Take a Book – Leave a Book by Sara Kieffer Kizzier

“Hey!  I know you,” a smiling little face squeals as he points his finger at me.  “You’re the book lady! ” He comes over for a hug and soon we’re in a deep conversation about the latest book he’s taken home to read.  I don’t know his name and I know he doesn’t know mine since I’m not his teacher and he’s only seen me a few times.  Yet he knows we both love books, and that’s a good enough conversation starter.


All 500+ students at my school know me as the book lady.  And I’m not the librarian.  I’m a Reading Recovery teacher and First and Second Grade Reading Specialist who had a dream that every child in our school would have a home library.


During the summer of 2012, I read What Really Matters for Struggling Readers by Richard Allington and was fascinated by the research about the value of books in homes.  I was surprised to learn that owning books and having reading material in a home is primarily a middle class phenomenon.  Two-thirds of America’s children living in poverty have no books at home due to lack of resources and living farther away from public libraries than their more affluent peers. Having access to books at home improves children’s reading performance, helps children learn the basics of reading, allows children to read more and for longer lengths of time, and improves attitudes toward reading and learning.  Having as few as 20 books in the home has a significant impact on propelling a child to a higher level of education and the more books you add, the greater the benefit.


I could not get those facts out of my head — especially because I was one of those kids with few books in my own childhood home.  Don’t get me wrong, my parents were readers and every night my mom would lay in bed with my brother and me and we would get to pick a bedtime story from our favorite book of fairy tales.  Every month, when my teacher would hand out the Scholastic book flyers, I’d scour the pages and circle all the books I wanted.  I’d run home, excited to show my mom the books I wanted and beg for “just one book.” But she always sadly answered, “You know we can’t afford that.”  Soon I stopped asking, but my heart hurt when the other kids’ book orders arrived.


As I thought about Allington’s book and the feeling of longing I had for my very own books, I decided I needed to do something for the students at our school, many of whom live in poverty.  As a teacher who works with struggling readers I had first-hand experience with children who had no books at home.  They could borrow one book at a time from our school library, but they could only visit our library once every six days.  If they lost the book or forgot to return it….well, to mangle a famous Seinfeld episode quote, “NO BOOK FOR YOU!”   Think about it — a book to call your own, to love and reread and fold the corners if you want to… that’s something special.  That’s what I wanted for all of our students.


So that summer I created a program that would allow children to choose books to take home and keep forever.  I called it “Take a Book – Leave a Book.” The idea came to me one day as I read an article about a new suburban trend called Little Libraries, which are boxes mounted on posts where neighbors can leave books they’ve read and take home a book that had been left by someone else.


I approached my principal with the idea and he was instantly a supporter.  He agreed to purchase bookshelves for the project and we put them in four different highly traveled hallways in our school.  He also allowed me to create and print posters to put up in the hall and fliers for each child to take home with their first book, printed in the three most commonly spoken languages in our school.

Take a Book photo


Then I went digging deep into the bowels of our over-flowing guided reading book room.  This room was originally intended as a guided reading library, but after a few years it became the repository for any donated, lost, leftover or discarded book found in the building.  We had hundreds of books just sitting in boxes, in tubs, and in piles on the floor. Every once in a while some of us would talk about what to do with all those extra books, but since we couldn’t decide what to do we just continued to step around them.  When I saw how many books we had, my principal gave me permission to use them as our very first “Take a Book – Leave a Book” inventory.


Things started falling into place!  At the beginning of the school year I shared the idea with the staff who were instantly excited and started digging through their own classroom libraries to contribute to our inventory.   As soon as the posters and fliers were printed I filled the bookshelves with books and covered them with paper.  This served two purposes:  anticipation mounted about what was behind the paper, and it allowed me to talk to each class about the program before books began disappearing from the shelves.


The next part was the best.  I visited every classroom in our school and explained the “Take a Book – Leave a Book” project to every child.  It was thrilling for me to be able to tell children they could take a book home and keep it forever.  After I explained the rules of the program each child got to choose a book from the shelf and I gave them a flier to take home to their parents, explaining what we were doing.  There are only two rules.  Firstly, you can take only one book a day-but you can take a book every day if you want to.  Secondly, all the books on the “Take a Book – Leave a Book” shelves are marked with a sticker that has a “T” on it.  This is so you and your parents know this is a book you can keep.  I also told the students they could return a book if they got tired of it, and they could bring books from home that they didn’t read anymore (with permission, of course).  I set up book donation boxes so people would know where to leave books they were donating to the program.


I was expecting students to bring back books and parents to donate books their children had outgrown.   In this way we’d keep up a steady supply of books.  However, that didn’t happen.  It seems the students were so excited to have their very own books that they didn’t want to give them back.  Hooray!


It didn’t take long to realize I needed help getting enough books to satisfy our young readers’ book needs.  I called our local newspaper and they sent a reporter to do a story on our program.  In the story we asked for donations, and we got them from people all over our city.  I also sent an email to everyone in the school district explaining our program and asking for donations, and staff members from every school were very generous. When we get really low on books I write an article in the school’s weekly newsletter and the book donations pick up again.  I have gotten hundreds of books donated from local bookstores and recently I’ve taken up dumpster diving behind book warehouses.  Whatever it takes, right?


When students stop me in the hall to tell me about the book they are reading my heart sings with joy.  I want students to love reading as much as I do and I believe that “Take a Book – Leave a Book” is helping in some small way to foster a lifelong love affair with books.


Sara Kieffer Kizzier is a Reading Recovery teacher and a First and Second grade reading specialist at Olmsted Elementary in Urbandale, Iowa.  She lives with her husband, two of their four kids, two cats, one dog, rooms full of children’s literature, and stacks of begging-to-be-read adult literature of every genre.  You can reach via twitter @MrsSKK.