Literacy And Bonding: Pam Leo On the New Book Fairy Pantry Project
LISA REAGAN: Welcome to Kindred Media and Community. This is Lisa Reagan and today I am talking with Pam Leo, author of Connection Parenting and the founder of the new non-profit initiative, the Book Fairy Pantry Project. It is a grassroots local literacy movement with goals of increasing bonding between parents and children as well as literacy. So, welcome Pam.
PAM LEO: Hi.
LISA REAGAN: Tell us about the connection between Connection Parenting, which is a classic book, very well-loved by the conscious parenting movement, and what you’re doing now, what you’re bringing forward now.
PAM LEO: Well, since Connection Parenting is so much about connection and bonding, I realized recently how critical the literacy issue is in our country and the more that I learned about it, the more I could see a connection between parents bonding with their children through reading to their children and how important that is to their eventual literacy; so that just seemed like a natural path for me. I just got headed in that direction and the more I read, the more fascinated I became to head in that direction. And in fact, when I wrote Connection Parenting, I also recorded it as an audio book for two reasons: one because parents have so little time to read that I thought they can listen to it on their way to work or whatever. But the second and probably the most important of the two reasons is so that it would be accessible of all parents regardless of their level of literacy. I taught Connection Parenting in the prisons, in drug rehabilitation program with teen parents, with low income parent programs, and I knew that it was critical that it be available to them on audio regardless of their level of literacy that they would be able to access that information. So literacy has really kind of been a passion of mine for a pretty long time. It is not totally new for me.
LISA REAGAN: One of the things I love about the Book Fairy Pantry Project is how it works as a local grassroots movement here. But when you came out with Connection Parenting, I remember – I think it was 15 years ago you came to Virginia and we did a workshop together – but I remember people loved it because you do have that capacity to meet people where they are when they want to bond with their children and they want to connect with their children. Just for contextual sake, we want to always point out that advocating for conscious parenting in America is a tricky proposition because you come off sounding elitist, because we don’t have paid parental leave here and we don’t have in place social structures and community structures anymore that would foster parents bonding with their babies and families bonding in the way that other industrial countries, all of them, except for the US, get to do. Canada gets six months off and lots of European countries families get a year off paid and their jobs are not taken away from them just because they are having children. So this angle that you’re presenting here and the perspective that you bring is just crucial and I am so grateful for it.
Can you throw out just some of the statistics around literacy in America right now?
PAM LEO: Well, I honestly have to tell you that when I started researching family literacy, I was really dumbfounded at the statistics that one in four children will not learn to read. That was just unbelievable to me and that 2/3 of the 15.5 million children living in poverty do not have even one book in their home. I just thought this in unacceptable and we have to do something about this. I know there are a lot of family literacy organizations that are working very hard on this, but one more piece will help and that is the piece that I am bringing.
LISA REAGAN: I just can’t believe… those statistics are just stunning. They really are.
PAM LEO: They are. They really are.
LISA REAGAN: There is the functional literacy piece. What is that one again? A third?
PAM LEO: You know, I think one of the hardest things of developing this program for me has been trying to pin down literacy statistics because they all seem different. There does not see any agreement on it, but what I most commonly read is that 20% of the population is illiterate, meaning that they cannot read and write and that another 30% is functionally illiterate, meaning that they are reading below a 4th grade level if I remember that correctly, which comes up to about 50% of our country not being able to read and write on a level that helps them through the daily functions that the people who can read do everyday. That keeps them from having a better job, from having income. It just really, I cannot believe that in our country that the numbers were that high.
LISA REAGAN: Yeah, that is amazing, amazingly shocking. So tell me a little bit about reading to babies and what is happening there. I know there is a lot of neuroscience going on and why is it so important? How is it that this is lasting a lifetime?
PAM LEO: Well, it really is kind of a new idea to a lot of people. That, oh, a lot of parents think about reading to children, oh, when they’re walking and talking and they don’t really think about it when they’re that young. I mean, when you bring home a new baby, I mean, some parents do actually read to their baby in the womb and there is research about that too and how they will recognize those stories when they’re born, but just beginning to read to them. What I tell parents, you know for the first few months, you can read your own books to them, it isn’t the content that matters to them, it is being held, it is hearing your voice, and reading language is so different than spoken language. They kind of imprint on the written language by reading aloud to them.
