Story and photo by Joseph Shaw
The idea that children were growing up in Maine without access to books is what drove Pam Leo, who was born in Houlton, Maine, in 1950, to found the Book Fairy Pantry Project. During her own childhood, Houlton was poor and rural, and no one she knew had books at home. In fact, she has no memory of books in her life at all until the third grade, when her teacher read out loud to the class “if we were good.”
As an adult, Pam Leo worked in education for 22 years, including teaching parenting classes to inmates at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham for 18 of those years. Alongside her paid work, Leo also served as a trainer of volunteers at the Center for Grieving Children for more than 10 years, where she taught a “Healing the Feeling Child Workshop.” The workshop, still available as an audio tape; teaches parents how to nurture and encourage children. Leo is also the author of Connection Parenting, which stresses the importance of the child-parent bond.
During her years working with parents and children, she was stunned and saddened to realize how many children did not own a single book. One Sunday in April 2016, she wrote the poem “Please Read to Me – A Child’s Plea for Love and Literacy.” Leo said, “That poem was a gift. It would not let me go until I got books into children’s hands!”
She began researching family literacy programs for ideas to help her formulate a plan to get books to kids. “On every family literacy website I found, I read the same startling statistics: 20 percent of adults in the U.S. have low literacy skills, and two thirds of the 15.5 million children living in poverty do not own even one book.” In the U.S., rates of illiteracy and rates of incarceration run parallel. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 75 percent of state prison inmates have limited literacy skills and or did not complete high school.
Leo’s research led her to founding the Book Fairy Pantry Project, which receives and donates gently used children’s books from schools, libraries, churches, and other sources, and works with food drives to get books into children’s hands. Her mission is “No child with no books.” Leo said, “My goal for this project is for it to go statewide to every food pantry here in Maine.”
In October 2020, Leo and The Book Fairy Pantry Project donated books to a Little Free Library installation by Eagle Scout Harrison Fream in Portland’s Kennedy Park. “This Little Library will bring books into the community, which is always super important for child development, and is especially important now because COVID-19 is preventing access to libraries. We want to help prevent an illiteracy pandemic.”
Pam Leo said that The Book Fairy Pantry Project is always open to volunteers who share her passion for bringing books into the lives of children. And look for her poem, forthcoming as Please Read to Me, a children’s book.
Please Read To Me – A Child’s Plea for Love and Literacy
By Pam Leo
Read to me, please read to me
Right from the very start.
Just as good food grows my body,
Good stories grow my brain and heart.
Read stories to me in my bed,
And in the rocking chair,
In the garden, in the bathroom,
Please read to me everywhere.
Please read me a wake-up story,
A breakfast story, a story with my snack,
Another story with my lunch,
And two before my nap.
Please give me picture books to look at
When we’re driving in the car,
And audio books to listen to
As we travel near and far.
Please take me to the library.
They have books to read for free.
We can take home lots of them,
Some for you and some for me.
Read me stories in the kitchen,
And stories in the bath.
Please read me this same one again,
It always makes us laugh.
A story is a special treat,
Always a delight.
Reading keeps us connected,
Morning, noon, and night.
Every time you read to me
Our bond grows a little stronger.
Your reading feels like love to me,
And I always want it longer.
Read to me? Please?
For more about efforts to get books into the hands of kids in Maine:
“I’m Your Neighbor Books” in December 2020
“An Interview with Paulo and Rachel/Reading Refuges” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWAYd2sBBIc&t=3s.