There is a legend that somewhere in the world there is one very special book that’s just waiting to be discovered. It will look like any other book, but it holds all the answers to every question ever asked, and when it is opened, it turns to solid gold.
So begins the story of Isaac Gutenberg in Bob Staake’s dazzling 2017 children’s book, The Book of Gold.
Uninterested in books, little Isaac starts feverishly opening each one he finds, immediately tossing it aside when it doesn’t morph into precious metal. Eventually, however, a book—The Seven Wonders of the World—captures the boy’s imagination. “Why don’t the pyramids have windows?” he muses.
Staake’s sepia-toned illustrations explode into a rainbow of color as Isaac begins asking more questions about history, science, and culture—and turning to books for answers. With every flip of the page, more of the world opens up to the pint-sized bibliophile.
By the end of the book, Isaac, then an old man, realizes that “he probably would never find The Book of Gold, but because of that book, [he] had asked questions and searched for answers. He had visited distant lands, and had used his imagination to go to places he’d never been. He had lived a long life filled with wonder.”
Staake’s love letter to reading speaks beautifully to the power and magic of books—the curiosity they fuel, the confidence they build, and the knowledge they foster.
The Book of Gold—one of several thousand titles that line the handmade wooden shelves of the Lisa Libraries in Kingston, New York—is also analogous to the mission of the nonprofit. Run by founder Ann M. Martin, author of the bestselling Baby-Sitters Club series and dozens of other titles, and executive director Ellen Luksberg, CAS/BA ’75, the organization has donated more than 500,000 new books to underserved children in 37 states and Puerto Rico—many of whom have never before owned one.
“Getting a book from the library is fabulous, reading something on a Kindle is fine. But to have books of your own—there’s just nothing like it,” Martin says on a frigid Friday in January. “It’s the first step on the road to literacy.”
In middle-class neighborhoods, the ratio of age-appropriate books per child is 13 to 1, according to the Handbook of Early Literacy Research. But in low-income communities, there’s just one book for every 300 youngsters. About 60 percent of low-income families have no children’s books in their homes.
The impact of this lack of access is well-documented: Half of low-income kids start first grade up to two years behind their peers. They are less likely to be able to write their name, count to 20, and identify letters. And the achievement gap continues to widen over time.
“These days, a new picture book can cost $18,” says Luksberg, a retired seventh grade English teacher, who joined the Lisa Libraries in March 2016. “When you’re trying to feed a family, buy diapers, and pay rent, buying a book for your child is not very high on the list.”
That’s where the Lisa Libraries comes in.
“Thanks to your generosity and support through your gift of books, we will be able to provide more of the resources needed to give Nashville’s youth the profound experience of falling in love with a book,” reads a letter from Stacey Vanyo, support services coordinator for Book’em, a Music City nonprofit that received 800 books and 54 audiobooks from the Lisa Libraries in September.
Whether through the gift of a single book for a child or an entire library for a community center, homeless shelter, or underserved school, Martin and Luksberg are helping kids live lives of wonder.
Martin founded the nonprofit in 1990 in honor of the late Lisa Novak, an editor with whom she worked in the children’s division of Bantam Books. “She loved connecting kids with books, so we thought this was the best way to memorialize her,” Martin says. For many years, the library occupied a closet in the author’s Manhattan apartment; eventually, both Martin and the books outgrew the space.
The Newbery Honor winner—whose Baby-Sitters Club series has sold more than 176 million copies—moved to the Woodstock area in 1998. After a stop in Brooklyn, the Lisa Libraries followed her to the Hudson Valley, settling in the century-old Shirt Factory in downtown Kingston about a decade ago.
In addition to offering plenty of sunlight and an eclectic mix of tenants that includes potters, silver workers, woodworkers, and yogis, the building—which, in a funny twist of fate, was owned by Luksberg’s family for nearly 20 years—has another advantage. It’s right across the street from the Kingston Post Office.
Luksberg often arrives at room 109 to find a box of books waiting for her.
Most are donated by review services and publishers with whom Martin has relationships, but more and more are arriving from smaller presses that the women discover. Authors and illustrators, who can receive up to 100 copies of their books, also donate many of them to the library.