So you could read them children’s books, but like I said, for the first few months until you’re really showing them the pictures and that sort of thing, you could just catch up on your own reading and read the newspaper or a magazine or your book just while holding them and what they begin to associate with reading is the comfort and the warmth and the connection that they feel while that’s happening. So it’s pretty important both to bonding and to increasing their ability to learn to learn to read. So it really is twofold, that time we spend doing that.
LISA REAGAN: So tell me what is unique about the Book Fairy Pantry Project? Because literacy is hot and it is a big recognized public issue out there, but your idea for how to address at risk populations is so beautiful and I love the book fairy, by the way. Everyone needs to go to www.bookfairypantryproject.com and just gaze upon the book fairy, she is beautiful. The website is beautiful.
PAM LEO: Thank you, I love her. Well, I think the thing that really sets it apart is every program that I know of, the focus is getting books into the hands of children, which is so critical and so important because we know that when children get to pick out their own books they read more. But as a companion to that, one of the things I felt a message that I got again and again over the many years that I worked with parents that are struggling is that while they so appreciate everything that anyone else does for their children, they desperately want to do for their own children. Not that they don’t want other people to give their children books, they do, but they would love to give their children books.
So, by being able to go to the food pantry that they’re going to go to get food anyway, they get to pick them out. If they don’t have an income that they can go to bookstores and have the luxury of buying brand new books for their children, they are probably not very often getting the opportunity to be the one who picks that book for their child and I know that in the same way that children read more when they get to pick out their own books, parents are more invested in reading the books that they pick out for their children than ones that just come home with their children from school or from the library or whatever, that they really had nothing to do with. So the mission really of the pantry project is for all parents to have books to read to their children so that all children will get to learn to read and that there will not be any child in this country or in the world I hope that does not own a book. There is no reason for it to happen. There is no shortage of gently used or new donated books that can be made available to children and when parents get to be the ones that provide that, I think it is going to be yet another piece of the puzzle of getting books into the home.
What I say to parents when I talk to them about it, I say, imagine these two children, or one child started to being read to from birth and was read to daily from birth until they went to school and now imagine another child who has hardly been read to, maybe they got read to at daycare or nursery school or whatever, Headstart, so they arrive at school with maybe 25 hours of having been read to compared to this other child who has thousands of hours of turning pages in books and all of that experience, that is not a level playing field. The child who hasn’t had the opportunity to learn to read is never going to catch up and there is so much information that I read about how they just don’t catch up and so we have this opportunity from the moment a child is born to provide a literacy environment and to make it so that they have the things that they need that when they get to school that they have the things that they will be ready to learn to read.
So, I really like the idea of learning to learn to read. That’s about how do books work and turning pages and is it upside down and all of those things are in place when there are books in the home. If we can just get the books in the home, the books will do the job. Once the books are there, children start looking at them and I am also very excited. I only recently learned and I think it has actually been around for a long time, but it was new to me about dialogic reading, which can sound like kind of a clinical name for something that a lot of parents already do. It is based really on the word dialog of having a dialog with the child about a book. So there are many parents, who, for a number of reasons, I know of a parent who has a traumatic brain injury and she was unable to read to her granddaughter. There might be a parent who is illiterate. There might be a parent who does not read English and so they do not have any books in their native language. So there are a number of reasons why adults might not be able to read to a child. So what excited me so much about this concept of having a dialog about a picture book is that is does level the playing field and all adults can read to all children with this method of sharing stories. So I kind of refer to dialogic reading as just sharing stories. It is a little less intimidating term.
It is very exciting to me that no matter what the situation is for that adult, they can sit down with a picture book with a young child and have the child turn the pages and talk with the child about those pictures on the pages and that child is going to be getting all of the benefits that they would be getting even if they were traditionally reading it word by word all the way through. So doing that with children can either be in addition to traditionally reading and that just enriches it or that can be instead of traditionally reading to them. So that’s another part of the project that I really want to promote to parents that this is an option that can really increase the connection and the bonding because the more dialog the parent and child has about that book and the pictures on the page, it is going to strengthen their connection, but it is also going to strengthen their learning how to learn to read. So I think that is so exciting, which I wouldn’t have discovered if I wasn’t doing this project.
LISA REAGAN: Well, just your approach is very holistic, because you’re looking at literacy now on so many different levels and I know you had shared with me that you are inspired by Paul Hawken, who wrote Blessed Unrest.
PAM LEO: I am so inspired by him.
