Araba Maze Brings Life To Baltimore Book Deserts With Pop-UPS, Vending Machines And Buses

Baltimore City has a lot of ‘book deserts’ where print books and other reading materials are hard to obtain, yet Araba Maze is about to change the situation.

Self-described as a “radical street librarian”, she has already donated thousands of free books to children through pop-up events and a vending machine for picking out books at no cost.

More info: Storybook Maze

Storybook Maze brings free books with diverse characters and storylines to areas with limited access to books

Image credits: Storybook Maze

Image credits: Mike Morgan

Book lover Araba Maze graduated from Bowie State University with a bachelor’s degree in English in 2011. She wanted to bring reading and literacy to the rest of her community ever since.

“It all started when I was reading to my nieces on my front stoop when neighborhood kids started gathering around, so I invited them to join us,” explained the woman. “After I finished reading, the kids didn’t want storytime to stop. ‘Go home and read a book,’ I said. ‘We don’t have books at home,’ was their response. That really got me thinking about how to get free books.”

She started with work at the nearest library by hosting regular ‘Stoop Storytimes,’ during which she would give away her own collection of books.

“I just gave away the books that I had. And then I became a librarian, thinking that that was like, you know, going to solve the problem of book access,” shared Araba.

Yet very soon, the woman realized she wasn’t reaching the children who needed her help the most: there were plenty of them who didn’t have access to libraries. Therefore, Araba started to think of innovative and more engaging ways to reintroduce kids to the idea of reading.

Maze’s work to meet readers where they’re at is not just about physical space; it’s about providing books that are made for them

Image credits: Araba Maze

Image credits: Araba Maze

Image credits: Araba Maze

Through her Instagram and TikTok accounts, she gathered funds to install the first book vending machine for kids on the street in 2023, which helped to distribute over 7,000 books.

“I’m always looking for locations with high foot traffic – where the kids already are and where the community is already going. We focus on Black neighborhoods. But also, we use a book desert [map] from Unite for Literacy, which has identified areas where children are estimated to have between zero and 10 books at home,” explained Araba.

Maze hopes that by reaching out to community leaders and organizations, she can eventually schedule and set up more free pop-up book stands, providing books for as many kids as possible. She also uses her knowledge as a librarian to curate books to meet the community’s needs:

“We know that when kids have books that they can relate to and can see themselves in, they’re more eager to read. For us, this means books with Black characters, who live in neighborhoods like our kids live in, celebrate the same things they do, and reflect their lives. We also talk to community leaders, teachers, and organizations in the area and see where they think kids need support the most. Some kids need more positive affirmations, so we give them a book like I Am Amazing!” shared the radical street librarian.

In 2022, Storybook Maze put 3,000 diverse books into the hands of kids

Image credits: Storybook Maze

Image credits: Storybook Maze

Image credits: Storybook Maze

Various studies have shown that kids who are readers or who read have better concentration and experience less depression.

“There’s a lot of research support for the idea that kids who read – and who read more widely across the genres – are going to do better across the board in terms of learning,” explained Pamela Maslin Sullivan, who is a professor in the early, elementary, and literacy department at James Madison University.

“Contemporary fiction helps to promote empathy and emotional development,” added Nancy Davidson, a 37-year veteran of library management.

“What I think science fiction does especially well is create an openness to understanding the world in different ways than we thought we know. We take for granted that we know what it means to be human. It helps us develop empathy, different perspectives, different ways of understanding and engaging the world,” shared Esther Jones, who’s associate provost and dean of faculty at Clark University and also researches how sci-fi affects readers’ thinking.

As literacy rates in the United States are shockingly low – new statistics show that 54% of adults have literacy below a 6th-grade level and 20% are below 5th-grade level – it’s very important to have such initiatives as Araba’s Storybook Maze. Her idea to bring the library to the kids, instead of trying to get kids to come to the library, is not only engaging but also culturally significant. 

“As I’m battling book deserts and literacy in Baltimore, I’m not just battling book access; I’m also battling the book experience,” explained Araba, mentioning that some kids are intimidated by reading.

“For a lot of these kids, reading has been a mandatory thing. It’s been stressful and strenuous, so they have negative reading experiences. Reading has always been a performance; something they have to be good at … rarely for pleasure or enjoyment,” shared Maze.

“One of the main things we’re trying to develop is positive reading and book experiences. I’m a big believer in finding the right book for every reader. We saw kids go from hating reading to hungry for books that represent them. Providing holistic book access means we also provide ways for children who can’t read to hear the stories inside,” added librarian.

Araba Maze is not only battling book access, but also the book experience, because some kids are intimidated by reading

Image credits: Storybook Maze

Image credits: Storybook Maze

Araba’s constant efforts and hard work are already paying off: she was the recipient of a $15,000 grant from the United Way of Central Maryland’s Changemaker Challenge, which funded a book vending machine at a local YMCA. She was also awarded a $20,000 grant from Eventbrite, which will go toward funding her next project: The Book Trolley. 

In the meantime, the radical street librarian is renting school buses and partnering with local organizations to bring books and literary experiences to kids right where they are by showing to all of us that when something comes deep from the heart, it always reaches the heart.

People on the internet shared grateful and supportive messages about Araba and her initiatives

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