You Get a Book and You Get a Book and You Get a Book! by Liz Garden

There is a small part of me that always wanted to be Oprah or Ellen.  It’s not because these ladies are so famous that we only need to use their first names to identify them.  And it’s not because they probably don’t have to worry about choosing which bills to pay each month and which ones to save for the next paycheck.  It’s not even because they both got to be on TV and entertain people for a living. It was always about the giving, that’s why I wanted to be them.


Oprah once said, “I don’t think you ever stop giving.  I really don’t. I think it’s an ongoing process. And it’s not just about being able to write a check.  It’s being able to touch someone’s life.” As an educator and a school leader, I am grateful that I have the chance to touch the lives of so many, students, teachers, parents.  I am probably a little predictable because my giving usually comes in the form of giving the gift of reading and books. When you see a child’s face light up because you have handed them a book or when you can connect with a child and recommend a book that they can’t wait to open and fall into, that gift giving is my favorite kind. 


I want to be the Oprah or Ellen Book Fairy.  There is nothing quite like being able to say “you get a book and you get a book and you get a book!”  There is one small problem. I am a school principal and I don’t exactly have the same income and endorsements that Oprah or Ellen have.  But I figured out a way to create an exciting experience much like Ellen’s “12 Days of Giveaways” for the students in my school. And it didn’t cost me a thing!


As educators, we all try to prevent the summer slide and around April we start thinking of how we can send kids into summer with books in hand, eager to read.  A few years ago, I had a suggestion for my teachers. What about a book swap? The idea was simple. We would reach out to parents and suggest that they could clean off their book shelves and donate books that their children had read and were done with.  We would gather all of the gently used books and on field day, one of the last days of school, kids would get to come and shop for books to take home and start their summer reading with.  


This year, I switched school districts and came to a new school.  When I explained my idea to my small, but mighty library parent volunteer group, they seemed a little unsure of my grand plan.  But they agreed to help and during the month of May we started collecting books. At first, the books trickled in, a small pile from one student, a single book from another.  But as our donation boxes kept filling up, I kept stashing them on the stage. And then I had parents who were teachers in other districts calling me and asking if they could bring in 6, 7, 8 bags full of books from their literacy closets that they were cleaning out.  Was it ok if the books had teacher sticker names on them? Sure! We would take them all!  


The night before the book swap, we set up folding tables in the gym and covered them with books.  We had the risers where our 5th graders had stood for their concert. We covered the risers with books.  We had boxes stashed under tables full of books to replenish the supply on the tables after each grade came through.  And finally the book swap day arrived! It was my moment to be Oprah.  

My favorite moment of the day came during third grade’s visit to the book swap.  The whole grade was sitting on the bleachers, and I was welcoming them to our “Mayo School Bookstore.”  I showed them where the non fiction table was. I showed them the giant picture book area. I showed them where they could find chapter books like Magic Treehouse and I Survived.  I explained that while half the grade was shopping for books, the other half would be making bookmarks and book bags. I told them they could choose any three books they wanted to take home with them.  One little boy sitting right in front of me raised his hand. He asked me, “How much do these books cost, because I did not bring any money?” I felt all of the 3rd grade eyes on me so I did a little dramatic pause, looked down at the floor, shuffled my feet a little bit, then slowly lifted my head up, smiling.  “Here’s the thing,” I said. “Today, all of these books, are FREE!”

What happened next was nothing short of magical and energizing and electric.  The entire third grade erupted, jumping up from their spots on the bleachers, cheering and clapping and hugging each other.  The excitement was heard across the school. I held back tears and stood there with a gigantic grin on my face. These kids were excited about books!  You would have thought they had just own the lottery. That moment was one that I won’t forget. It was in that moment that I knew all of our efforts from the year to create a culture of literacy, one where kids were excited about reading, had worked!  I also learned in that moment that sometimes it’s all about how you give the message. I had pumped them up about the book swap and when I presented it as an amazing free opportunity…they were fueled by my enthusiasm. (You should have heard the cheers from the kindergarteners when halfway through shopping for books I told them that we were running a special sale…they didn’t get to pick only three books, they got to pick six books!)

I love that I had several Oprah/Ellen moments on book swap day.  Not only did I get to give away books, I was able to give away smiles, happiness, and joy.  As Oprah said, I was able to touch students’ lives with books. Kids found new-to-them books to read, books found new homes, I lived out my Oprah/Ellen dream, and it did not cost a thing.  It does not get much better than that.


Liz Garden is the principal of the Dr. Leroy E Mayo Elementary School in Holden, MA.  She has been an administrator for eleven years and taught at various levels for eleven years.  She blogs regularly for her staff at as well as for a group she helped form,  Liz has presented about her love of reading at the MA Reading Association Conference, Literacy for All Conference, and the NAESP Conference.  She serves on the Scholastic Principal Advisory Board. When she is not molding future minds as an instructional leader, she is dealing with her reading addiction, keeping Amazon in business, listening to her musician husband sing, and chasing around her wild child, Emerson!  You can connect with Liz on Twitter @PrincipalGarden and on Voxer @PrincipalGarden.