LISA REAGAN: Yeah, so tell me about “Solving for Pattern.”
PAM LEO: That was a totally new concept for me. I listen to audio books a lot. I am a major fan of audio books and his, just, I saw it, I was looking for books and I saw it and it just spoke to me and I bought it. I have been listening to it really the whole time I have been developing this project, just listening to it over and over.
Solving for Pattern, Wendell Berry actually coined that phrase. It is about finding a solution that just doesn’t fix one problem that it addresses many aspects of that situation. So if you look at illiteracy as the problem and that it is caused by the lack of books in children’s homes. So you would think, okay, so we solve the problem by putting donated books into the food pantries where parents can get them and now there will be books in the home. But that is only a small part of it. So far, I have identified ten areas. It is a solution to ten other things besides just getting books into the home. Do you want to hear about that?
LISA REAGAN: Yes!
PAM LEO: Okay. The first one is the obvious is that is solves the lack of children’s books in low income homes by using an existing infrastructure. The food pantries are already there. They exist in every city in town. We are not creating something new here. We are connecting to something that already exists.
Because it already exists, the second benefit is that parents will be able to get these books for their children not by going someplace new or separate or different. They can get them at a place that they are already familiar and comfortable with going, so that is definitely a second benefit.
Third, it also recycles unneeded books. The plan for the Book Fairy Pantry Project is that donated books largely will come from having donation boxes set up in the schools, churches, library, anywhere in the community that is willing to have a donation box in their premises, nut largely from the schools, so children are actually going to be able to help other children by donating the books they’ve already read or have outgrown and so that concept of children helping children really appeals to me and it gives them a strong message about how important reading is if we’re doing all of this to get books to children who wouldn’t otherwise have any.
The fourth one is parents being the ones who get to pick out the books. I just see that as just an important aspect of the project that they will be so much more invested in reading the books because they picked them out. I just have this vision of a parent being there getting their food and then they get to see the books and saying okay, I’m going to get a board book for the baby and Johnny loves dinosaurs, so I am going to get him this dinosaur picture book and Sally is really into fairies so I am going to get her this chapter book. So just going home excited to be the one who brings these things to their children. So I just really get excited when I think about that. The fact that books and food are going to be together in the same facility really elevates books to the importance of food and shelter. So I think there is a really big message in that.
I think the idea of getting the dialogic reading or story sharing information out there, like I want to have handouts that go home with the books so that, you know, maybe grandma lives with them or grandpa, or aunt or uncle, who is in that position, where they normally aren’t the ones who are reading to the children suddenly find out that they can share stories with these children and there is yet another adult who is going to bond with them and connect with them through these books that are coming into the home. So I just see that as one of the really important benefits. So by getting the books into the home, one of the things I read repeatedly on all of the literacy websites is that children need a print rich environment, which essentially translates into lots of books into the home. Actually, not even just books. One of the things that I think is happening today because we do so much on screen, a lot of people do not even have paper calendars around anymore. They do not necessarily even have the newspaper or magazines, so there really is a lack of print material, not even just children’s books, but print material in the home, so we can consciously try to expand on that and make sure there is a print rich environment with children’s books and parent’s books so that children see their parents reading as well, so there is a lot that will accomplish by getting those books into the home.
Also, one of the things that I love about this project is the people who will benefit from this project, the parents and the children, can get to be part of delivering the project. They can volunteer to deliver books. They can be part of this so it ends up being a hand up instead of a hand out. I think that’s really important to everyone’s dignity. The ninth point that I really love too is that it creates opportunities for volunteers to have really meaningful work literally from children to elders that children can make posters in their schools to donate books and decorate the donation boxes and elders can go into the food pantry and clean the books with baby wipes and help sort them out, so there are so many ways that people can do really meaningful volunteer things on this project.
Then the tenth one, which is one of my very favorite ones, is that when food pantries also become book pantries even the poorest among us can leave our children a legacy of literacy. This will really address the issue. Illiteracy is a disease of poverty and the way out of poverty is literacy. The currency of literacy is children’s books. It really comes back around to that. I just get excited at the idea that children can make a huge impact on solving the illiteracy problem by donating their books to other children. I just think that’s a major win all the way around. That’s my ten points so far. I know there is going to be more.
LISA REAGAN: Again, the whole idea of Solving for Pattern, so you are going at this for this multi-level thinking is just rich and wonderful. I just love it. So tell us a little bit about what you can find on the website to get you going.
