When the pandemic upended how schools operate in March, Rafael Hernández Elementary School principal Ana Carolina Brito made a quick decision. She and her staff emptied out every book from the institution’s cabinets and corners to send home with the kids. Many of the school’s students lack access to computers or an Internet connection, and the books would be more useful for learning at home, they reasoned.
Now, as some semblance of normalcy approaches again, the school’s shelves need to be restocked. And they will be — thanks to the Boston Book Festival’s Shelf Help Grant.
The annual initiative supported two local schools, the Hernández School in Roxbury and the English School in Jamaica Plain, this season. Started five years ago, Shelf Help crowd funds donations to supply at least 50 brand-new books to the chosen institutions.
Fortunately, a generous wave of donations these past few months means both schools have already surpassed this 50-book threshold, said Carlin Carr, the BBF’s chief of operations and outreach.
“The budget for schools has always been cut from libraries, even before the pandemic,” Carr said. “With the Shelf Help program, librarians can make meaningful additions to the schools’ collections again.”
Shelf Help also includes an in-school visit from an acclaimed children’s author affiliated with the festival. Because of COVID-19, authors Juana Medina and Jerry Craft will virtually drop by the Hernández and English schools this year. Their visit will coincide with the Boston Book Festival 2020 Online, which will begin on Oct. 5.
The COVID-19 crisis has shone a glaring light on education inequities nationwide. “Many school libraries lack their own resources, and the books are quite out of date,” wrote the book festival’s executive director, Norah Piehl, in a statement. “And although every year we hear stories of how essential books are to kids, in this time of pandemic and remote learning, it has become more relevant than ever.”
Carr said the beauty of the program lies within the freedom it gives individual schools to decide what they need. Each institution’s librarians curate wish lists of books they would like to purchase using donation money. This means the library shelves are stocked with picks that fit the culture and needs of each school.
English School librarian Dave Barry, for example, said his library has a healthy stock of reference books, classics, and sports reads. He’s looking to supplement that collection with young adult fiction, graphic novels, and dual-language books for the institution’s large Spanish-speaking and Haitian Creole population. “I also want to get our hands on books that have characters that look like these kids,” he added. “They should feel represented, and maybe it’ll motivate to read them more.”
In the end, both schools showed immense appreciation for the Boston Book Festival.
“Being able to select books I want for the school and having it be almost guaranteed we will get them, it’s dynamite,” said Barry.
Diti Kohli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_