By Avalon Toth
Student, School of Education at American Military University
I had the pleasure of meeting Avalon Toth in a course I was teaching last year-EDUC111 Observation Techniques. In her course introduction, Avalon shared and explained the book bench. As a teacher educator, I immediately saw the significance of this as literacy is a priority in schools and communities. I reached out privately to Mrs. Toth and asked her to contact me when the class ended to let me know if she would be willing to write an article about the book bench. Not only am I proud of her community work and writing about it, but appreciate that her idea can now be shared more widely. I plan to include her piece in my graduate Teaching courses so that teachers and future teachers have a practical, doable idea to consider implementing in their own school areas and communities. ~Dr. Kathleen Tate, Program Director of Teaching and Professor, School of Education, American Public University System.
As an avid reader, I have always loved visiting local libraries and bookstores. In my East Coast hometown, we had two public library branches within 10 minutes of each other. I was lucky enough to live midway between both libraries.
Now, I’m a military spouse on an Air Force base outside Tucson, AZ. Unfortunately, it does not have an open library, so I saw a need and believed I could fill it. Thus, the Tater-Tot Book Bench was born.
We Called the Book Bench Tater-Tot after Our Two-Year-Old Daughter
I began last July by ordering a simple Rubbermaid outdoor storage bench that could hold lots of books and protect them from the elements. To give the bench more curb appeal, my family and I decided to decorate it and give it a unique name. We called it Tater-Tot because that is the nickname of our two-year-old daughter.
We thought it seemed fitting because the bench reflected our hopes for her. We want her not only to find a growing enjoyment in reading, but also to see the beauty and importance of expanding literacy for others.
If You Take a Book, Leave a Book
I had heard of the common practice elsewhere that if you take a book, you leave a book or bring one back in the future. This means the bench operates like a lending library, fueled solely by donations and the generosity of all who use it.
The book bench fills and empties itself. We just facilitate and promote it.
Generous Neighbors from Our Military Base Donate Books
Before the bench had even been ordered, I told neighbors about the idea. Their enthusiasm and assistance was overwhelming. I posted a self-made newsletter (pictured above) around the base, explaining the purpose of our bench and where it was located. Immediately, boxes of books came to us from all over the base.
Local Thrift Stores Expand the Book Collection
We wanted to include as broad a range of reading levels as possible, so we separated the titles into four categories: infant, young reader, young adult and miscellaneous. We also frequented our local thrift stores to expand the collection even more.
Once the bench was painted, filled with books and placed in our front yard, we hosted a grand opening. We invited all our neighbors and promoted the event on social media sites. Word of mouth spread fast across the base and several people made it to the opening. Soon, fellow mothers were contacting me for advice on setting up new locations on base. Our base housing community is fairly spread out, making our one location out of walking distance for some. This led to the creation of similar style FREE libraries by other intrigued military families.
Our proximity to the base elementary school made us a prime stop for children and parents walking to and from this school. However, it was clear we needed to expand the locations to reach more children. Currently, we have two pending expansion sites and two similar lending library nooks that were created in response to our bench.
Now There Is a Monthly Reading Circle Playgroup and Support for a Local Nonprofit
The bench has helped us to establish a monthly reading circle playgroup and promote a local nonprofit called Make Way for Books. The idea is to provide appropriate reading-level materials for low-income communities, schools and youth groups in our area. We include an optional logbook at our bench for visitors to write down what books they checked out or offer reviews on their favorite titles.
When I see the excitement on the faces of these resilient children, some of whom have lived in more towns and transferred in and out of more schools than I can imagine, this is a joy I can’t adequately describe in words.
As they ride up on their bikes to check out a few books, I see the excitement in their eyes. While I know that the bench plays a small part in the ever-changing world these children live in, I also know that books can be the greatest escape and developer of the brightest new insights.
My hope is that this bench can help to fill the worn bookshelves, most likely still marked by blue numbered lot tags from the families last PCS, with a variety of ever-constant imaginary worlds.
Reading becomes not just an escape, but a handy survival tool when life gets complicated. JK Rowling said it best: “I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.”
About the Author
Avalon Toth is entering the final year of her bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in Childhood Development at American Military University. Avalon is an avid reader and writer, happily married to a United States Airman named Rob for three years. Avalon is a Harry Potter enthusiast and a mother to one toddler daughter named Ariana, one rescue pup named Remus, and one sometimes surly cat called Binx. She is currently enjoying life as a stay at home mom at a base in Tucson, Arizona and diligently working toward a future career as an elementary school teacher. She is on the path for graduation in February of 2018, and will be pursuing her Master’s of Education degree at Arizona State University next spring.