PAM LEO: You can find all of the steps that it can take. There is a getting started page on the website and it literally walks you through what would be the process. I mean, just to give you a brief jist, when someone hears about it, they can go to their local food pantry, there is a sheet that they can download and print out and take with them so they can have something in hand to present to them that really lays it all out to them and essentially say to them I would really like our food pantry to also be a book pantry and if I line up all of the volunteers to make this happen, are you willing to have the books here and are you willing to have your staff interface with the book fairy volunteers to make this happen? We will clean them. We will shelve them. We will table them, or whatever means they have to display them and then you go to your local schools, your library, your churches, and it is really one of those situations where one really ambitious volunteer in a very small town can probably do the whole project or in a bigger situation, she or he could enroll a volunteer for every job. Someone who picks up the books, someone who cleans the books, you know, people who talk with the schools.
There can be lots of volunteers or very few. One of the things that I really emphasize is that it will be every food pantries own project. On the website, I am putting book fairy standards, which they can go by or not. It really will be their project. We are asking that food pantries who do participate to register with us because at some point as more and more people register, we want to have a registry, so if you live in this town, you can go on the website and say, oh, is there one of these on my town, in my state, wherever I live and so if they are registered, then it will be there. There is a $5 registration fee, 100% of which will go to the feed the children program, which I really loved because it sort of makes it full circle that food pantries help the book pantries by housing the books and making them available and then the book pantries gets to turn around help feed the children, so we are really hand in hand all the way around on it. So I think that this is a project in process.
This is a very important thing I want people to know. We really want to hear from people. What is working well for you, what is challenging you. Share your tips with us. I am just sort of putting the idea out there and it is going to be a team effort to bring it to fruition and to make this really go and really happen and that five years from now, maybe that we can find out that babies that were born this year had such a more print rich environment because their parents were able to get books either at the WIC program, which we will also be donating books to, or their parents got books at the food pantry, and they did grow up with books in their home, as opposed to if those books weren’t available there that they might grow up without books available in their home. So I think that we really will see a difference in as little as 5 years.
LISA REAGAN: Well, the reception in Maine has been tremendous. People are very excited about it.
PAM LEO: They are. It is so exciting to me. I have just never felt so welcome. They love the idea. They can’t wait to have the books start coming in and be able to give them out, so that’s really been encouraging to me. There’s a saying, I don’t know if it is just in Maine, or if it is known nationally, as Maine goes, so goes the nation. So I am hoping, I want it to be in every food pantry in Maine and then go across the country and then around the world, because we have what we need to solve this illiteracy problem. We really do. We have all of the pieces. We just need to do it and act on it and we can do it.
LISA REAGAN: So I am so thrilled with not just the work but what you have brought and people can go to Kindredmedia.org and read your poetry there. They can also read your articles about parenting, but the book fairy has really inspired you to come up with some beautiful poetry. I am wondering if you would read a “Book Fairy Tale” to us that you wrote to give us some inspiration for our call?
PAM LEO: I can totally do that. It’s funny because I do have “Please Read To Me” memorized, but I haven’t memorized the “Book Fairy Tale”. What I’ll do here is pull out my iPad here and read it right off the site here that is under construction and let me get it right here. Thank you, I love the opportunity to share this because it is just sweet. So, the “Book Fairy Tale” is: Wee fairies each have jobs to do. The Book Fairy’s job is to get books to you, and to all the world’s children, not just a few. Books are very heavy, even ones that are quite small. A wee fairy cannot carry them, ’cause she is only five inches tall! The Book Fairy needs “helpers”, grown ups short and tall, to get books to children who love them. And to children who have none at all. The Book Fairy really needs you. The children need you too. If there are to be books for every child, we have a big job to do. Don’t disappoint the fairies, that would never do. If all the children are to learn to read, it’s up to me and you.
LISA REAGAN: I do love that. I do love “Please Read Me” also. This is from the fairies point of view. The please read to me, poem, which is longer, is from the child’s point of view from the parent. I should tell everyone what I’m looking at on the website is your amazingly adorable picture of you as a one-year-old child. This is just how sweet. I just love this photo of you. How beautiful.
PAM LEO: I think it is one of my only baby pictures. I mean, I am 66 and back then we didn’t do a lot with photography so it is kind of one of my treasures and I thought, no one wants to see a picture of an older lady, let’s just see a sweet little girl, so there we are. The poem underneath it is so sweet. It is anonymous or unknown. I found it when I was looking at quotes and quotes are my passion and I just thought that was such a sweet little thing that someone write and how sweet to have every child end their day that way. So thanks, yeah.
