A couple of years ago, my husband began contributing monthly to the Harlem Children’s Zone, a comprehensive community revitalization agency whose mission he deeply believes in. Around the same time, I began to think about what my cause might be. To the same extent that my husband is a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of a guy, I operate in big bursts of energy here and there. And so it makes sense that daydreams about my chosen cause include visions of myself making humongous financial donations and/or becoming a global spokesperson for said cause.
In the meantime, while I’m in sipping champagne in the bubble bath (I’ve actually never done that) and visualizing what I would do with my money if I were Beyoncé, my husband spends the occasional Saturday afternoon walking around our condo complex picking up garbage with our five-year-old daughter. When they did it a couple of weeks ago, the child reported to him that it was her “best day ever.”
That stung a bit.
What about our Girls’ Days, where we get our nails done, bring home sushi, and watch Frozen over and over again? I thought. Why doesn’t that constitute the best day ever?
Then it hit me: This is why my mom wants us to go to church and why she always buys my daughter books about non-violent conflict resolution. We’re supposed to be teaching the kid values.
I sat up in the (imaginary) bathtub, put the bonbons down, and turned off One Life to Live. It was time, I decided, to go out and find myself a cause.
The Story Tent
I’d met Emily Moberly, founder of Traveling Stories, in 2011 during a visit to the City Heights Farmers’ Market. She sat on a small square of carpet reading to children in her Story Tent. Back then, although I didn’t quite get what she was up to, I loved her tagline: “investing in imaginations one library at a time.” So, as I set out on my quest to become a better person, I figure, why not start with books? I love books. Kids, too, I guess, but definitely books.
On a bright Saturday morning in late March of this year, I head to City Heights and make my way into the market. In the past three years, the Story Tent, sandwiched between the bike-repair tent and that of a hat vendor, has expanded to three squares of carpet and two overhead canopies. But it’s not only the size that makes it easy to spot; it’s the children. The tent is crawling with them. The booth space is only about 12-by-12 feet, but I count 19 kids sitting up, lying down, reading to themselves, reading aloud to an adult, stepping over and around each other to get to the crates of books up front or the toys and prizes at the back of the tent. Those 19 children plus seven adults, a teenage girl offering face-painting, three collapsible sling chairs around the perimeters, and approximately 250 books, equal the liveliest booth in the market — by far.
Moberly greets me with a huge smile, a hug, and a handful of green play-money bearing a sketch of a stack of books where George Washington’s face would be. “One Book Buck,” each reads.
“They get one per book. But if the book is long, they can negotiate for more,” she says. “If you ever feel overwhelmed, just say ‘Ask Emily.’”
Then she wishes me well and turns back to a little boy awaiting her attention.
“Wait, what do I do?” I ask, grabbing her arm in a please-don’t-leave-me panic, not quite ready to be set loose.
She laughs. It’s the high-pitched sound of a ringing bell. I will hear it several more times throughout the day
“So, kids stop by,” she explains, “they pick out books. They read to us, unless they don’t know how to read. In that case, we read to them. And then for every book they read, they get a Book Buck. And then they use these to buy prizes.”
She shows me the prize boxes, which contain items such as Starburst, nail polish, water bottles, Rainbow Loom rubber bands, and basketballs, each going for anywhere from 1 to 35 Book Bucks. Some kids spend it all on candy the day they earn it. Others save it up from week to week, keeping their eyes on the more expensive prizes.
“We take requests,” she says. “And we’re also looking for donations from the zoo and waterparks and stuff because a lot of these kids have never been to some of these places. We had Children’s Museum tickets. I think they were ten Book Bucks each ticket, and it was a family pack. So, one girl saved up for weeks and got to take her whole family — just by reading.”
Sufficiently inspired, I let go of Emily’s arm and step gingerly into the tent. Pushing aside a pile of abandoned books, I fit myself into the few inches of now-available rug space and wait with a smile, wondering how long it’ll take to get noticed.
I fan out my Book Bucks enticingly.
It’s less than 30 seconds before a small Sudanese boy stands in front of me. He wears hiking boots three or four sizes too big and holds three books under one arm: Christmas Eve on Sesame Street; Wemberly Worried, by Kevin Henkes; and There’s a Wocket in My Pocket, by Dr. Seuss.
“Can I read now?” he demands.
His name is Arbab, and he is six years old.
“How much is this worth?” he asks as he sits down.
“Um, I believe they’re worth one each,” I say. “One Book Buck per book.”
“But,” he protests, flipping through the pages, “dang.”
“What?” I ask. “You mean because it looks like a lot of words?”
“Yeah,” he says, indignant.
“Oh, okay. Well, then, ask Emily,” I say.
“Well,” he hesitates for a moment and then says, “It depends on you.”
“Right. I mean, Emily said one Book Buck per book unless it’s a chapter book,” I say, not sure at this point whether I should stand strong or be cool and give him, say, five per book.