Fairfield book drive captures hearts across the country

By Jonece Starr Dunigan | jdunigan@al.com

Robinson Elementary School students will be spending their summer breaking racial barriers as NASA mathematicians and learning how to be class presidents, all from the comforts of their homes.

Those are just some of the adventures children snatched off the tables during a free book giveaway in the school’s auditorium on Tuesday morning. People across the United States donated more than 1,300 books to the Fairfield school after learning about Devon Frazier-Holston’s mission to combat the school-to-prison pipeline through reading. Holston – the reading, writing and language arts teacher at the predominantly black school – started asking for books featuring African American characters in January. She hoped the response would be strong enough to give all of school’s 301 students one free book by the end of the school year. Each student was able to take home five books during the giveaway on Tuesday.

Holston has received packages from people in Florida, Texas, Arizona, California and other states. 2nd and Charles, a national retailer that buys, sells and trades books, donated 520 books. Monetary donations to buy more books topped out at about $400. Many of the books had to be placed in boxes because there weren’t enough tables available in the building for the event. Holston said she cried as she witnessed the surge of support and thought of the African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child.

“And my village showed out,” Holston said.

Students stampeded towards the small tables that were nearly overflowing with books with empowering titles like “I am Enough” by Grace Byers and packed with inspiring stories like “Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race”. After picking their new tales, students gathered in their cliques to share their new gifts with friends. Some of them bragged about how they were going to read as soon as they got home. Others couldn’t wait that long and started flipping through pages as they took a seat on the floor. Teachers corralled the students to make sure they weren’t sneaking out extra books from the auditorium.

As fifth-grader Jamaya Peter smiled at her books, the young girls on the covers – with their big, coily hair and dark-skinned complexions – smiled back at her. She has many books at home but none of them have black main characters, Peter said. She is most excited to read “President of the Whole Fifth Grade” by Sherri Winston because she wants to be class president herself and the main character looks like her.

“It makes me feel like I can be her one day,” Peter said. “It’s cool to be class president because you get to make the class and the school a better place.”

Seeing the excitement from the students and the response from the community made Holston hopeful. Holston told Al.com in April she felt obligated to start the drive when she learned that few of her students had books of their own at home. She understood why that reality existed. About 83 percent of the student’s families receive government assistance, , meaning many of her students’ families can’t afford to create their own libraries.

But the lack of literature can create a problem for students over the summer. Robinson Elementary officials said that while they do have students who can’t read at grade level, about 75 percent of the students have increased their reading levels over the school year. For example, if a student enters the fifth grade reading at a third-grade level and exits the school year reading at a fourth-grade level, then that’s progress. But they can lose that progress if there aren’t any books to read at home, Holston said.

“It’s like a lost art unless they are reading something on the computer,” Holston said. “People have forgotten the power behind books and the importance of opening a book and being able to read the words on a page.”

Holston started pushing the importance of reading after learning that students who aren’t reading at grade level by third grade are more likely to drop out of high school, making them more likely go to prison. Holston was a third-grade teacher at the time.

Robinson Elementary Principal Tracy Ford believes reading books with black characters is like looking in the mirror for a child – and it can create a positive impact, he said. As he walked through the classrooms and hallways during the giveaway, he heard of students picking up books because the characters remind them of their siblings or other family members. One male student picked up a book called “Daddy Calls Me Man” by Angela Johnson because his father calls him “man.”

“He said, ‘I love my dad and I can’t wait to read it to him,'” Ford said. “He made a connection with the book without even reading it.”

The books can also show the students their future, Ford said. One of the books offered was “The Joys of Being a Black Boy.” In the story, a cheerful adolescent named Roy interacts with positive black, male leaders like Barack Obama and Frederick Douglass. The book was written to fight the narrative that all black boys are violent and criminal.

Seeing these positive stories can keep children in the classroom and out of trouble, Ford believes.

“Some of these books can show them the opportunities of who they can be when they grow up,” Ford said. “They can be leaders. It lets them know they can do positive things in the world.”

Even after all the students made their selections in the auditorium, there were still books left on the tables and in boxes. Holston said some students were out because it is the end of the school year. She’s planning to keep the extra books to do a book giveaway at the beginning of next school year. Those who would like to donate can send their packages to Robinson Elementary School at 305 61st St., Fairfield, Al 35064.

She’s also encouraging everyone to donate books to their local school so that every student, from elementary to high school, can create their own library full of adventures and inspiration.

“You can never have too many books,” she said.