LISA REAGAN: This is the one that says read me a story, tuck me in tight, tell me you love me and kiss me goodnight.
PAM LEO: That’s the one.
LISA REAGAN: Well, Pam, I am just so thrilled to be able to talk to you and work with you again and I am so very excited about all of the support that is coming forward for the book fairy pantry project and I hope everyone will go to www.bookfairypantryproject.com. There is a newsletter sign up so that you can stay in touch with what is happening. This does not cost. It is not a membership program or anything. You can email Pam and ask her questions through the site as well. So there is anything else you would like to say?
PAM LEO: I want to say to you, Lisa. Yes, I would like to say that I am thrilled to be in an initiative of Families for Conscious Living because it so validates the fact that you took my project on as an initiative so validates the half of literacy that is about bonding. That is so thrilling for me.
LISA REAGAN: This is a creative way to facilitate bonding in a country that does not support parents in doing that.
PAM LEO: Right.
LISA REAGAN: It just moves my heart to be able to offer this to parents and families. It is a hard culture to bring children into. We don’t realize what we are missing. I have so many people who tell me this all of the time. Kathy Kendall-Tackett, she’s a breastfeeding expert. She is a very very popular speaker. We have a video of her on Kindred of her talking about how parents are pressured to do this in our country, but we don’t realize we don’t have what we really need.
LISA REAGAN: We don’t support them to do it. So it is a cultural problem.
PAM LEO: We say this is the best thing to do, but good luck trying to do it.
LISA REAGAN: Good luck trying to do it and keep your job and keep food in your house and ….
PAM LEO: But reading, we can do that part of bonding, we really can do that part.
LISA REAGAN: We can do that part.
PAM LEO: Books everywhere. In the car. That’s what I love about “Please Read to Me”. That’s one of the things that I hope parents will really take to heart that parents will really take to heart is just everywhere, everywhere, books, books, books, everywhere. I know one little girl who takes one of her favorite books to bed to her instead of a stuffy. That’s how precious her books are to her. It’s so sweet.
LISA REAGAN: Oh I feel with that little girl. I still am I’m sure. I still have piles of books around my bed.
PAM LEO: I do too. I never thought about it that way. It’s really true. That’s the way a lot of mine are.
LISA REAGAN: Well, thank you so much again, Pam, and I am looking forward to following the Book Fairy and what is that she says to everyone?
PAM LEO: Fly with you?
LISA REAGAN: Come fly with me! Isn’t that it?
PAM LEO: No, fly with you. They don’t say… fairies never say hello or goodbye, they always say fly with you. The other person that I really want to acknowledge too who was a huge inspiration to me this summer as I was developing this program is Gail Carson Levine. I, all summer, in addition to listening to Paul Hawken, was listening to her quest books, which almost everything I learned about fairies I learned from Gail Carson Levine and her audiobooks and her quest for neverland, the quest for the egg, the quest for the wand, those were the three audiobooks that were my entertainment all summer, so she is really the fairy person that I learned from.
LISA REAGAN: Okay, so she formed the fairy in your head that came through as the Book Fairy.
PAM LEO: Yeah, I was really influenced by her. Yes, one of the things in the Book Fairy is that all fairies have jobs, is like Tinkerbell. She is a tinker. She fixes pots and pans and I just got this idea, you know, well, there is the toothfairy and she has her job, well, the Book Fairy has a job, and that’s to get books to children, you know, they’re five inches tall according to Gail Carson Levine, how can they possibly deliver books, they need grown up helpers, and in the areas where the Book Fairy has lots of grown up helpers, children have lots of books. In the areas where the Book Fairy does not have lots of grown up helpers, children do not have lots of books, so we need a lot of Book Fairy helpers to help the Book Fairy make sure that all children have books. That’s her job but we can only do it if we help her.
LISA REAGAN: If it goes as Maine is going right now, you are going to have a lot of helpers showing up.
PAM LEO: Great. I’ll be watching for them.
LISA REAGAN: Thank you everyone for joining us. You can read Pam at Kindredmedia.org. You can also see Families for Conscious Living’s other initiative’s at familiesforconsciousliving.com and of course, please visit bookfairypantryproject.com. Fly with me!
PAM LEO: Fly with you!