One statistic changed it all. After hearing about how many children were not hearing a bedtime story, Pam Leo decided that she must do something. From that day, Pam has transformed into the Book Fairy. Her passion fueled the creation of the Book Fairy Pantry Project, an organization dedicated to growing literacy levels among children by giving parents an opportunity to gift their children with the comfort of a book. Recently, Maine Women’s Mary Barstow had a chance to catch up with the busy Book Fairy and find out more about her project.
Mary Barstow: So Pam, tell me about the book fairy and how it all started.
Pam Leo: Okay. Five years ago, my granddaughter had a son, and I was writing her a letter and telling her how important it was going to be to read to him every day. Somehow that letter morphed into a poem I called, “Please Read to Me.” It was pretty awesome, so I went online searching family literacy sites to see who might want to use it, and every site I landed on had this statistic: Two thirds of the 15.5 million children living in poverty in this country do not own even one book.
Mary: Two thirds?
Pam: That meant 10 million children were going to bed every night with no bedtime story. And I have a favorite quote that says, “There are two primary choices in life, to accept conditions as they exist, or to accept responsibility for changing them.
I knew I couldn’t do anything about poverty, but I knew I sure as heck could do something about getting books into children’s homes. I shop at Goodwill all the time. There’s no shortage of gently-used books.
Mary: That’s so good.
Pam: And a couple days later, there was an ad on television for a food drive. Food drives, food pantries? A perfect distribution system all set up. If people would just give their books to the food pantry. If people can’t afford food, they certainly can’t afford books. And I thought, how perfect. They get to pick out the books for their children, like, Bobby loves dinosaurs, Susie loves horses, whatever.
And the children will be excited because if their parents are giving books to them, they’re going to get the message that it must be important. So, I belonged to the Alliance for Transforming the Lives of Children for 20 years. I went to the group and said, “I need $2,000. I need to get a graphic designer. I need a logo. I need printed materials. I want to do this thing.” They gave it to me.
Mary: Okay. And where are they located?
Pam: Well, it’s an international group that meets virtually. We used to have in-person gatherings every couple of years. It’s headquartered in Virginia.
Mary: So they gave you $2,000?
Pam: Yeah. The summer that I was doing it, I lived here in Portland, and the residents of my building are mostly seniors. I said, “If you want to do a little fundraiser this summer, Goodwill is having a sale on their children’s books — four for a dollar — which is amazing. If we raise $100, I could buy 400 books.” So they raised $350.
I spent that first summer buying 1,400 books every day. I would bring them back and the seniors would clean them and sort them. And the original focus was birth until five, until the pandemic. Then we extended it to reach all ages.
Mary: What’s the full name of the organization?
Pam: It’s The Book Fairy Pantry Project.
Mary: And how long ago did you start this?
Pam: Five years.
Mary: What are you doing now?
Pam: We did book drives at elementary schools. We did one in the Yarmouth. Those books went to the Yarmouth food pantry. The whole idea is community-supported literacy. We can begin to end illiteracy for free. There’s no shortage of books. There should never, ever, be a child without books.
Mary: What did you do for work before you retired?
Pam: I was a family childcare provider for 22 years, and I taught parenting education at the Maine Correctional Center.
Mary: Are you originally from Maine?
Pam: I have lived in Maine my whole life so far. I graduated from Portland high school.
Mary: So where is the organization now?
Pam: I do local food pantries, but this is in Ireland now. It’s in many other states. And when people hear about it, they can go onto my website, and it tells them exactly, step by step, how to set it up in their own community.
Mary: You say that this is in other countries, are they contacting you to duplicate your efforts? How did they find out about you?
Pam: Facebook and social media.
Mary: So you went on social media. People contacted you from as far away as Ireland, and they wanted to duplicate what you did.
Pam: Even in Zimbabwe. We sent books to Zimbabwe. I have a woman that I mentor. She wanted to send books back to her village. Her school had no library. And I said, “Well, I can get you all the free books you want, but we have to do a fundraiser to cover the shipping, about $500. So, we did a fundraiser, we collected books, and we shipped five suitcases to Zimbabwe.
