Sue Straub’s Book Van Go visits parks in North Syracuse and Mattydale three days a week, offering free books to any kid who wants them.
It breaks Sue Straub’s heart to think that there are kids without access to books — but she knows it’s a reality for some of the kids she works with at Roxboro Road Middle School in Mattydale.
“I had a student who said to me, ‘I don’t have any books. I only have coloring books,’” said Straub, a fifth grade teacher and avid reader. “So to not own a single book, how can you grow as a reader?”
Straub came up with an idea based on the much-loved Bookmobiles that visited her neighborhood as a child.
“It was like, the single most favorite thing for me,” Straub said. “And I had access to books.”
Straub envisaged something of a traveling library, but the kids would be able to keep the books. It took three years for her to get the idea off the ground, but when school let out this summer, with the help of the North Syracuse Education Association (NSEA), Book Van Go was born.
“I bought a van, filled it with books from all our friends and family and colleagues and recruited everyone I know to help work it,” Straub said. “It’s grassroots, and that’s what I love about it. There were 46 volunteer slots and they’re all full.”
Three days a week since the end of June, Straub and her used Honda Odyssey — the “van” of the Book Van Go — visit parks in North Syracuse and Mattydale. The village of North Syracuse and the town of Salina have waived all fees, allowing her to set up her tables full of books for free. Kids can take whatever books they want and keep them. There are a few popular hardcover titles that Straub asks be returned so others can read them.
“I just put on the front, ‘Bring this book back!’ And they have been coming back,” she said. “But I always feel if it doesn’t get returned, it’s on some kid’s bookshelf somewhere and I’m hoping somebody reads it.”
Access to books plays a crucial role in childhood development and education. A Scholastic.com report that compiled decades of research on child literacy noted that kids ages 3 to 6 living below the poverty line were less likely to have access to books and, as a result, were more likely to be behind their more financially stable peers when it came to school readiness skills like letter recognition, the ability to write their own name and the ability to count to 20.
The U.S. Department of Education reports that 61 percent of children in low-income families have no books at all in their homes. As a result, they don’t make the same gains in literacy that their more economically stable classmates do—a problem that only gets compounded as the years go on. And while some gains are made while kids are in school, those are lost during the infamous “summer slide”—the three-month summer vacation when all kids tend to forget at least some of what they learned the previous school year. That slide in low-income elementary school kids, according to a 2007 study at Johns Hopkins University, can continue to impact them throughout their academic careers, even determining whether or not they remain in school until graduation.
The answer? Books. Multiple studies found that children with higher access to an abundance of books scored higher on achievement tests, stayed in school longer and, predictably, read better and more frequently. Moreover, Richard Allington and Anne McGill-Franzen’s “Summer Reading: Closing the Achievement Gap,” based on a three-year longitudinal study, reported the following:
That’s why Straub started Book Van Go — so that kids at Roxboro, where 57 percent of the student population is classified as economically disadvantaged by the New York State Education Department, can have access to the best quality reading material — and the advantages that provides.
While Straub said her “heart is at Roxboro” and most of the kids Book Van Go has seen are in pre-K through eighth grade, she has seen some older kids.
“There are kids who aren’t my target,” she said. “Lots of high school kids stop [and ask], ‘Are you giving books away?’ That’s been a nice surprise.”
Another surprise? The sheer number of donated books.
“My biggest problem right now is storage,” Straub said. “I didn’t anticipate that. It’s a good problem to have, to have too many books.”
Straub said she’s also very pleased with the books she’s gotten. While she’s had to pass on some books of a religious nature to some children’s libraries at churches in the village of Liverpool, the majority of the books have been just what she was looking for.
“Most of these books are from teachers, so it’s quality literature,” she said. “Or it’s really great books that kids [are looking for]. Captain Underpants is not a quality piece of literature, but kids want to read it. And they want to spend time reading it. So what better time to do that than in the summer?”
Straub said it’s personally rewarding for her to be able to provide kids with access to books of their very own.
“I was a struggling reader,” she said. “I could not figure out reading until I had a teacher in fifth grade that spent the time to figure out what I liked and… just kept feeding me books. And I’m an avid reader.”
Book Van Go is a summer program; once the school year starts, Straub will pack up her remaining books and store away the van until next year. But she stressed that the program will return next year.
“I want people, when they are cleaning out their bookshelves, to continue to think of us,” she said. “Because I have next summer to think of.”
Book Van Go visits Burnham Park on Malden Road in Mattydale on Tuesdays, Richfield Park on Richfield Boulevard in Mattydale on Wednesdays and Kennedy Park on Grove Street in the village of North Syracuse on Thursdays. For a full schedule, visit Facebook.com/pg/BookVanGo.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.