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The Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank is a juggernaut.

Less than 20 months after its founding in March 2016, it had distributed 848,583 free books to underserved children in Cuyahoga County.

And as hard as it is to visualize that number – even standing in a warehouse staffed by 3,000 volunteers – the number of titles is shifting upward, faster than the weekly update on its website can track.

For this tsunami of success, the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank is the recipient of the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf Memorial Award, $25,000 given each fall to a nonprofit community organization for outstanding service. The prize is administered by the Center for Community Solutions, which describes itself as “a think tank with muddy boots.”

“Early exposure to reading is critical to brain development, literacy skills, school readiness and adult success,” said John R. Corlett, president of the Center. “Unfortunately, for many children, having a book is a luxury.”

Fitting snugly in the Anisfield-Wolf tradition, the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank exists to foster literacy and a love of reading. But it exists only because two women — Judi Kovach and Judy Payne — put themselves in a position to have a moment of creative brilliance, then act upon it.

Book Bank Board Member Deena Epstein puts it this way: “If you want to find a book that represents the two Judys, I might suggest ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ If all the characters were rolled into two figures, you’d have Judi and Judy possessing heart, courage, brains and humility. Their road is paved not with yellow bricks, but with books, and it leads not to Oz but to Cleveland where all its children share a love of reading.”

Payne and Kovach met through the Little Free Library movement, which places birdhouse-like structures along city streets so that passersby can donate a book or take one home. In Cleveland, the women saw demand outstripping supply.

They learned of a Toledo, Ohio distributor that had been pulping hundreds of thousands of books, and – unlike anyone else in grassroots literacy – dared to imagine all those titles being diverted to Cleveland.

Where there once was a dead-end in a landfill, there is now a brimming warehouse where volunteers sort and box books to more than 600 partners – schools and nonprofit agencies, which put the books in the hands of children and their households.

But what does it mean to distribute more than 60,000 high-quality, gently-used books to Cleveland children each month?

The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a national report in 2014 calling on each parent to read aloud to their child – daily – from infancy. This is critical to a brain that triples in size in the first three years. It is essential to the neurological scaffolding that will allow a child to thrive.

You’ve heard of the 30 million word gap? That is chasm a child faces by age four who grows up in a language-impoverished home. And two-thirds of low-income households own zero children’s books.

The research is conclusive that reading to a child strengthens the bonds between child and caregiver, increases school readiness and improves brain development. There is powerful science showing that rich, interactive household language is the key architect to early brain growth – a phase that cannot be duplicated once the child is an adult.

In accepting their award, Payne credited her board and the battalion of volunteers, donors and bibliophiles who came together to make the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank a thriving startup.

But Margaret Bernstein, the director of advocacy and community initiatives for WKYC, sees it differently. She introduced Kovach and Payne several years ago as she passed to them the leadership of some 60 local Little Free Libraries. And she likened the women to two sticks of dynamite.

“What happens when you put two sticks together?” Bernstein asked more than 300 guests gathered for the annual celebration of human services. “Let’s all say it: they go boom!”

The audience echoed the word, even as Payne took one step forward and improvised: “Books!” she shouted.

The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges famously said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

Bibliophiles might say amen, but books are barriers, not passports, for the estimated 36 million adults in the United States who can’t read above a third-grade level.

In Cuyahoga County, 400,000 people — almost half the population — read and calculate below an 8th-grade level, which bars them from standard job training; while 67 percent of Cleveland kindergarteners arrive “not fully prepared to start.”

Into this grim turf – so far from Borges’ Paradise – rides a short woman, Dr. Dana Suskind, who founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative in Chicago.

She came to Cleveland as a guest of the Literacy Cooperative, arriving with a PowerPoint and film clips to emphasize that there is a fix to the 30 million word gap. This is the chasm children experience by age four growing up in homes without much talking, compared to homes awash in words.

“Not since the dark ages has so much human potential been left off the table,” Suskind said, quoting her colleague John List, an economist at the University of Chicago.  

