Two young children reading book to Paddington bear stuffed animal

Photography Courtesy of The Children’s Book Bank

Free books for kids, plus a whole lot more

How the Children’s Book Bank is helping rewrite the future for kids in Regent Park

A child grabs a book from the shelf and clutches it to her chest, barely able to contain her excitement. Not only will she take it home, it’s hers to keep—and it’s free.

It’s an everyday occurrence at The Children’s Book Bank in the Regent Park/St. James Town neighbourhood. Ten years ago, a group of friends found they had something in common: stacks of used children’s books they no longer needed. If food and clothing banks exist, they thought, why not one for gently used children’s books? The women figured books would be a luxury many families in the community simply couldn’t afford and, just like that, the Book Bank began.

Interior shot of children's book bank with shelves of picture books

The charming Berkeley Street space is itself a draw, filled with stuffed animals, cozy reading nooks, stocked shelves and people who are super passionate about reading.

Children typically visit for the first time on a field trip with their schools, daycares or summer camps, and have a story read to them before they browse the shelves. (Volunteers are on hand to help connect them with the perfect title, everything from board books to novels like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter.) Many kids return later with their parents, as families can visit as often as they wish. Each child and accompanying caregiver can take—and keep—one book per day.

Cabbagetown resident Kate Steinmann and her two-year-old son, Jack, have visited regularly since he was five months old. For them, the space offers a kind of nourishment.

“There’s something pretty special and highly unusual about kids getting to take a book without strings attached to start their own libraries at home,” says Steinmann. “It has been really useful for Jack to actually own the book and be able to go to it repeatedly.”

“There’s something pretty special and highly unusual about kids getting to take a book without strings attached to start their own libraries at home.”

Last year, the non-profit organization gave away an astounding 127,000 free books for kids (an average of 150 books a day, close to 250 on Saturdays). Many parents in the low-income, priority neighbourhoods the book bank supports are newcomers to Canada and new language learners themselves. For them, free books are just the starting point—the Book Bank also offers afterschool activities, Saturday story times and school holiday programs.

“Our income is not such that we’d be able to afford a large number of books for our son,” says Steinmann, whose family has been temporarily living on one salary. She particularly loves how kind, welcoming and encouraging the staff and volunteers are whenever she and Jack visit. “The people who run the Book Bank are incredible and the concept itself is amazing,” she says. “The experience of being there is just so nice. It’s a really magical, happy place.”

The book bank has just a handful of employees and about 50 regular volunteers. Books are donated by schools, people thinning their personal collections and by corporations interested in giving back.

Two little girls reading books while holding stuffed animals

“One of the things I think attracts people is just the powerful simplicity of the mission,” says executive director Mary Ladky. “It’s a very simple model of collecting gently used books and giving them back to the community.”

Higher literacy has been tied to greater financial success, reduced poverty, improved health, greater community engagement and a higher standard of living, according to research from literacy organization Frontier College. Everyone benefits.

And what’s it like to witness kids’ excitement about books day after day? “It’s confirming for those of us who care very deeply about reading and books,” Ladky says. “If you ever need a little injection of hope, it’s the best place to be in the world.”

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