Listen to the interview with Pam Leo, founder of the Book Fairy Pantry Project
Tackling A National Family Literacy Epidemic During A Global Pandemic:
An Interview With Pam Leo, Founder Of The Book Fairy Pantry Project
Middle photo: Pam Leo with Harrison Fream (the Eagle Scout who built the Little Free Library) at the Little Free Library’s dedication ceremony. Photo by Joseph Shaw. Reposted with permission from the Amjambo Africa newspaper.
Some people are so innately gifted with a special kind of heart sight, you might find yourself pausing and listening between their casual sprinkling of brilliance for a fluttering of ethereal wings on their back. Pam Leo is one of these people.
I’ve studied Pam and her tireless work for families since our meeting on Mount Madonna, California, at an Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children’s Summit in 2004. Pam and I were assigned to a “pod” of five attendees for the four-day event, and I discovered then her gift for effortlessly seeing relationships between people, concepts, and actions. By the time her now beloved book, Connection Parenting, was published a year later, I had dubbed her the Queen of Quips, in honor of her ability to connect and distill complex ideas and issues.
Connection Parenting, her widely-quoted book on parenting websites and Pinterest, is the transcribed work from her parenting classes taught to both the public and to incarcerated parents in her home state of Maine. “I was already doing my seven week series with parents publicly when the prison got a grant to do parenting education and someone recommended they asked me to do my Healing the Feeling Child Class at the prison. When I told them I had a seven session series they decided it was better to have one consistent instructor, so they hired me and that ended up lasting for 18 years!”
Pam’s dedication to serving at-risk families yielded insights into restoring connections with children in one of the most disconnected life scenarios a parent could find themselves. The revelation that, nationally, three out of five prison inmates are illiterate, shifted Pam’s attention to a practical path for parent-child connection: family literacy. (See literacy statistics below.)
When Pam turned her heart sight superpower to family literacy, her capacity for discerning the living connections between a dozen local institutions, activists who wanted to serve, and the direct delivery of books into the hands of children, birthed The Book Fairy Pantry Project.
It turns out, there isn’t a shortage of children’s books, there is a shortage of connections between people and organizations for children’s books to move through the community and into the hands of children.
In 2020, as the Book Fairy Pantry Project turned four-years old, COVID-19 forced the world into quarantine, cutting of already limited access to books for many children and families. According to the World Literacy Foundation, COVID-19 has forced more than one billion students and youth out of school, triggering the world’s biggest educational disruption in history, almost overnight. The foundation predicts a global “catastrophic rise in illiteracy rates” and “in 2020 COVID-19 created a hidden tsunami for millions of children in their ability to learn to read.”
“Reading skills are the key determining factor for a child’s future academic success and reaching their full potential. What are the consequences of illiteracy? Poverty, unemployment, and life-long social, economic and personal problems,” said Mr Andrew Kay, CEO of the World Literacy Foundation.
“Instead of celebrating a decrease in illiteracy on International Literacy Day on September 8 last year, we were mourning an increase in illiteracy,” Pam said.
In our short interview above, you can hear Pam describe the number of practical strategies she has developed over the last five years – and specifically during quarantine – to tackle the national family literacy epidemic through relational activism, or as she names her strategy, “community artistry.” It turns out, there isn’t a shortage of children’s books, there is a shortage of connections between people and organizations for children’s books to move through the community and into the hands of children.
“I consider myself a literacy artist A teacher just told me yesterday that these Bedtime Bags are so important to children who have been through so much trauma and they get to have their own stuffed animal, and clean pajamas, and a book that ties it all together,” said Pam.
As she explains in our interview, family literacy activism IS connection parenting. Pam’s Book Fairy Pantry Project work helps parents/caregivers and children to bond and connect through reading, with the added benefit of developing a love for books and the lifelong skill of literacy.
After quarantine began last year, many communities found their limited book resources drying up as libraries and schools closed. “And if parents don’t have money for food, they don’t have money for books,” Pam says in the interview. Not to be thwarted by a global pandemic, Pam engineered practical ways to work with food pantries, local WIC offices, Goodwill, Eagle Scouts (who built Little Free Libraries in two Maine neighborhoods), and more, to continue her mission to provide books to children and families.