“What happens outside the hospital is what really matters,” Suskind told a lunch gathering in downtown Cleveland. “The critical factor is language – the power of the parent or caregiver talking to build the child’s brain.”

Because 85 percent of brain development occurs in the first three years, smart babies are not born, but made through interactive speech, Suskind said. She came to this realization by studying the research, spurred by her initial surprise as a cochlear implant surgeon when some of her young deaf patients thrived when she implanted a device that enabled hearing and other children made almost no gains at all.  The reason turned out to be how rich the speech was at home.

“Many families haven’t been exposed to the powerful science that shows that their language is the key architect for their children’s brain growth,” Suskind told National Public Radio. “Our focus is empowering parents with that knowledge.”

The vehicle is the Three T’s: Tune in, Talk More and Take Turns. From birth on, parents who engage with whatever has caught a child’s attention, bring rich language to their daily interactions and begin to echo and respond to their baby’s sounds are building hundreds of thousands of neural connections – without buying anything at all.

Asked about the ubiquitous cellphone, Suskind said she now notices an eerie quiet when she walks into waiting rooms. “To be truthful, it’s a little bit scary to me,” she said. “I think we need a fourth-T: Turn off your technology.”

Suskind praised Dr. Robert Needleman, a Cleveland pediatrician in the audience. He pioneered “Reach Out and Read,” which brings books into the lives of young families through well-child appointments.

“We’re working on a maternity ward intervention where new mothers and fathers learn about the power of language,” Suskind said. “We’re working in pediatricians’ offices, home-visiting programs as well as children’s museums and libraries. Our program is about getting this message and these science-based programs to parents — to really, hopefully, get it into the groundwater.”

The Chicago surgeon “really has changed the landscape with her Thirty Million Words Initiative,” said Kristen Baird Adams, chief operating officer in the PNC Office of the Regional President.  The bank has pledged $350 million over 25 years in its Grow Up Great program.

“All the pediatricians, all the health care workers, all the teachers in the world knowing the importance of language in a child’s first three years means nothing if the parents don’t know,” Suskind concludes in her book. “When I began Thirty Million Words, I would look at the babies’ heads and imagine the rapid firing of developing neurons just at that moment. Now I look at the adults who care for them and think, ‘You are more powerful than you ever imagined and I hope you know it.’”

The Literacy Cooperative hosted its largest gathering — about 175 community educators, librarians, doctors and literacy workers – to disseminate Suskind’s message. It partners with two pertinent initiatives locally: Reach out and Read and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which delivers a book a month to a child from birth to age five.  More information on both is available at

When former poet laureate Rita Dove graced the stage of the Akron Civic Theater October 16, she took a minute to give thanks to her hometown.

“It’s wonderful to be back home,” Dove told the crowd, adding that she was thankful for the opportunity to “give back what was given to me.”

The Anisfield-Wolf juror was the headliner for Project Learn of Summit County’s annual “Night of Illumination,” a fundraiser to improve literacy. The figures are sobering: an estimated 18 percent of the adult population in Summit County read at less than a fifth grade education. For more than 30 years, Project Learn has worked to improve literacy rates among adults, offering free classes and workshops. During the afternoon, Dove met with 30 students from these classes for an intense writing session. Two of the writers – poet Trinity Brooks, studying for her GED and Bulgarian immigrant Albena Makris, mastering English – read their work aloud for the Civic Theatre crowd.

Dove, 62,  won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 for her book “Thomas and Beulah,” a collection loosely based on her maternal grandparents in Akron. She invited the audience to journey through her poems and the life that inspired them, beginning with childhood.

“I found a whole world of possibility in books,” she said. “I read everything – the back of cereal boxes, comic books, all the books my parents had on their shelves.”

Dove said she can remember every page of the first book she read–Harold and the Purple Crayon, a transformative text she picked up when she was 3. The 1955 book’s message – “you go where you need to go and if the road isn’t there, you build it” – became Dove’s mantra. Her poem “First Book” is dedicated to the wonder of a small child learning to read:

Open it.

