larry abrams with teachers cnnheroes
CNN Heroes: Larry Abrams
07:05 - Source: CNN
Cherry Hill, NJ CNN  — 

High school English teacher Larry Abrams has always considered himself a bookworm. Growing up, he loved visiting used bookstores and reading books that others had enjoyed before him.

“I certainly like the transformative experience of reading, of going into other worlds, experiencing other cultures,” Abrams said.

Abrams started his teaching career in an affluent suburb outside of Philadelphia before moving to a high school in the under-resourced community of Lindenwold, New Jersey.

“I’d heard of food deserts, but I’d never heard of book deserts. And it occurred to me that I teach in a book desert,” Abrams said. “Many of the kids in school simply struggle with reading. In my ninth-grade class it’s very typical to have kids reading at a fifth-grade reading level. And if you’re struggling with reading, you’re going to be struggling with writing.”

In 2017, when one of his high school seniors told him she wasn’t reading to her 2-year-old daughter, Abrams sprung into action. He put out a call to friends and family asking for gently used children’s books, and in no time, he had more than 1,000 of them.

He began distributing the books to young moms and local elementary schools. That was the start of his nonprofit, BookSmiles.

“It just became addictive,” Abrams said. “There are millions of kids in America who’ve never owned a book in their lives. I want to change that.”

His organization has since collected, sorted, and distributed hundreds of thousands of books throughout New Jersey and the Philadelphia area – and will soon reach 1 million, Abrams says.

BookSmiles engages the community to help collect books and drop them off in the group’s large collection bins, which are painted with literary-themed artwork and located outside local businesses, houses of worship, schools, and people’s homes.

Books are often distributed through teachers, who come to the book bank and select as many books as they want.

CNN Hero Larry Abrams

“It’s a feeding frenzy when teachers are able to walk away with books that they take back to their classroom libraries and students,” Abrams said. “It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet meets a used bookstore.”

BookSmiles recently moved into its new, larger warehouse space in the neighboring town of Pennsauken. Abrams also purchased a 16-foot box truck to ramp up the number of books they can transport. The organization teamed up with two local food banks where they bring thousands of books each month to be distributed to families in need.

CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Abrams about his efforts. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: Why is it important for children to be exposed to reading as early as possible?

Larry Abrams: Children should be read to because it’s something that is joyous. It’s something that creates a bond between the parent and the child in such a visceral and important way. Reading books creates a moment that will never be extinguished; it’ll always stay with the child. And what’s more, reading books to your kids gives them power. The most important tool that they get are words. There are some kids who grow up hearing lots and lots of words because they’re read to every single night. They are used to hearing sentences strung together when they’re babies. And then there are other kids who never get that. Reading and books helps level that playing field. It gives words, millions of words to these babies who really, really need them.

It’s my hope that every child who receives our books accumulates a library of their own and reads the books so that way they come to kindergarten reading ready. Giving kids books almost ensures academic success. And every child in America should have the chance to be academically successful. Being able to use language and words is power.

CNN: Your organization serves areas that are considered book deserts. What is a book desert?

Abrams: These are areas where people just don’t have access to books. There are book deserts in rural areas in Appalachia. There are book deserts in North Philadelphia. They don’t have (books) in their homes. In many book deserts, there are no libraries, no bookstores. There are pockets of poverty where people just don’t have the funds to spend on a book. There are many families just surviving and getting to the next paycheck. Infant formula is expensive. Food is expensive. Rent is expensive.

Some people are a paycheck away from disaster and they don’t have the resources to go spending money on books. That’s where we come in – to help folks like that. We work on irrigating book deserts by pouring hundreds of thousands of books in. We are changing and improving lives one book at a time.

CNN: Why is it so important for you to involve teachers in your efforts?

Abrams: I’m a teacher and it’s super important to help other teachers. Teachers get a small stipend to go and buy supplies (for their classrooms). But all too often we have to spend hundreds of dollars of our own money to give kids a real quality learning environment. We’re the ones who have to buy Kleenex. We have to buy markers. I hate it when teachers have to go online with their hat in their hand begging for school supplies. That should not happen.

The teachers who really care are committed to paying out of pocket to provide more robust learning environments for their students. And when we’re here to give them hundreds of dollars worth of books, that is a blessing, and they appreciate it. Some of these teachers get addicted to coming to the book bank, and we want them to because they are the best distributors of books that we have. In a lot of towns, we teachers are undervalued. But we really are a mighty force. We are an army. Teachers just get each other, especially those who love the profession and are in for the long haul. So, if I can help them by giving them books, that’s a beautiful thing.

Want to get involved? Check out the BookSmiles website and see how to help.

To donate to BookSmiles via GoFundMe, click here