Think back to a time, perhaps long ago, when you were a child. What books were your favorite?
Was it a classic bedtime story, like Goodnight Moon, with its vivid, monochromatic artwork and memorable rhymes? Maybe it was a magical chapter book series, like Harry Potter or A Series of Unfortunate Events? Perhaps something timeless and whimsical from Dr. Suess or Richard Scarry, Beatrix Potter's beloved anthropomorphic animal adventures, or Eric Carle's colorful, layered collages?
Whether we knew it at the time or not, books such as these were quietly shaping and molding our young minds, sparking interests and spurring creativity. They're the kind of stories that, for good reason, stick with us long after the last page was turned.
Making sure local kids have access to quality books that inspire and inform through exquisite illustrations and enduring tales is the focus of a new local nonprofit, the Center for Children's Book Arts.
Founded in 2021 by local literacy educator Ashley Reese, the center operates a small bookstore on North Monroe Street, where it also hosts art- and book-related workshops for adults and children. The physical location, a space shared with the Terrain Gallery's new home, opened this spring. Before that, Reese was mainly operating the center as a pop-up via its "Book Bus" and hosting workshops at other venues.
While Reese acknowledges that public libraries certainly help increase kids' access to books, the center aims to make book ownership a possibility for low-income families.
"With the library, there's not that sense of ownership of this sense of 'This belongs to me, and this is part of my childhood culture, and we can come back to this over and over again as a family,'" she says.
"I've taught internationally and locally, and have consistently seen the power of high-quality literature and art on engagement with students," Reese adds. "And, just in researching best practices in literacy, it has consistently come up that a high-quality home library is the number one predictor of academic success in students."
While families can walk in off the street and browse for books on the shelves of the center's cozy, library-like space, Reese's hope is that customers sign up for a membership, modeled like a book subscription service.
Memberships are offered in tiers, and include one ($16), two ($30) or three ($44) book credits a month, which allow customers to pick anything from the center's inventory (with some minor limitations) each month. Reese says the price for books with a membership can be up to 30 percent off the cover price. Supporters can also sponsor memberships for low-income students ($18 a month or $108 for six months) who are nominated for the scholarship program by teachers.
The center's website (theccba.org) includes an online storefront for people to browse what's in stock, and to place orders for pickup or shipping. Memberships can be started or stopped at any time.
One main difference between the Center for Children's Book Arts and other programs that seek to get more literature into the hands of kids, is the thoughtful curation of its inventory, Reese explains.
"We're trying to consider how to facilitate that in a way where books can be highly curated and selected, but still accessible to lower income families," Reese says. "Most programs that get books into homes are usually looking at lower print quality, or lower-quality of even writing and art or illustration, and then you're certainly not looking at hardcover, so usually those books just don't last."
For parents who want to ensure their kids are accessing some of the best in children's literature available today, the center makes it easy.
"At a library, you're going to have access to almost every children's book that is coming out, or that's being published at the time," Reese says. "And although you can sort through them, unless you have an eye for discerning what is considered good literature, it's going to be hard to select for that.
"The way we select our books, we ask ourselves, 'Can this stand the test of time and be considered an heirloom quality text?'" she continues. "Both in its construction, if it's hardcover, and in its themes and also its composition. And books that parents will want to keep around and out and available in their homes."
Reese looks for titles with diverse characters and multicultural stories, books that teach kids about history or the importance of being kind to others, popular series both new and old, and award-winning authors and illustrators. Many titles at the center are translations of foreign-language books.
And, when it comes to books that challenge societal norms or teach kids about sensitive or difficult subject matter, Reese seeks tastefully written titles that "normalize something in a way that it's just kind of a matter of fact of society or humans, rather than something that's so different it has to be shouted at me."
As a mother of two adopted daughters who are Black, she says it's also important to her that books in the center have a diverse range of characters, so kids of all backgrounds, cultures and identities can connect with literature.
"I'm so grateful they're being raised in this time when there is a lot more access and awareness about having diverse literature," she says.
Sat, Oct. 1 from noon-4 pm
Includes free workshops, live music, vendors, ice cream from The Scoop, the center's Book Bus and more.
In addition to connecting readers with heirloom-quality books, the center hosts workshops for kids and adults. Tucked back behind shelves filled with colorful book covers and spines — a space that's truly a bookworm's dream — is a small studio that's already hosted several sessions on topics such as printmaking, bookbinding, papermaking, hand lettering and more.
These workshops are taught by local artists, and most are free to the public (a donation of $15-$35 is requested from those who can afford to contribute).
A series for adults called "Create + Hydrate" has proven popular so far, Reese says, and is modeled after paint-and-sip classes, with wine or other beverages served while attendees work on the featured activity.
As the center establishes itself as a literary hub for all, Reese says volunteers are needed to help run the storefront during regular hours, along with artists (who are paid for their time, thanks to grant funding) to collaborate and teach workshops. She hopes more families see value in signing up for a membership. Her goal is to have 200 active accounts by the end of the year.
"It's always interesting to see what kids select when they're in here," Reese says. "You get a different experience when you get to come in and browse and feel [a book]." ♦
The Center for Children's Book Arts • 628 N. Monroe St. • Open Fri-Sat 10 am-6 pm • theccba.org