her regular book reviews at shelf-awareness.com (you can read her most recent one here), she is also involved in World Book Night, a project that aims to share a love of books and reading among the community.
They sent her to jail.
The old bumper sticker “Think Globally, Act Locally” came to mind Monday night as I joined a group of passionate California readers observing World Book Night by schlepping boxes of books to a local jail.
Started in Great Britain last year, April 23, 2012 marked the first World Book Night (“WBN”) observed simultaneously in England, Ireland, Germany and the US. Twenty-five thousand US volunteers chose a title from a list of 30. The 500,000 specially printed books were donated by the authors and publishers. We could give the books away anywhere, with the requirement that we seek out light or non-readers. Givers went to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, hospital waiting rooms, airports, Little League games (to parents on the bleachers – brilliant!) and many more. Recipients were sometimes initially skeptical, but always pleased to realize they were getting their very own, new book.
Several customers of our local bookstore wanted to get books into the hands of prisoners. Networking paid off as somebody who knew somebody contacted a teacher at the Alameda County Santa Rita Jail, who found an enthusiastic supporter of World Book Night in a programming director, who hosted our two-hour jail stay. While WBN givers each received 20 copies of one book, we had received extras from the WBN office, and were loaded down with 260 books.
First stop: the women’s pod, where the 100 residents sat attentively as we each gave one-minute summaries of a book. “Science fiction by an African American woman author: Kindred” followed by “Texas football mania: Friday Night Lights” then “Murder mystery based on fact: Q is For Quarry,” and on through Patty Smith’s memoir, Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel of immigrants, “Bel Canto : a novel of how music can soothe your spirit.”
The residents were asked to file by to choose a book, and return to their cells. They shopped. They clarified, “Is that the Holocaust one? The Book Thief?” They spoke softly to each other: “You get that one and then we’ll swap.”
Next, the pod of 100 men, then the more secure unit of men – mostly older. We never asked how those residents got there. The jail serves short-term sentences, which we learned offers fewer services than a long-term prison. As we handed out the books, we got sincere, polite thank-you’s. As we left each pod, the group shouted out “Thank you, thank you!” and we waved merrily as if we were going to see them again soon. We avoided eye contact with each other, silently admitting we were in danger of emotional overload.
Neal, our leader, guaranteed that those books would be read. “They’re new, and they’re theirs,” he said. We guaranteed him that we were grateful to have met those readers.
Next year it might be fun to hand out kids’ books on a playground, or a sports memoir at a trailhead, but I think I’m hooked on giving books to readers who truly will use them to escape into a different place, the only way they can at this point in their lives. Maybe World Book Night made a difference in a few personal worlds.
Photo courtesy of State Library and Archives of Florida