by Sue Ann Rybak
Jessica Kahn, an education professor and reading specialist at Chestnut Hill College, knows the power of books from personal experience. As a child she loved to read.
“Teaching a child to read changes their life,” said Kahn, 67, of Abington. “For many kids, the idea of checking out a book in a school library is a completely foreign experience.”
Kahn is on a mission to change that.
For more than five years, Kahn, also known as the “book lady,” has worked tirelessly to get books in children’s hands by providing public elementary school libraries with books.
“When I was a small child, I had [access to] my elementary school library, the synagogue library and the neighborhood library,” Kahn said. “And of course, my parents bought me every book I ever wanted. I am a very good reader and that’s part of the reason why.”
Kahn said kids don’t become better readers through 30 minutes of instructional reading a day.
“It’s not about quality,” Kahn said. “It’s about choice. Children have to be able to find books they want to read and read them. They can’t do that if they don’t have access to books. It’s very simple. It’s not a complicated fix.”
Kahn still remembers the day Richard Raisman, the former principal at Emlen Elementary School in Mt. Airy, asked her if she could get books for the library.
“Once he asked me to get books, I started to realize that was the easiest job ever because everybody knows a child who has outgrown some of his or her books, and they can’t bear to just throw them out,” Kahn said.
The fact that some many Philadelphia Schools don’t have libraries or books for libraries frustrates her.
“I don’t know how you can have a school without a library,” Kahn said.
According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the school district had 176 certified librarians in 1992, but by 2011 there were only 65. And after this year’s devastating budget cuts, many school libraries – including a renovated one at Central High School that opened in 2005 funded by alumni donations – were forced to close.
Kahn said that luckily someone came up with a donation to fund a librarian at Central and Masterman School this year. She added that as a society we don’t believe it’s a “necessity to provide good health care and a good education for all children.”
She said the lack of funding for Philadelphia public libraries and the decrease in services for patrons only exacerbates the problem of providing children who live in poverty with access to books.
“Children who read books they want to read get better at reading,” Kahn said. “And the single most important factor in a child’s development as a reader is the ability to read what he or she wants to read whenever they want to read it.”
Kahn said many parents in today’s economy can’t afford the luxury of buying books.
“Their parents don’t have disposable income, and their children don’t have access to books at school,” she said. “My frustration is that I can find books.”
Kahn said the problem is that many people doesn’t think libraries are a necessity.
“The notion that we don’t consider them [skilled librarians and libraries] essential is shameful,” she said. “If we raise another generation of children who can’t read and can’t do math, we will pay for it down the line. If we invest in children and provide them with interesting reading materials and they get good at reading, they will become productive members of society who pay more taxes and contribute to the betterment of the whole society.”
Kahn said one of her favorite memories was when Emlen’s library opened. She recalled seeing a group of fifth-grade girls who came into the library first thing in the morning.
“The best day of my life at that library was when two girls went to get two copies of ‘Where the Sidewalk Ends,’” Kahn said. “The five girls began to leaf through the book to find their favorite poems to read them aloud to each other. That was a great moment.”
Over the years, Kahn has collected more than 50,000 books for local schools. Currently, she is collecting books for the Henry H. Houston Elementary School, at 7300 Rural Lane in Mt. Airy, and Pan American Charter School, at 2830 North American St. in North Philadelphia.
As children’s author Katherine Patterson, who wrote “Bridge to Terabithia,” once said: “It’s not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations – something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.”
Kahn is doing just that. She is making a difference in children’s lives everyday – one book at a time.
To donate to Kahn’s book collection for local elementary schools email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.