Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

School’s Out, Reading’s In: Kids may need to play catch-up this post-pandemic summer. Luckily, there are resources to help them.

On a warm Saturday in Uptown Harrisburg, a colorful RV parked in the shade. Kids and adults streamed in. As they left, they held cups of popcorn in one hand and free books in the other.

Tri-County OIC’s BookyMobile was making its rounds, joining the annual African American Black History Expo. Outside the BookyMobile, Lisa Gibson of Steelton clutched a bag full of books for her grandchildren, ages 3, 12, 14 and 16.

“They all need the reading practice,” she said. The BookyMobile is “always nice to have around, especially when you don’t have a car and can’t get to the library.”

Summertime, and the reading is easy in the Burg. Local literacy advocates are mixing the tried-and-true with the innovative, distributing books wherever they find hands to take them. In the post-pandemic recovery, as underserved children struggle to regain lost academics, they say that encouraging reading is more urgent than ever.


To the Streets

This is the BookyMobile—a 1996, 30-foot Winnebago. On shelves lining the gutted interior, straps hold the books in place (imperfectly, admits OIC Executive Director Jeffrey Woodyard).

Summertime is BookyMobile primetime. Stocked with books donated by schools and private donors, it trundles to fairs and celebrations. Visitors appreciate the air conditioning, as well as the art supplies and all-you-care-to-take books.

As a consortium of job skills providers, the OIC makes literacy an easy fit, comfortably snuggled with its GED and English-language classes. BookyMobile even has Wi-Fi, courtesy of a Dauphin County gaming grant, so adult visitors can sign up for courses.

Reading and summer go together because it’s the time when “people can get out and enjoy themselves,” said Woodyard.

“For the places we go, they don’t get a lot of free stuff,” he said. “We give away things that are free and educational. We try to make it look like it’s fun.”

The consequences from a year of lost schooling could further increase racial and economic disparities. Students in schools that were already struggling academically are now even farther behind their better-off peers, reports the Blog on Learning & Development. Those who can’t get back on track could experience more delays in reading skills, leading to academic failure because, after all, reading is the foundation of learning.

The Dauphin County Library System doesn’t have peer-reviewed data that its Summer Reading Club can help curb the problem, but library reading programs are known to halt the traditional “summer slide” in learning, said Youth Services Administrator Hannah Killian. The pandemic’s “whole new layer of learning losses” added urgency to a traditionally fun endeavor.

“The impact of this won’t be understood for months or even years, but if we can help to motivate kids and families to read together this summer, we can at least begin to help with turning the corner on these losses,” said Killian.

Reaching for solutions, the library made this year’s Summer Reading Club easier than ever. Log the books read or minutes spent reading, and everyone from preschoolers to adults can earn free books. Read “Pete the Cat” with the kids? Points earned. Listen to an audiobook on the drive to the shore? Four hours’ worth of points earned for everyone with ears. My Sunday morning curl-up with the New York Times? I’ve already racked up enough points for a free book.

Reading club participation dipped during the pandemic, but Killian is not “super-concerned” about the numbers.

“To me, it’s more about the experience our community is having and that they are reading together,” she said.


Drive for Diversity

The pandemic halted the indoor gatherings that were ideal for book giveaways, but it heightened the need to put books—especially those showing diversity in characters, authors and illustrators—into homes. So, Dauphin County Library System worked with community literacy agencies to create the Super Cool Book Parade, held June 23 in the John Harris High School parking lot.

The outdoor, socially distanced event invited families to walk or drive through the “parade,” accepting books and a to-go dinner to take home.

The AKA Foundation of Central Pennsylvania—an outreach of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority’s Harrisburg chapter, Epsilon Sigma Omega—used the book parade to continue its year-round efforts to put diverse books in the hands of children. COVID-19 “absolutely” added urgency to the imperative of attracting children to books through the power of seeing themselves and those different from them on the pages, said Karen Love, chair of the chapter’s African American Read-In Committee.

“The key is truly to have our kids be exposed and interested and excited about reading and learning through reading,” said Love. “The idea is always to expand our reach and understanding of all cultures. Books that support all children, reflecting the variety of cultures and backgrounds, are important books for everyone to read everywhere.”


Family Affair

Where do all of these free books come from? To find a primary source, drop by the “two-car” garage of Joe Bedard, where one bay is stacked with books.

“About once a week, there’s someone picking up books from here,” said Bedard, chair of the Capital Region Literacy Council. “They usually leave with 300 to 500 books.”

Since 2004, the Capital Region Literacy Council has been a kind of food bank for books, acquiring 575,000 books for distribution by community agencies—everything from Head Start classrooms to Hamilton Health Center pediatricians’ offices. Many of the books are acquired at deep discount or simply the cost of shipping from First Book, a resource provider dedicated to educational equity that helps children escape poverty.

Summertime finds Literacy Council books going home with charter school students or set up for giveaway at events in city parks. While kids get books, parents get kindergarten-readiness checklists and tips on promoting literacy.

Those helpful hints address the “elephant in the room,” said Bedard—the fact that children in poverty trail higher-income kids, developmentally, by two years. Just when the neural “hard drives” of low-income preschoolers are under construction, they hear 35 million fewer words than children from professional families.

“A lot of the moms didn’t grow up with reading,” said Bedard. “What is more important than handing a book out is delivering a message so the moms and caregivers understand how important it is and make the choice that, ‘My kid’s going to become a reader, and then the kid has a chance.’”

Parent education is instrumental, agrees the OIC’s Woodyard.

“We try to show parents how to model good reading habits,” he said. “Even if you’re struggling with reading, just holding a book and turning the pages and talking about what you see—that’s good.”


Book Factory

Books are made, not born. Some summer literacy events generate interest in reading by revealing the art—and toil—of book creation.

Dauphin County Library System’s first “Author in Residence” program (well, in residence virtually) brings Carlisle-based author and illustrator Amy June Bates to families through interactive online sessions on how books are made. In the final session on Aug. 19, participants will make their own books.

“Kids realize there’s a person behind the books who is writing them and helping us think about our lives,” said Killian. “Meeting an author can go a long way in helping kids read and love books.”

Children will also make books from start to finish at American Literacy Corporation’s 6th Annual Central PA Writers and Illustrators Virtual Summer Camp. In-person sessions of the past also culminated with a book, which “gave them a goal to strive for,” said ALC Executive Director Floyd Stokes.

“They’re excited,” he said. “They can actually walk away at the end of camp and say, ‘I wrote a book.’”

Back at the BookyMobile, 11-year-old Jasani Cousins was filling a bag with books for her home library.

“I love it, because at my house, I have three shelves of books,” said the Harrisburg native visiting from her Florida home. “I was surprised because the books are free, when you usually have to pay money for them. I got lots of books.”

She looked around the shelves. Something caught her eye.

“And I’m getting some more,” she said.


Reading Resources

To dig deeper into literacy efforts around Harrisburg, visit these websites:

AKA Foundation of Central Pennsylvania:

American Literacy Corporation:

Capital Region Literacy Council: Capital Region Literacy Council on Facebook

Dauphin County Library System:

Tri-County OIC:

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