RED HOOK, NEW YORK — Studies show that the more often children are exposed to books, the better they will do at school. So when I was hired by my local school district to coordinate a preschool literacy project, I knew that I wanted to find as many ways as possible to get books into the hands of children and their parents.
Sure, we have a great bookstore and a supportive library in town, but these places are never as crowded as the local pizza store. And so began the idea of Book Swap Boxes.
The Book Swap Boxes are simply milk crates filled with used children's books in good condition. Children are invited to exchange one used book for another. The books are free and easily accessible. Best of all, children now see books in all their favorite locations around town.
The Book Swap Box idea was easy to implement. I started by requesting donations from the local schools. Most parents were eager to get rid of outgrown books, and I received bags and boxes filled with great reading material. (My own three children had a wonderful time looking through all the books as they piled up in my entry hall.)
After I filled the milk crates, I asked store owners and community groups that deal with children if they would like to host one of the Book Swap Boxes. I explained that the boxes were "self service" and would not entail extra work on their part.
The response was extremely positive. Once all the Book Swap Boxes were in place, I publicized their locations in our local newspapers. I do find that I have to check up on the Swap Boxes occasionally. The box at the elementary school often gets extra donations while the pizza store box sometimes needs refilling. But for the most part, the Book Swap Boxes require little or no maintenance. For a minimal amount of money and effort, our preschool literacy project was able to get books out to the children in our community.
Today, my town has Book Swap Boxes wherever parents and their young children congregate: at the local pizza parlor, the drug store, the video store, the bakery, and the doctor's office, as well as at most nursery schools and churches. "Bring one, take one ... or read a book here," says the sign.
And parents are responding. "I love it!" says an enthusiastic parent of two preschoolers. "It's hard to supply new books every few weeks. This is a good way to get fresh books for my kids."
One mother told me that her children enjoy the process of trading for books. "This lets them take responsibility for making decisions about which book to chose."
Another parent said: "The Book Swap Boxes are a great way to get my child excited about books."
Getting children excited about books is an important first step in the reading process. And the more often children see books around them, the more they will want to read. But in today's busy world, parents don't always have time for that trip to the library or bookstore. In my town, the Book Swap Boxes have proved to be a successful way to bring books to children and their parents.
* Irene Minerley is co-coordinator of the Preschool Literacy Project for Red Hook (N.Y.) Central School District. She also works as an assistant nursery-school teacher at LittleFeet Preschool in Red Hook.