The Alderwood pop-up food bank and book distribution are outdoors this evening. The sky is the color of a robin’s eggs and a warm breeze drifts across the parking lot into the covered playground where a dozen volunteers unload crates of food. The food bank won’t open for another hour but already ten people wait in line. Four Latino children are on the nearby swings, pumping hard, pointing their feet skyward. A tiny African-American boy pedals his tricycle across the bumpy sidewalk with a look of fierce determination on his face.
I stand in the adjacent alleyway—next to the growing queue of people—setting up a long line of tables. My neighbor Daryl arranges books from infant board books up to adult novels. She and I have worked the book gig together long enough that we can do the setup in companionable silence.
Today we have a great selection of reading material—new picture books featuring trucks and animals and princesses and dinosaurs and popular middle grade titles including Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Geronimo Stilton. I have boxes of crayons and activity books and flashcards to help young kids learn basic sight words and number skills. Soon the tables are covered with books and moments later parents and kids begin checking out this week’s offerings.
A Somali family walks slowly along the tables studying the book selection. The father, tall and thin, wears a spotless white shirt and asks me if we have dictionaries. I rummage through a bin and fish out a small dictionary and hand it to him. He smiles broadly and laughs aloud as if he can’t believe his good fortune. His pregnant wife wears a hijab and a multi-colored flowing dress. She pauses by the board books and selects a gently used copy of Goodnight Moon and a set of flashcards featuring simple one-syllable words and pictures. Her high school-aged daughter also wears a full-length traditional covering. She speaks perfect English and asks for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series and she is in luck: I have a full boxed set. She grins shyly and thanks me when I place the box in her hands.
A Native woman helps her young son locate a book on snakes. I notice the distinctive words on her sweatshirt and ask if she is Tlingit. She looks surprised and says that she is, in fact, Tlingit, born and raised in a small Southeast Alaskan village. I explain that years ago I worked with the tribe in Sitka, not far from where she grew up. We spend a few minutes chatting about subsistence activities: seaweed gathering, herring egg harvesting, and salmon fishing. When I thank her for visiting with me, I use the Tlingit word Gunalcheesch. Her eyes fill with tears and she whispers her thanks in return: Gunalcheesch.
A young Latino boy—not yet in first grade—searches for a book accessible to him as a beginning reader. Daryl helps him locate a level one book about Batman. The boy mumbles a thank you, shouts to his friends, and races to the playground holding the book above his head like a prize.
The music of laughter fills the air as neighbors partake in the community’s bounty of good food and good books. And yet there is something indescribable about this warm summer evening—something that transcends this simple gathering. It feels like magic.
Kids Need Books runs on donations and is part of the non-profit Interfaith Coalition. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation.