This article is part of an occasional feature that focuses on literacy organizations and the work they do to promote reading within their communities.

One of Brian Floriani’s favorite letters is the handwritten missive from a Chicago Public Schools fourth grader named Makaila addressed to “Mr. Bernie,” thanking him for a bag of books. Writing that she “just wants to hug you tight,” because she is so excited to read the books she has received, she adds that she already read one of the books in the car during her ride home from school.

“But I was wondering,” Makaila asks, “do you have like a room filled with books?”

Floriani doesn’t just have a room for the books that he gives away: Bernie’s Book Bank, the literacy nonprofit organization that Floriani founded 10 years ago, in December 2009, and for which he currently serves as chief advancement officer, operates a 35,000 square foot processing center. There, volunteers sort (by grade level and title), sticker, and pack new and gently used books into bags for distribution through its 900+ partners to children in the six-county Chicago metro area. Recipients range from infants to 12-year-olds (grade six) in public, charter, and magnet schools, who, like Makaila, have been identified as “at risk.” These children either participate in the government’s WIC program or they attend a school with Title 1 status and/or a school with a high percentage of students receiving free lunches.

Each child is given a bag filled with six books twice during the school year, once in fall and again in spring. Currently, 360,000 children throughout Chicagoland are receiving bags of books from Bernie’s Book Bank, which reports that by December 31, it will have distributed close to 3.6 million books in 2019.

“These books are of the highest quality,” Floriani says. “They are books that we know children will read. We provide the most high-quality, culturally relevant book to the end user.”

When asked how the organization determines which books to provide to children, Floriani refers to its nine-member advisory council, which includes librarians, teachers, and other education professionals, as well as Jackie De Leo, v-p of group sales at Disney Publishing, and Sasha Quinton, Barnes & Noble v-p and general merchandise manager. The advisory council guides the 38-member staff in shaping Bernie’s Book Bank’s philosophy regarding book selection.

Jane Fleming, Chicago Public Schools literacy director for the past two years, serves on Bernie’s Book Bank’s advisory council. During an interview with PW, Fleming disclosed that Bernie’s Book Bank currently serves 284 Chicago public schools and has distributed more than one million books in 2019 to date. Another 96 CPS schools have qualified for distribution, but are on a wait list until Bernie’s Book Bank has the resources to serve them.

“Getting books into children’s hands and home book ownership have such a huge impact upon a child’s academic outcome,” Fleming said. Even a small number of books helps. [Bernie’s Book Bank] is contributing greatly to [CPS’s] independent reading initiative by removing a barrier to access to [books].”

Fleming noted that the Chicago Public Schools’ “achievement attainment levels” for literacy have been “steadily increasing” in the past few years due to various initiatives that have been implemented.

“Bernie’s Book Bank is certainly a part of this,” she said. “Kids need access to books at home and at school to become capable and confident readers, hopefully even lovers of literature. These kids are going to own 6075 books by the time they reach middle school.”

Praising the publishing industry as “an incredibly refreshing world to work with, full of people who care about literacy,” Floriani says that, with the assistance of “almost every publisher in the country,” more than half of the books given away are new, and that some publishers have taken to asking the organization to guide them on what kind of content to publish and provide the organization, either in donations or sales at a steep discount (averaging 67 cents a copy).

Publishers contacted by PW confirm the high regard for Bernie’s Book Bank within the industry. Sourcebooks, which is headquartered in Naperville, a Chicago suburb, was especially effusive in praising the work done by Bernie’s Book Bank in the company’s own backyard. Its mission is “completely aligned” with that of Sourcebooks, insists Chris Bauerle, the company’s director of sales & marketing.

“Brian and the team at Bernie’s are profoundly changing the lives of underprivileged kids and communities by attacking a completely moveable and solvable upstream hindrance of a person’s potential: access to books,” Bauerle wrote in an email, disclosing that a Chicago Public Schools representative once informed him that while Windy City middle-income families on average own 12 children’s books per child, in contrast, in low-income communities, there is typically only one book owned per 300 children.

“The life-changing possibility created by Bernie’s vision of 12 books per year, placed for free and easily in the hands of every underprivileged child, is mind blowing,” Bauerle said.

Chicago-area author Luis Alberto Urrea said that he has been a supporter of Bernie Book Bank “almost from the beginning.”

Urrea added, “I’ve done a couple of fundraisers with Bernie’s and was completely blown away by the support they have in the community. I’ve watched Brian set goal after goal and blow right past them. He is an inspiration to anyone who cares about books and the value of reading.”

Building a Book Bank

Bernie’s Book Bank is named after Floriani’s late father, “Big Bernie,” a self-made man born into a coal mining family who earned a PhD in reading education and spent his entire professional life promoting literacy. After Big Bernie died unexpectedly in 2005, Floriani, who at the time was the lead instructor for the Golf Digest Schools and split his time between Lake Tahoe, Calif. and West Palm Beach, Fla. was inspired to change his life’s direction.

After moving to Illinois because he had family connections there, Floriani worked briefly as a reading paraprofessional in Zion, north of Chicago, before founding Bernie’s Book Bank in his garage in December 2009 to collect and distribute books to at-risk children. Bernie’s Book Bank gathered, processed, and distributed 140,000 books that first year.

Referring to the struggling readers he worked with as a reading paraprofessional, Floriani explained that Bernie’s Book Bank came about because he had realized that children needed access to books before they entered kindergarten in order to succeed in school and in life.

“Reading is the single most important skill a child needs,” Floriani states on the Bernie’s Book Bank website. “The sooner we can get to these children the better. And book ownership is critical in creating reading-proficient kids who can then pursue happiness.”

Book ownership is a solvable problem, if you are willing to go the distance,” Floriani told PW, disclosing that the secret to Bernie Book Bank’s success is that the organization has always rejected the “poverty mentality” that often pervades the cultures of nonprofit organizations.

“We’re a nonprofit but we think like a for-profit: we operate like a business and think of our brand, instead of working around the poverty mentality of ‘we’ll do the best we can,’” Flioriani explained of the organization, which has a $4 million budget and about 30 employees, as well as four college interns and an army of volunteers.

“We’re poised to take ownership of [this issue] and do what it takes to solve the problem, so that every child can read their way to a better life,” he said. “We want people to think of us as bold, as willing to do what it takes to fix this problem.”

Due to its success in the Windy City, Bernie’s Book Bank may expand by moving into other cities, although Floriani declined to disclose which areas are under consideration, saying, “We’re looking at other cities now, and working on a plan to understand where the need is greatest, where an opportunity is real.”