Go ahead, it won’t bite.

Well…maybe a little.

More a nip, like. A tingle.

It’s pleasurable, really.

You see, it keeps on opening.

You may fall in.

Sure, it’s hard to get started;

remember learning to use

knife and fork? Dig in:

you’ll never reach bottom.

It’s not like it’s the end of the world –

just the world as you think

you know it

Dove’s first foray into poetry came a few years after her discovery of Harold. In fourth grade, her teacher gave her class a broad prompt to make “something creative” for Easter. Little Rita, a quiet, bookish child, wrote “The Rabbit with the Droopy Ear.”

It was the first time, Dove remarked, that a poem had “come together” for her. She was hooked: “The bug had bitten me. I wanted to write all the time and feel that good all the time.”

Her creativity intensified during trips to the local library. “I can’t remember a time I wasn’t around books. That was the entryway into writing. It gave this shy child courage.” The poem “Maple Valley Branch Library 1967” is an ode to that place, its librarians and the willingness of her parents – Ray Dove and Elvira Hord — to let their daughter read any book she chose.

Dove read two poems from “Thomas and Beulah,” named after her grandparents. She told her audience, “There was no greater pleasure in my life than to get the Pulitzer for them, for my family and for Akron.” But she didn’t rush, and she had long conversations with her mother and her titular characters. “It took me a long time to write these stories,” she said. “I didn’t want to embarrass anyone. I wanted to get it right.”

During her tenure as the U.S. poet laureate from 1993-1995, Dove discovered people were afraid of poetry. “My response to that was to stick poetry wherever I went. I wanted to bring poetry into the world.” She took particular note of a letter from a mother declaring that young children should be exposed to poetry as soon as possible, for poetry is simply “making the language your own.” Children who are exposed to poetry in all its splendor, Dove said, usually have higher self-esteem and are less likely to feel like no one understands them.

Following the life cycle, Dove acknowledged the beginning of her courtship with Fred Viebahn, the German-born writer and her husband of 35 years. Her love poem “Heart to Heart” mashes clichés about the heart. It was fitting, Dove said, because their love is “anything but cliché.”

The twosome took up ballroom dancing more than a decade ago and the learning curve was steep: “There’s nothing like turning into stumbling toddlers when you’re in your…past-40s, let’s say,” Dove quipped.

The physicality of the sport (and yes, Dove maintains ballroom dancing is a sport) lead to Dove to write, “An Ode To My Right Knee.” This poem was particularly challenging in its own way. Upon crafting the poem Dove decided that every word in the same line would begin with the same letter. The last line — “kindly, keep kicking” — drew chuckles from the audience.

The evening ended softly, on a perfect note with Dove’s “Dawn Revisited”:

Imagine you wake up

with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don’t look back,

the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits –
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You’ll never know
who’s down there, frying those eggs,
if you don’t get up and see.

How can a book lover mark September 8—International Literacy Day?

Here’s a notion from the Literacy Cooperative of Cleveland, which has teamed up with the Cuyahoga County Public Library and Cleveland Public Library, to enlist social media’s stickiness in the cause:

Just snap a picture of yourself with a book you’re enjoying and post it on all your channels—Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, using the hashtag #literacyselfie. Along with the visuals, organizers hope you will chat about the book itself and its appeal. Cleveland State University President Ron Berkman and WKYC News Anchor Russ Mitchell will be sharing selfies, as will other high-profile Clevelanders.

Cleveland could use the boost: Most incoming kindergartners are unprepared for school, and a quarter of residents older than 25 lack a high school diploma. “Literary selfies” might end up boosting the economy, or, more simply, alerting a friend to a fascinating book.

The Literacy Cooperative recently launched #CLELiteracy to coax reading for fun. One early score: buy-in from Cleveland-area barbers, who have stocked their shops with free books for their customers. “It’s good to see them pick up a book instead of doodling around with a phone all the time,” said Madison Brooks, a Cleveland Heights barber.

