Filling the book gaps until there are no more

by Ginger Young, founder and executive director

Originally printed in the Durham Herald-Sun, April 18, 2015

Peaches. Lorna Doone. Pearl. Lotus. Orange Julius. Tom. Shabby.

Memories of these, my beloved childhood feline companions, came rushing back at me last month, as I stood sorting donated books in the Book Harvest office in Durham, preparing them to be rehomed with local kids in need. I had just come across a battered copy of “Millions of Cats,” a picture book by Wanda Gag published in 1928.

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My family adored cats. We practically set places for them at the dinner table. Our cereal bowls at home were all appropriated for kitty kibble, for little offerings of cream or broth. We thought nothing of taking the cats on our beach vacations — something that, four decades later, strikes me as patently absurd. At one point, the family lore goes, my superbly empathetic mother became the unwitting steward of more than 20 stray cats and kittens, each dropped off on her front porch in the dead of night by those who knew that she could never turn one away.

So “Millions of Cats” became my favorite book. Its bizarre plotline and violent turn of events intrigued me (all those cats I so closely identified my own with suffered a savage demise), and I saw my parents in the oddball couple who befriended every cat in their midst. Having cats occupy center stage in a story, even with ghastly consequences, validated my own early love affair with felines.

Childhood is lonely. Rediscovering that book, a touchstone of my youth, reminded me anew of the power of books to combat that loneliness, and to do myriad other things: fuel imagination, foster empathy, provide an escape, glimpse worlds and horizons beyond.

My moments of book magic were forged around cats, tesseracts, and journal-toting girl spies. Other young readers find their transcendent moments in books about soccer victories, or creepy insects, or princesses, or pirates, or superheroes conquering bad guys. The ability to identify with a character, to have that eureka feeling of “hey, she’s just like me!” or “I felt that way once!” is priceless: it sparks compassion, the strength to cope, a sense of belonging, confidence.

Every child deserves these opportunities. Every child deserves access to books.

Since 2011, a ground army of book donors and volunteers has been working hard to create that access for all our community’s children. Book Harvest is a disarmingly simple model: readers donate new and gently used books to us, and we in turn provide those books to children and families whose economic circumstances make it hard to build a home library. That’s it.

We start really, really young, visiting newborns with armloads of books. We go into schools and help students fill backpacks with books to take home and keep for their very own, forever. We stock shelves with free-for-the-taking books in local health centers, social service agencies and community centers.

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Our dream? We want every child to go to sleep at night with a big stack of books on the nightstand. It’s doable: thanks to Book Harvest’s generous community, more than 265,000 books are now in the hands and homes of local kids in need. And we will keep filling the book gaps here in Durham – until there simply are no more.

One day, every child growing up in poverty in Durham will also live in a home rich with books.

“Millions of Cats” will forever trigger a rush of memory for me. My own three kids switched species on me, trading felines for canines. For my oldest, “Officer Buckle and Gloria” will always be a magic memory; for my middle, “Go Dog Go;” for my youngest, “How to Steal a Dog.” When they come across these beloved titles 40 years from now, I know they will have the same glorious flashback that I did. And I hope they’ll realize anew that we are fortunate beyond measure to be able to share our books with others.

Want to learn more about the work of Book Harvest – or donate books? Visitwww.bookharvestnc.org, or drop by our office at 2501 University Drive in Durham, Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. And don’t forget to read!