Now in Ireland, they don’t have food pantries. The woman that I’m working with is a speech and language pathologist. And she wants to get books into children’s homes. So, people do it for different reasons. But even statewide, the Good Shepherd Food Bank has been great about promoting it, and Wayside Food Program is just around the corner. They give me storage space over there so that food pantries at the churches can pick up the books there.
Mary: How many countries have you reached?
Pam: I honestly don’t have account of how many are doing it. We ask people to register for a $5 fee which goes to the Feed the Children Program. But people don’t always register, so we don’t even know where they all. World-wide, I would say Ireland, Australia, England and they’re trying to do it in a different part of Zimbabwe.
The woman from Zimbabwe, Cynthia, who I’m friends with, has a new baby. And when I went to visit her, I brought her a board book, and it had a person of color on the cover. And she looked at it, and she looked at me, and she said, “I’ve never seen a book with someone of color featured.”
Mary: Board books?
Pam: The thick ones, board books. They’re smaller, and they’re almost like shiny cardboard, thick pages for toddlers.
Mary: So basically, hard covered books are much better than paper books?
Pam: For young children, right.
Mary: And now, what is your vision for this?
Pam: A vision for me is to get as many board books into as many children’s homes as possible. 12,300 of board books are going to arrive in Portland because we got a Stephen King grant to be able to print them. And they will be given out to families who have new babies.
Pam: Isn’t it? They’re going to start out their lives with a new book in their home. I was giving a talk, for a home schooling conference in Tennessee. And I mentioned my project, and this woman came up to me afterwards, and said, “I was a teen mom, and I went to WIC, and they gave me a book, but the cover had been put on upside down. They told me it would be important to read to my child, and I wanted to be a good mother, so I read that book so many times.”
Mary: I applaud you, Pam, with all of my heart.
Pam: I’m also an introvert.
Mary: Introvert? I don’t know. I wouldn’t go with that at all.
Pam: One on one, you can’t shut me up if somebody is willing to listen about my passion of my life, which is this project. In a group setting, I just kind of stay back.
Mary: What do you do for yourself, Pam? Do you socialize?
Pam: I’m not a really social person. I’m much more of a one-on-one person. I go for walks with friends. I love to spend time with my grandchildren. I’m learning to play the ukulele.
Mary: Where are you learning to play the ukulele? I played it for years.
Pam: Oh, well actually my 11-year-old great niece is my ukulele teacher. I drive to Saco every Thursday afternoon and have my lesson with her. She’s awesome because I tried taking a class and it was just too fast for me, just too fast for me.
Mary: You’re to be admired, Pam. Now, didn’t you write a book about all of this?
Pam: I did. I wrote a book called Connection Parenting, which is about to come out in Spanish next month. I’m so excited. I’m learning Spanish and it’s published by Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing in Oregon. A friend knew of them and told me about them. And I sent them an email and pitched my book and I got an email back that said, “Yes.”
Mary: Are you working on another book?
Pam: Actually, I am, with my nonprofit sponsor. So book fairing is an initiative under a nonprofit. They do everything with me. They are also the publisher of my new board book.
Mary: You have a children’s book you’re doing too? A board book? And who is publishing that one?
Pam: It’s published by Kindred World Publishing. They’re brand new. This is they’re first and probably last board book, because other books like my Connection Parenting book is print on demand, so they don’t have to sit in a warehouse anywhere.
Mary: I see.
Pam: But board books are a whole different thing and way harder. They do have to be sitting in a warehouse somewhere.
Pam: So it’s kind like you provide all the information and they write it up or something like that. So we want to write the story of the book fairy. Like how did this come to be? How does it work? What’s my experience of doing it because I have learned so much from doing this project that I would love to share with people who are also interested in doing it.
Being able to learn to read should be a human right. Every child should have the opportunity to learn to read, and they need books. Imagine a child who comes to school, who’s been read to every day since they were born in the same classroom with a child who spent their first five years in a home with no books at all.
Pam: It’s not a level playing field.
Mary: Congratulations on your life, Pam. You’ve done great work!
Pam: Thank you, Mary. Bye-bye.
For more information find the Book Fairy Pantry Project on Facebook or www.bookfairypantryproject.com