At 1,200 square feet, the Lisa Libraries is 50 times smaller than a typical Barnes and Noble—but it boasts nearly as many genres. In addition to board books, picture books, and Spanish books, which are in greatest demand, the library features titles about trucks, animals, science, and African American history; poetry anthologies; graphic novels; the classics; and offerings in Hungarian, Greek, Danish, Hebrew, Finnish, and Slovak.
Luksberg, who maintains meticulous records of every book that comes in and goes out, has even devoted a shelf to what she calls “PC books,” titles like Pink Is for Boys, Franny’s Father Is a Feminist, and The Wolf Who Learned Self-Control. “We want all children to be able to see themselves in a book,” says Luksberg, who’s assisted by five volunteers, including two former teachers and a woman who recently published her first book.
Just about the only books the library doesn’t accept are the ones propped in front of the door on this overcast afternoon: a bag of used adult fiction titles donated by another Shirt Factory tenant. The women are adamant that kids receive only new books. “They’re used to second-best, hand-me-downs,” Martin says. There’s something special about being the first person to turn the crisp pages of a new book or put a crease in the spine.
But Luksberg is also insistent that “every book deserves a home.” As she does with each well-loved copy of The Da Vinci Code or The Kite Runner that appears at the door, Luksberg will drop the bag of hardcovers off at the nearby People’s Place, Ulster County’s largest food bank, or restock one of the Free Little Libraries that dot the city.
“Hoping you can help us,” reads the subject line of the email, dated November 23, 2018.
Its author, Ramona Byrd, lives in Stilwell, Oklahoma, a town of about 4,000 that made headlines late last year when it topped the dubious list of US cities with the shortest life expectancy.
“It is a very impoverished area. There are few jobs. Living in poverty is very stressful,” Byrd writes. “The Lord finally laid it on my heart to begin a library in my garage. I know that sounds crazy but if you wait until you have everything perfect it will never get done. So I just started it, not having any books, equipment or anything. . . . So far I have issued 24 library cards, and I have 300 books. . . . I don’t have one new book in my library but the kids don’t care, they just love books. I am teaching them to catalog and shelve.
“If you could help us with anything at all we would really appreciate it! I love reading about the work you are doing. It inspires me!”
Although the Lisa Libraries has fairly strict guidelines about who it can partner with—established nonprofits and Title 1 schools, where at least 40 percent of students are low-income—Luksberg gifted 26 books to Byrd, who’s waiting on her 501(c)(3) status.
“How could you read this letter and not find a way to help?” Luksberg asks. “I just filled up a box for her.”
Byrd’s library has now ballooned to 1,000 titles, according to a January story in the Cherokee Phoenix. Kids, who can check out three books at a time, generally return them—but not always.
My goal is not so much that I get my books back and my books are taken care of and perfect, because they’re not going to be,” she told the paper. “The worst thing that’s going to happen is we’re going to end up with a lot of books in our community. To me, that’s a good thing.”
Luksberg asks recipients to cover shipping (although there are exceptions to that rule, as well), and the organization sometimes foots the bill for donations. Even at the post office’s reduced rate, shipping accounts for the largest share of the library’s shoestring budget.
Last year, the Lisa Libraries distributed more than 20,000 books to about 120 organizations—a mix of longtime partners and first-time collaborators, many of whom Luksberg discovers on Facebook.
Outgoing, assertive, and the yang to Martin’s more reserved yin, Luksberg is always on the lookout for individuals or organizations in need of books. When Alhassan Susso, a social studies teacher in the Bronx, was named the 2019 New York State Teacher of the Year in September, she sent him a congratulatory box of books for his students at International Community High School. Recently, she also reached out to all the laundromats in Kingston, offering to drop off a few picture books to occupy youngsters while their parents tend to the wash.
“I haven’t heard back yet, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Luksberg says optimistically.
“Ellen brings such a wonderful energy and so many new ideas to the Lisa Libraries,” says Martin, as she sits behind one of four mismatched desks in the cozy space. “I don’t know how [she keeps] all the balls in the air and [manages] to stay so calm at the same time.”
For her part, Luksberg, who taught for more than 25 years, says she’s thrilled to work a job that doesn’t feel like, well, work.“I died and went to heaven when I found this position,” she says. “I can think of few things more important than the gift of literacy.”
Interested in donating books to the Lisa Libraries? Or maybe your organization needs books? Check out lisalibraries.org.