For more on the #literacyselfie challenge, visit the Literacy Cooperative’s website.

A quiet crisis in literacy has hold of Cleveland, Ohio. A staggering 80 percent of incoming kindergartners are unprepared for school. Twenty-five percent of residents over 25 lack a high school diploma. A full 40 percent of third graders are not reading at grade level.

“When we’re out and we’re talking about these numbers, people’s jaws drop,” said Robert Paponetti, executive director of the Literacy Cooperative, a small Cleveland nonprofit working to improve literacy.  “We really needed to have an answer when people asked, ‘What can I do to help?'”

The Cooperative’s top 10 list is a start. Released last month, it is an accessible call to action for Northeast Ohioans to commit to improving literacy in their own backyard, whether as a volunteer tutor (#2) or by joining the Little Free Library movement (#8).

 “People throw the ‘call to action’ around frivolously,” Paponetti said. “It’s heavy on the call but light on the action. Here, we tried to be very explicit about how people could get involved.”

Former Plain Dealer newspaper columnist Margaret Bernstein, who helped develop the top 10 list, is actively promoting the list – online and on the pavement. Take, for instance, option #3: the 20 minutes a day reading challenge. Using the hashtag #CLELiteracy, Bernstein is encouraging parents to tweet photos or Instagram themselves reading to their children.

The goal, she said, is to make good reading habits popular, “replacing some of the nonsense [on social media] with something of substance.”

The social media campaign is heating up, with the hashtag reaching more than 20,000 people in the past week. Other organizations are also using the #CLELiteracy hashtag to share videos, photos and tips, all promoting literacy.

Bernstein said the momentum makes her optimistic that the community is attacking its literacy crisis. “That is my hope – that young parents see so many of their peers reading to their kids and they think, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s something I need to be doing.’ It’s positive peer pressure.”

Three times a week, a group of strangers gathers in the basement of an independent New York City bookstore.

Their purpose? The volunteers—sometimes including tourists—pack more than 200 books a month, shipping them to prisons in 41 states. They belong to a collective called Books Through Bars, which provides reading material to inmates at their request.

Begun in Philadelphia roughly three decades ago, the collective sprouted chapters across the country, all operating on the same model: Books are donated to a partnering bookstore and volunteers match donations with requests.

ABC No Rio, an artist’s community center in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, started the work in 1996. Victoria Law, author of Resistance Behind Bars, is a founding member.

Prison reformers have long advocated more access to books for inmates. Research indicates that books and education ease the transition back into society, and reduce recidivism rates.

Odette, a volunteer with the Manhattan program, said that inmates are thankful such an organization exists. (She asked that her last name be omitted.) “In some cases, people may be cut off from family and friends, either due to solitary confinement or some other reason,” she said, “and we are one of the only forms of positive human contact they receive.”

The most requested items (and hardest to solicit donations for) are English- and Spanish-language dictionaries. Close behind are history books and titles on navigating the oft-confusing social services system.

Have titles you’d like to donate? Visit the Prison Book Program’s website for details on which program serves your state.

Did you know that fewer than half of U.S. families read to their kindergarten-age children on a daily basis? That children who grow up with books in the home score better on standardized reading tests? That childhood literacy is closely linked to adult literacy? This is part of the reason why it is so important to instill in children a love of reading early on.

Sydney’s Book Club, a Pennsylvania-area nonprofit dedicated to early literacy, has kicked off its 20-4-30 literacy challenge for April. Every day, parents should read to their children for 20 minutes a day for the entire month of April.

The Sydney Book Club has hit upon a promising approach to increase literary rates in the United States. Participants can use this opportunity to introduce multicultural literature to their children. We have a list of resources for parents and educators to help them identify age-appropriate books (featuring protagonists from a variety of backgrounds) for their children and students (find it here). Noted author and parenting blogger Denene Millner also featured a list of children’s books featuring African-American characters on her blog, MyBrownBaby, which could be a good starting point for any parents looking to increase the diversity of their children’s book library.

Will you be joining in on this challenge?