Pam’s capacity to discern connections and distile solutions for one of the most insidious and debilitating epidemics children face is inspiring the creation of Book Fairy Pantry Projects around the world. The materials to start your own local BFPP are on her website here: www.BookFairyPantryProject.org. (While the materials and information there are free to you, please support her work with a donation while you are there.)
Does Pam have wings? I am not the only person who wonders this, she tells me in our interview. When she visits children in schools, they often ask her where her wings are, “But I tell them, I am not THE Book Fairy. And if I were, I can’t get my wings until every child has a book!”
You can help Pam receive her wings by supporting her work at the Book Fairy Pantry Project here.
Keep Up With Pam:
Pam’s forthcoming children’s board book, Please Read To Me, is slated to be published by Kindred World Publishing House this year. The book is dedicated to Pam’s literacy shero and “revered role model”, Dolly Parton, founder of the Imagination Library.
Her book, Book Fairy Tales: Your Guide To Support Family Literacy With Community Activism, is also in the works and will feature more of her literacy stories, community activism insights, and tips on inspiring children and families to read together.
You can read Pam’s articles on family literacy and connection parenting here on Kindred.
Visit the Book Fairy Pantry Project for more literacy statistics and guidance on how to get your own community literacy activism going at www.BookFairyPantryProject.org.
Visit Kindred World to learn more about our nonprofit initiatives: www.KindredWorld.org
The BFPP is dedicated to the memory of Joseph Chilton Pearce, who wrote an endorsement for Connection Parenting. “I dedicated the Book Fairy Pantry Project to Joe because his work was about human potential, and if children are ever going to achieve their human potential, they are going to have to read, at least in this culture.”
Literacy In America, from the Literacy Project
- Currently, 45 million Americans are functionally illiterate and cannot read above a fifth-grade level
- 50% of adults cannot read a book written at an eighth-grade level
- 1/3 of fourth-graders reach the proficient reading level
- 85% of juvenile offenders have problems reading
- 3 out of 5 people in American prisons can’t read
- 3 out of 4 people on welfare can’t read
On Social and Cultural Impacts of Illiteracy, from the Literacy Project
- Nationally, only 35% of public school students were at or above Proficient in grade 4 reading.
- In middle-income neighborhoods the ratio of books per child is 13 to 1, in low-income neighborhoods, the ratio is 1 age-appropriate book for every 300 children.
- 61% of low-income families have no books at all in their homes for their children.
- 37% of children arrive at kindergarten without the skills necessary for lifetime learning.
- 50% of children from low-income communities start first grade up to two years behind their peers.
- Researchers estimate that before ever entering kindergarten, cognitive scores for children of low-income families are likely to average 60 percent lower than those in the highest socioeconomic groups (a pattern that remains true throughout high school).
- 1 in 4 children in America grow up without learning how to read.
- 80% of preschool and after-school programs serving low-income populations have no age-appropriate books for their children.
- Children from lower-income homes have limited access to books. Because of this, there are fewer home and preschool language and literacy opportunities for preschoolers from low-income families than children from economically advantaged backgrounds.
- Nationally, about half of children between birth and five years (47.8%) are read to every day by their parents or other family members.
- On average, children in economically depressed communities have 0-2 age-appropriate books in their homes.
- A child is 90% likely to remain a poor reader at the end of the fourth grade if the child is a poor reader at the end of first grade.
- Children in low-income families lack essential one-on-one reading time, whereas on average, children who grow up middle-class families have been exposed to 1,000 to 1,700 hours of one-on-one picture book reading. The average child growing up in a low-income family, in contrast, has only been exposed to 25 hours of one-on-one reading.
- One in six children who are not reading proficiently in the third grade does not graduate from high school on time, a rate four times greater than that for proficient readers. (rate is higher in children from low-income families and rural areas)
- 68% of America’s fourth graders read at a below proficient level, and 82% of those children are from low-income families.
Considering statistics of higher rates of school dropout, unemployment, and poverty, as well as the long-term implications of the third-grade reading achievement gap, The Literacy Project was established to make a significant and lasting impact to children through the power of reading.