Child in purple and green rain gear visits a blue Page Ahead Book Oasis stocked with children's books.

Award-Winning Page Ahead Project Keeps Kids Reading in Book Deserts

by Mark Van Streefkerk


It makes sense that acquiring early reading skills is directly linked to access to books, but what about families with very few books? A small but mighty nonprofit Page Ahead has helped get books into the hands of kids from low-income families in Washington State for over 30 years. 

Working with schools where 65% or more of students qualify for free or reduced lunch programs, Page Ahead provides 12 new books per year to every child in kindergarten through second grade. In spite of the pandemic, Page Ahead has found new ways to get books into the hands of kids, including launching the Book Oasis Project. Intentionally installed in identified book deserts, these Book Oases, much like Little Free Libraries, are stocked with new children’s books that are free to anyone. At the beginning of the month, Page Ahead was recognized for their work with a prestigious Library of Congress State Literacy Award.

Along with national recognition, the award came with a small grant. Page Ahead was nominated for the award by Washington Center for the Book and Seattle Public Library. “Winning was such an honor and such a surprise,” said Susan Dibble, executive director at Page Ahead. “There are only seven organizations across the country that were chosen, so this is really a pretty big honor for us.”

When the pandemic led to last year’s school and library closures, educators worried about how to support early literacy learning when traditional avenues of book access were removed. Kindergarten through second grade students are particularly vulnerable to disruptions in learning. Dibble explained, “You’re acquiring all this reading skill, and then the faucet gets turned off. The loss is a lot. It’s hard because you aren’t at a far enough place into your reading development to really bounce back.” 

Page Ahead’s Book Up Summer program — a book fair where all kindergarten through second grade students in participating schools can choose up to 12 new books — typically took place April through June in non-pandemic years. The program usually serves between 1,600 and 1,700 students statewide. Since last year’s Book Up Summer coincided with school closures, Page Ahead had to innovate quickly to get books to kids. 

“All of these schools were emailing and calling, asking for help because kids can’t access classroom libraries, they can’t access the school library, they can’t access their public library. A lot of kids were completely cut off from books and reading,” Dibble explained. 

Though comprising only four core staff members and a number of volunteers, Page Ahead created a new website with their Book Up Summer selections and onboarded a new vendor to help with delivery. Kids could email or even text screenshots of their book choices to their teachers or student portals. When parents drove to the school to pick up materials or student belongings left from that year, their Page Ahead books were also prepacked and ready for them. For families who couldn’t make the school pickup times, teachers wrote up delivery lists and Page Ahead volunteers delivered books directly to households.

Page Ahead also adapted to the pandemic by moving their Story Leaders and Story Time programs online. For the latter they converted a conference room into a socially-distant filming studio where volunteers could record their story time, which was then made available to students online

When summer break came to an end and schools were still closed, educators reached out to Page Ahead to see about getting more books into the hands of kids. Page Ahead brainstormed the idea of a little book house called a Book Oasis, built in an accessible place close to participating schools. Architect Peter Sydloski-Tesch from the firm Perkins&Will was enlisted to help design the Book Oasis, a bright blue enclosed display case lower to the ground for young readers and built wider to accommodate picture books. Sydloski-Tesch reached out to Perkins&Will contractors Lease Crutcher Lewis and DPR construction, who donated materials and labor to construct even more Book Oases. The number of oases is up to around 20, including 16 from Judkins Park to locations in Rainier Beach, Rainier Vista, South Beacon Hill, and High Point, with more to come. Book Oases will eventually be listed on the Little Free Library map, with a dedicated Book Oasis map for Seattle potentially coming soon. 

“We see them all the time around the city, especially in nicer neighborhoods,” Dibble said about Little Free Libraries in general. “Then you go to the neighborhoods that a lot of our schools are located in, and they don’t have them. We were able to put these libraries into places where there’s lots of kids, there’s lots of needs for books, and people want to use them.”

Page Ahead is actively seeking more hosts for Book Oases. Individuals, businesses, places of worship, or community centers can all host a Book Oasis. Those who are interested can contact Kim Ferse at kferse@pageahead.org.

To help by buying books for Page Ahead, check out their wish lists here.


Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist and freelance writer living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. He often writes about specialty coffee, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Instagram at @markthewriter

Featured Image: Page Ahead is a small but mighty nonprofit that recently launched a network of Book Oases, similar to Little Free Libraries, but stocked with new books for kids. Photo courtesy of Susan Dibble.

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