Thea DeRosa Cerra grew up surrounded by books. As the executive director of the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank, she’s helping build home libraries for children and families across Northeast Ohio.
“Having books in the home is one of the biggest predictors of future academic success,” she says. “Our goal for every child is to have a home library.”
The Book Bank sources and sorts books out of its MidTown Cleveland warehouse on Perkins Avenue and distributes them through a network of more than 1,300 partner organizations — including school districts, community centers, libraries, other nonprofits and more — that serve Northeast Ohio children and families. They rely heavily on donations of gently used books, but also purchase new ones, with a special focus on building their stock of diverse children’s books.
“Content is extremely important,” said Cerra. “There’s a lot of research around the importance of kids being able to see themselves in the books they’re reading. We know some 84% of the children we serve are children of color, so we want to make sure the books we’re distributing reflect their lives and feature characters that look like them.”
This means the Book Bank is purchasing more books than ever as it aims to source works by diverse authors and those featuring diverse characters. They also partner directly with local authors to get more diverse books into the hands of Cleveland kids.
In 2018, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported that only around 23% of the year’s published books featured characters that were not white or animals. “Children of color and their families are significantly underrepresented in children’s literature,” Cerra said. “Books are windows and mirrors — it’s important for children to see themselves reflected in a book and equally important for children to get a glimpse into the lives of other kids and families to help develop empathy for people who might look different than they do.”
The Book Bank traces its origins to Greater Cleveland’s Little Free Libraries — the take-a-book, share-a-book kiosks that started popping up in and around the city’s schools, parks, community centers and other public spaces in 2013. Book Bank co-founders Judy Payne and Judi Kovach played integral roles in establishing Little Free Libraries across the city, and as the mini book swaps grew in popularity, they quickly discovered they needed more books to keep the Little Libraries full. The Book Bank officially opened in 2016, where it started collecting and distributing quality used books to families around Greater Cleveland. Since then, the organization has distributed 3.3 million books to more than 100,000 children in Greater Cleveland. The Cleveland Foundation has been a supporter of the Book Bank since its launch, and recent grants have helped the organization expand its community outreach efforts. The Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank is also among the foundation’s 200+ Organizational Fund Partners.
“When a student has a strong foundation in literacy and reading, it helps them in every area of their education,” said Cerra. “We want to make book access and ownership easy to help foster a love of literacy at an early age so reading becomes a lifelong habit.”
Interested in supporting the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank? You can find locations to drop off donated books and learn more about volunteer opportunities by visiting their website here. Follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep up with their efforts!