The other day, children’s librarian AnnMarie Hurtado was driving down Walnut Avenue when she spotted a little girl walking, proudly carrying her reading log, a few blocks away from the library.
“I thought, ‘She’s going to the library to get her prize!’” Hurtado said, warmly recalling the moment. “This is kind of like our summer Christmas; it’s our chance to give away books and get kids excited about coming to the library and excited about reading.”
The Pasadena Public Library’s Kids Summer Reading program has steadily gained elementary-age school readership over the years, but it got a big boost in 2016 when local Realtors initiated a massive book drive for 2nd-graders, giving away more than 1,700 books to Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre public schools. In the inset of each book, there is a sticker with a list of each public library location, phone number and hours, so that families have a go-to reference for more summer reading.
“They’re an amazing community partner, all of the groups working together, that have brought an enormous business network to the [literacy] initiative,” Hurtado noted.
Following the Realtor pilot book drive in 2016, the Pasadena library summer reading program garnered 1,900 participants, with 900 children, or 43%, in the 6-8-year-old range. This summer, although numbers are still being compiled, it’s expected more than 2,400 children will have participated.
“It was amazing to see that information — the hard evidence that this actually works, that this makes a difference,” said Carrie Benuska, who leads the book drive initiative and is a Realtor with John Aaroe Group. “We pass out the books toward the end of the school year … the kids get so excited; you would think we’re bringing them a pony.”
Benuska, a long-time supporter of literacy programs, came up with the book drive idea in conjunction with the Pasadena Educational Foundation and its broader Realtor Initiative, a program designed to connect local Realtors with elementary schools, giving them first-hand visual and practical information as they are the first ones to introduce outsiders into the community and describe the area schools. For many years, there was a negative connotation surrounding PUSD, often perpetuated by Realtors in the city and surrounding areas.
Benuska said she was one of them years ago, when she moved out of Altadena to send her three children to San Marino schools.
“I was definitely part of that Realtor mentality that had an unconscious bias, but as I now often go into Pasadena schools, I really see things have changed. I have a different opinion now,” said Benuska, who also is active in Realtors Read Across PASadena, a weeklong reading effort inspired by Collaborate PASadena, another coalition of public organizations, cities, and individuals who work together to make Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre better learning environments.
Also a trickle-down from the 3rd-grade reader initiative, a nationwide movement to make all 3rd graders proficient readers, the book drive, now in its second year, boosted its purpose this year. Working together with PUSD, PEF and city librarians, the book drive focused on giving away books that were part of a series, making sure the series would also be available at the library when the kids come to get the next book this summer.
“It’s to promote critical reading, since they say ‘Up to 3rd grade you learn to read, after 3rd grade you read to learn.’ Most kids get excited about reading when they connect to a character in a book,” noted Dawn O’Keeffe, a board member of the PEF who just finished a two-year term as vice president with a focus on community engagement advocacy. “This was the perfect pairing of a community-wide goal that came out of Collaborate PASadena, bringing schools together, showing you can really help and make a difference.”
Back at the library’s main branch on Walnut Avenue, where young bookworms thread their way through the staircases, youth librarian Jennifer Driscoll had just finished up a Saturday story time for preschoolers, which happened to be about giraffes, and noted the distinct noise of summertime.
“People often think of libraries as being a quiet place, but the children’s room is definitely filled with the buzzing of kids talking and learning … I like to think that’s a good thing,” said Driscoll with a laugh, and readily admits she has a hard time choosing a favorite activity in the youth room, saying, “That’s like asking me to pick a favorite book.”
Driscoll orders all the library’s fiction for children 12 and under. She also worked from Scholastic lists to find popular and diverse books in a series for the book drive, noting, “We tried to find something for everyone and reach across interests.”
Those included fiction series such as “The Magic Treehouse,” “Captain Underpants,” “The Magic School Bus,” “Ellray Jakes” and nonfiction series on animals and Mindcraft. “It’s great when you see a kid who gets hooked on a series and just can’t wait to get the next one,” she said.
While the Pasadena Public Library began its youth services program at the outset of 1920, it’s undergone great change since those early years, when it started out as a “Vacation Reading Club,” and focused mainly on teaching children how to properly care for the books it handed out.
Now, librarians like Driscoll and Hurtado are passionate to help kids find their interests, even simplifying the reading logs and creating a trove of cool prizes for each of the 11 days of logged reading, with items such as plush animals, water-squirting toys and the ever-popular whoopee cushion on the menu.
But none of this would be possible without Pasadena’s community-wide effort, Driscoll said.
“When we’ve been asking kids, ‘How did you hear about our summer reading?’ they say through PUSD. It feels enhanced this year, like the school community is getting out and supporting us,” she said. “It creates continuity in learning, in trying to make reading a habit so kids go into the next grade level better prepared. It’s wonderful that the schools and the Realtors’ Initiative can help create that continuity.”