It took Bethany only a day into her winter break to walk fifteen minutes through snow to her high school alma mater where I teach. She touched base today with some of her favorite teachers, and, of course, she visited the school library and spoke with two of the librarians who know her reading tastes so well and fed her with books for the past four years. She misses the library.

Bethany complains about her college library’s orientation to research. She has a difficult time there finding new novels like the ones our high school librarians read in the summer and splay in September on the bump-outs of every aisle.

But Bethany puts it more personally. She says that the librarians at college aren’t as friendly. Bethany has come to understand a librarian’s role as that of a friend and aid to the imagination, a kind of intimate or priest. College librarians serve at knowledge’s altar, but grade school librarians – the good ones – primarily serve the imagination.

Literacy is based on relationships. Here’s a quote from the web site of Julie Martin‘s startup “Bread for the Head,” whose volunteers initiate thoughtful, in-the-flesh contacts with Chicago kids to foster literacy:

Books are tossed at agencies and children, like fish to the seals. But as Jim Trelease aptly notes in The Read-Aloud Handbook, “[n]either books nor people have Velcro sides —we don’t naturally attach to each other. In the beginning there must be a bonding agent — parent, relative, neighbor, teacher, or librarian — someone who attaches child to book.”

In her recent interview on Dave Bonta‘s Woodrat Podcast, Julie describes what she discovered about most literacy initiatives, well intentioned as they may be:

There are a lot of folks simply dropping books on kids from 30,000 feet, and they have no idea how few of the kids who are recipients can read or will even try and read the books.. . . . [It’s] like the food rations dropped on the starving populace, only they hit all the people on the head and kill them!

By contrast, Julie and her volunteers fan out in after-school programs over the Chicago metropolitan area giving away food (in conjunction with another nonprofit) and new books to children, providing quiet spaces conducive to helping kids bond with books, and reading to them and enticing them into book discussion groups.

She describes Bread for the Head’s impact not just in statistics but in stories. There’s the girl who told her “rather passionately that she did not like print.” The girl began to connect with books through the bookroom’s quiet space and her friends’ love of books. She’s currently in eighth grade reading The Poisonwood Bible, and one of her friends borrows the books Bread gives her from her backpack for the duration of each lunch period. “She’s becoming her own little lending library,” Dave points out.

Quite fittingly, Dave’s interview ends with a discussion of what books Dave and Julie read growing up. I realized listening to it that those kind of conversations usually include a grateful reference to some bonding agent – a father who regularly read to his family, a relative who knew a child well enough to give just the right book to her, or a family library – even a small one – that became a wardrobe to another world one critical winter.

Julie reaches those who, otherwise, would have no such stories. Her lending library friend’s parents, for instance, were not in a place to inculcate in her any love for books.

Reading is a subversive activity if you’re doing it right. You go at your own pace, you follow your interests, your head is your castle, you put in what you want to have in it. If you don’t understand [something in a book], that’s fine. There’s some piece of it that’s enjoyable.

(Julie again, from Dave’s podcast.) If reading is a crime, it’s necessarily a conspiracy. Thank God for the co-conspirators.