Bikes and parks have long been a source of summertime fun for kids—and one dedicated group of Cambridge volunteers wants to make sure books are an equally important part of that equation. The Cambridge Book Bike, which launched in 2014, brings new, free books to children throughout the city during the summer months. Book Bike coordinators invite kids of all ages to area parks, where they can work on craft projects, listen to stories read by librarians and other volunteers and leaf through new favorites they then get to take home.
The current program is a joint initiative of the Agenda for Children, the Center for Families and the Cambridge Public Library. But it was originally the brainchild of one local school librarian, Liz Phipps Soeiro of the Cambridgeport School.
After Phipps Soeiro read a book to her elementary school students about a Colombian man named Luis Soriano who created a traveling library—a “biblioburro”—on the back of a pair of donkeys, she realized a similar program would work here in Cambridge. “What an enchanting way to instill a love of reading,” she says. “I wanted to do something similar for my own community.” With some help from friends and funding from local organizations, she built a set of shelves for a bike and launched the program in Greene-Rose Heritage Park.
Since then, the program has added a second bike and expanded to include visits to Hoyt Field, Danehy Park, Gold Star Mothers Park and Russell Field, reaching hundreds of children each summer. In most parks, the bike’s visits are coordinated in a partnership with the Cambridge Summer Food Program, which provides free lunches to the city’s children and families.
“When dreaming of the book bike, our hope was to share the joy of books and reading with children outside of a school environment,” Phipps Soeiro explains. “Many students are only exposed to books and reading in a prescribed and didactic way, but we know that when children have choice and quality books to choose from, that is where the magic happens.”
The Book Bike provides “such a fun atmosphere,” adds Michelle Godfrey, director of the Center for Families at the Cambridge Department of Human Services Programs. “It’s magic when all those kids see the rider arrive.” In addition to handing out free books, the events feature volunteer readers who share up to five books a session, an area set aside for children who want to read quietly and one or more art activities, usually related to the theme of the books being read.
The Book Bike synchronizes its park visits with the Summer Food Program, but its services are available to every kid in the city, not only those who get free lunches during the school year. In addition to the books, activities and meals provided by these groups, Godfrey says that the staff is a wealth of information on resources throughout the city. If a parent has concerns about, for example, childcare options, Book Bike volunteers can point him or her in the right direction.
The books themselves are carefully selected by a committee of nine, who spend hours poring over options to find books that accurately reflect the Cambridge community. That means tracking down titles written in languages other than English—it also means finding books that are interesting and enticing to the children who visit the parks.
“We’re putting literature in the hands of young kids, and we hope that we have some influence on the summer slide and that we get kids reading more,” Godfrey says. The “slide” she’s referring to is a well-documented trend where many students—especially those already struggling in school—slide backwards in reading, math and other skills during the summer months. Recreational reading is one way that kids can avoid falling behind over the summer. And although there are plenty of reading options at Book Bike events, Godfrey says that the focus is not on giving kids summer homework. Instead, the idea is to let children pick their own books, “giving kids books they actually want to read, not always what their parents think is the most important.”
A number of people have offered to donate used books to the program, but Phipps Soeiro says that, from the beginning, she wanted to give out new books, not lend books or hand out used donations. “Lots of kids have no books, so owning your own book is really important,” Godfrey explains. Having an unused book to call their own is a unique experience for some of the children who visit the Book Bike.
“I think it’s more than just giving out books, more than just giving out free lunches,” says Godfrey. “It’s really meeting families where they are.”