An Open Book

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Every day, scores of children reach for the door of Children’s Book Bank in Regent Park. They turn the handle and walk into a new adventure every time.

Executive Director Mary Ladky often hears, “It’s not what I expected.”

When I first learned of the Children’s Book Bank, I wondered how it differed from a library or a bookstore. My brain quickly produced images of food banks and thrift stores. Perhaps a music-playing truck would circle through neighbourhoods with young families, seeking boxes of old books rather than boxes of non-perishables. Perhaps those boxes would land in a storage basement, the books to be eventually unloaded onto metal carts with squeaky wheels. Then perhaps children would happily dig through dozens of titles, some with tattered covers, before finding a gem in a pile of hand-me-downs. 

I decided to make a visit. At 350 Berkeley Street, just a few blocks from the southeast corner of Allan Gardens, stands a modest brick building with a large plaque outline of a book. Walking up the front steps, I thought about how children every day reach for this very door, turn the handle and walk into a new adventure each time. 

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A House of Books

I notice immediately that the Book Bank is comprised of a series of rooms that might make a child feel as if she were entering the magical forests of Narnia. The space streams with light from a large bay window set in the furthest wall of the furthest room.  

At the foyer stands a row of friendly volunteers, ready to welcome daycares, camp groups, school classes and families from the neighbourhood. Every shelf is neatly stocked with books that appear like new as well as the occasional stuffed animal. A small book display at the entrance changes thematically with the seasons. The turn of summer to school days delivers a crop of stories on “friendship.” The crisp autumn winds blow in books about “thanksgiving.” 

A few steps past the foyer, I’m led into the most immersive section: books float above by taut string and perch in bookshelves at every wall. The shelves boast dozens of thematic labels: “poetry,” “series,” “farm.” About a fifth of these titles are the yields of book drives run by corporate donors like private schools and familiar for-profit names. But the majority are gifts from individual families willing to share the stories their own children once loved. 

The deepest section, though, appears the largest. A gently worn rug sits at the base of a couch; its markings evidence the thousands of children who have sat for story-time. The inviting bay window is lined with cushioned seats to sit on and a row of colourful cushions to lean on when flipping the pages of an open book. 

The Book Bank, an intimate and cozy setting, could be the personal library of a family member or a close friend. Newborns to pre-schoolers to pre-teens all have a home here. The entire space conveys the warmth of a dwelling place, and it welcomes every child with the generous promise of taking one book home at the end of each visit. 

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A Community of Readers

Mary shares with me the vision of the Book Bank that extends beyond the physical act of putting treasured books into the hands of children. There is the dignity experienced by children who are encouraged to pick any book they want, akin to the agency of buying anything at a bookstore. There is the intimate bond between a child and caregiver when enraptured in the throes of a tale. There is the refuge from our otherwise technology-laden lives. There are the reading habits that begin to form in the early days of childhood. There is the acquired joy of returning to a book again and again. This place, at its core, shares and fosters a love for reading.

For Muhana Begum, 16, the Book Bank is a special memory of her childhood. She recounts, “When I was young, I would come here on a bus for school trips. As I grew older, I wanted to contribute.” Muhana, who lives nearby in Regent Park, became a volunteer at the Book Bank. She is among a troop of 40 volunteers who regularly give their time interacting with families and maintaining the inventory. On Saturdays, however, Muhana is an employee of the Book Bank through its “Readers to Leaders” program. The program allows the Book Bank to hire two local high school students every year to work in the storefront and gain customer service work experience in a place that may hold their childhood memories. 

Loribeth Gregg, too, began as a volunteer before taking up her current role as Manager of Programming and Volunteer Engagement. Loribeth, who brings past experience working in bookstores, explains, “It is simply a different environment to say to families, regardless of the amount of money they have, ‘Here are the books you can have’ or ‘That is a wonderful choice you made today.’” Loribeth runs multiple literacy programs for children throughout the year, and even during the summer, the response is “explosive.” As it turns out, kids will enthusiastically present book reports as a voluntary extra-curricular activity. She, like Mary, believes the Book Bank provides more than just books to its patrons. Loribeth speaks of the “sense of confidence” a child gains, which she contends is linked to higher literacy rates, which, in turn, correlate with better educational outcomes.

The Book Bank places about 200 to 250 books every day in the hands of its visitors, a majority of whom are newcomers to Canada. (For these guests, the Book Bank purchases the special provision of new dictionaries to take home.) The Book Bank sends another 5,000 books every month to centres in Rexdale, Keelesdale, Crescent Town and Thorncliffe. 

In addition to these tangible gifts, the Book Bank supports literacy initiatives with community partners. Its “B3” program, short for “Building Babies’ Brains,” is a partnership with nine medical clinics to provide practitioners and their clients with developmentally-appropriate literacy strategies and age-appropriate books. The Book Bank also fosters close relationships with government programs, which interface with new parents, as well as the public library across the street, which Mary views as “part of the same team.” 

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While the Book Bank currently maintains an active presence in Moss Park, St. Jamestown, Regent Park, Chinatown and downtown schools, Mary dreams of a day when the organization’s reach may grow beyond its current scope. She wonders whether this project, which, in her view, has been profoundly successful in this neighbourhood, could one day serve as a model for other neighbourhoods in the city and across the city. 

I realize that one way to understand the Children’s Book Bank is as a good neighbour. For nearly a decade, this modest brick building has opened its doors to any child who knocks. It is a small haven in which the modern world’s economy—where quality goods require payment of money—is replaced with the currency of grace. The Children’s Book Bank gives to the youngest among us, teaching us much on the power of hospitality, generosity and human connection as good gifts to this city.   

Guidelines for suitable book donations can be found on the Children’s Book Bank’s website. Drop-off locations are the Children’s Book Bank at 350 Berkeley Street (during hours of operation) and Mabel’s Fables at 662 Mt Pleasant Road.

Monetary donations can be made through the Children’s Book Bank’s Canada Helps webpage.

Text: Sarah Yun
Photography: Hang-Kit Wong