Some time within the past week, 160,000 new books arrived in The City That Reads, a term I've neither heard nor uttered since the Kurt Schmoke mayoralty and its much-mocked motto ("The City That Bleeds," "The City That Breeds") faded into memory nearly 15 years ago.
But, it's true: One hundred and sixty thousand children's books are being distributed free to Baltimore schoolteachers this week, and they, in turn, will distribute them to their students, most of whom are from low-income families lacking extensive libraries at home.
Please join me in contemplating that number again — 160,000 books for Baltimore's neediest children — and what it says about their desire to read and to learn, as recognized by their teachers.
Not video games.
Pardon my awe. But you don't see numbers like this every day.
Here's what's going on:
Since 1992 there's been an organization called First Book. It's a nonprofit based in Washington. (Don't feel bad if you never heard of it; I'm just learning about it, too.) First Book makes deals with publishers to get donated books or books at low cost and distribute them to young children. They do most of this through teachers in schools or programs where at least 70 percent of the children are from low-income families. A lot of the books get to children through libraries and organizations that support needy families with preschool or elementary-age children. The books are free.
Since donating its first batch to a school in Charleston, W.Va., First Book has put 100 million books in the hands of children in the U.S. and Canada, according to its website.
The organization now boasts a daily nationwide distribution of 35,000 books.
I warned you: These numbers can induce awe.
In recent years, the American Federation of Teachers got involved, urging members to register with First Book and apply for free books. "The teachers know best the reading levels of their students, and they know the kind of books they like," says Leslie Getzinger, spokeswoman for the AFT.
Here's another number: 1 million.
That's how many free children's books have been distributed in the last couple of years as a result of the AFT collaboration with First Book in 22 states, according to the federation.
The partnership has also established family reading centers in 20 homeless shelters in New York City; created a library in Mobile, Ala.; distributed thousands of anti-bullying books in Cleveland schools; given out bilingual and Spanish books to students and families at soccer tournaments in Dallas; put books on school buses for after-school reading in Houston; and provided more than 50,000 books to students in 19 New Orleans schools.
Baltimore got into the act when Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake agreed to make a municipal warehouse available for the temporary storage of thousands of books from the last big AFT book drive of the year. According to Getzinger, Baltimore is the first city to make such a facility available to First Book.
So, last week, hundreds of boxes landed in the warehouse on Kane Street in Southeast Baltimore. Inside were all kinds of books for kids: Dr. Seuss books, of course ("Bamboozled" and "Born to Run"); and Junie B. Jones books ("The Stupid Smelly Bus") and one called "Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child." There are "Tia Lola" books (about "a kind of Mary Poppins with a Spanish accent.") There are Magic Treehouse books by Mary Pope Osborne, and "Sterling Squadron" books by Eric Nylund.
And a whole lot more.
There were 400,000 books in all.
One hundred and sixty thousand of them will go to the children of Baltimore.
The remaining 240,000 books will be distributed from the Baltimore warehouse to teachers and kids in 538 communities across the country.
Volunteers from the AFT and its Maryland affiliate, the Baltimore Teachers Union, the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the International Union of Operating Engineers were involved in sorting the books.
Mayor Rawlings-Blake and officials of the AFT and BTU announced all this at a media event Wednesday at Dr. Bernard Harris Senior Elementary School in East Baltimore.
Teachers will be picking up their books — 160,000 books, did I mention the number? — this week. That's a lot of books for a lot of Baltimore's children, a lot of desire and promise and potential.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.