Sarah Kamya, a New York City public school counselor, says that Black books matter —and to amplify her message, last month she launched the Little Free Diverse Library Project. This initiative builds upon the Little Free Library nonprofit organization’s mission since 2009 of encouraging people to place books in mounted wooden boxes that are free for others to take. For the past month, Kamya has been raising money to purchase books for both adults and children that examine race and racism, as well as books about African-American history and culture that are being deposited in little free library boxes around the country.
Kamya’s initiative began as so many things these days originate: on social media. Kamya, who fled her home in New York City after the pandemic shut the city down this spring for her hometown of Arlington, Mass., in the Boston suburbs, said that she realized while taking walks around the neighborhood and peering into little free library boxes there that most of them lacked books by Black, Indigenous and People of Color [BIPOC] authors.
“There were so many books that were missing,” she said. “It seemed like the boxes were filled with books people didn’t want, books that were worn out.”
After a friend who works for a local company suggested to Kamya that if she ordered diverse books for free distribution in Arlington, the company would reimburse her, Kamya asked her 1,380 Instagram followers to help her buy diverse books and place them in the approximately 50 little free libraries in and around Arlington, which she notes on Instagram is almost 84% white. The city has 45,000 residents.
BIPOC books are not just for BIPOC readers, Kamya told PW: “White children need to see these different stories, see these different sides to life.”
Within an hour of sharing that initial Instagram post on June 3, Kamya had raised more than $1,000; she has raised more than $13,000 to date, $5,000 of which was donated by ABC-TV’s Live with Kelly and Ryan after Kamya appeared on it in a segment called “Helping Heroes.” The project’s official Instagram account, @LittleFreeDiverseLibraries, has almost 8,000 followers. A website is in development to build upon the project’s visibility and reach.
“We struck while the iron was hot,” Kamya said. “People wanted to do something against racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and they knew where their donations were going; books are so tangible. And it took off.” In fact, she added, “It’s become a full-time, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. job.”
Not only has Kamya kept little free library boxes throughout the Boston metro area filled with BIPOC books for the past month, she has begun ordering books via Bookshop.org to ship to volunteers in 33 states so far who have offered to place BIPOC books in little free libraries in their localities. She estimates she has had more than 700 books shipped to volunteers; approximately 75% of the books are children’s books and 25% are adult books.
Books, Books, and More Books
Initially, the books were purchased via Bookshop.org primarily from Mahogany Books, a Black-owned bookstore in Washington, D.C., as well as The Lit. Bar Bookstore & Chill in New York City, but now Kamya is spreading the wealth around, ordering books from a dozen more Black-owned bookstores, including Semi Colon (Chicago); Frugal Bookstore (Boston); Uncle Bobbie’s (Philadelphia); Harriett’s (Philadelphia); Brain Lair (South Bend, Ind.), and Eye See Me Bookstore (University City, Mo.).
Emphasizing how much she loves books, Kamya explained that she selects titles based on her research, which includes checking indie bookstore lists of recommended titles. She also has her personal favorites that she orders and re-orders, all picture books: Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illustrated by Vashti Harrison; Of Thee I Sing by Barack Obama, illustrated by Loren Long; Talullah the Tooth Fairy CEO by Tamara Pizzoli, illustrated by Federico Fabiani; and Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch.
When fashionista and children’s book author Eva Chen heard about @LittleFreeDiverseLibraries, she encouraged Kamya to make an Amazon wish list of books, which Chen then publicized to her 1.4 million Instagram followers—resulting in dozens of boxes, 600 books in all, being shipped from Amazon fulfillment facilities to Kamya’s home for distribution.
After becoming aware of Little Free Diverse Libraries’ Instagram account a few weeks ago, the official Little Free Library reached out to Kamya. “She is a shining example of what one person can do in championing diverse books,” stated Margret Aldrich, LFL’s director of communications. “It’s so important to share diverse books in places where they are not easily accessible. It’s wonderful to see a movement take off organically throughout the country out of little free libraries. It’s a testament to the kinds of people who are part of the Little Free Library community—generous, justice-oriented, and willing to take action. We hope Sarah inspires others to do this.”
Aldrich noted that the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has affected the organization rather directly. The organization, founded by the late Todd Bol in Hudson, Wisc., part of the Twin Cities metro area, is still headquartered there. Aldrich herself lives in Minneapolis and disclosed that during the recent protests that turned violent, the city instructed homeowners to, among other precautions, protect their little free library boxes from being destroyed.
Like Kamya, LFL has been focusing its efforts lately on amplifying the importance of placing diverse books in children’s hands. “We’ve doubled down on our efforts to provide diverse books,” Aldrich said. In partnership with various publishers, she said, noting that LFL now is giving away diverse titles each month: in June, along with Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, LFL gave away 10 copies of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. This month, in conjunction with Minneapolis-based Lerner Publishing, it is giving away 10 three-book packages containing Can I Touch Your Hair? by Irene Latham and Charles Waters; Dictionary for a Better World by Latham and Waters; and Into the Streets: A Young Person’s Visual History of Protest in the United States by Mark Bieschke.
LFL is also sponsoring, with PBS Kids, weekly read-alouds of diverse books that includes BIPOC celebrities this summer; thus far Dwyane Wade, a professional basketball player with the Miami Heat; and Marley Dias, the young activist who launched #1000BlackGirlBooks in 2015 while in middle school, have read aloud, with more readers being scheduled for this month and next.
“We’re also going to develop some long-term [initiatives],” Aldrich said. “This is close to our hearts, and it hit close to home.”