As a high school English teacher who teaches in an underfunded urban school, I truly understand how difficult it is to get books–let alone modern YA books into the hands of my students. The books I buy my students that are meant for fun are all purchased out of my own paycheck. I have been introduced to DonorsChoose, which helped me to purchase Death of a Salesman for my students, but it’s rare for teachers to find a site where they can request YA novels ranging from the popular (such as The Fault in Our Stars by John Green) to the graphic novels (my students love Deadpool–they’re burgeoning nerds) to sci-fi and fantasy.

For students (like mine) who are out and proud nerds (which is why they are so awesome) but who have little to no money, it’s difficult for them to get their hands on a sci-fi, fantasy, or even graphic novel.

Thankfully, a new site has been founded that is designed to help those students. BookMentors.org is a nonprofit that connects teachers and students with donors who want to give them books. The site is more than a donors exchange–it’s a community for anyone who is passionate about reading. Teachers, students, and book lovers can set up virtual book drives, share tidbits on up-and-coming children’s and YA novels, and use leaderboards as a charitable gamification incentive.I spoke with BookMentors Executive Director Debra Hannula who explained to me the origin of BookMentors, how you can get involved, and what the most popular book on the site is:

Sarah Osman: Where exactly did the idea for Book Mentors come from?

Debra Hannula: Lack of access to books constrains the literacy development of students in poor communities. There are about 13 books per child in middle-income neighborhoods. In low-income neighborhoods, this ratio has been estimated to be approximately 1 book at home for every 300 children.

Working as a reading specialist and principal in an urban elementary school, BookMentors’ founder Jen Soalt and board member Pamela Simpkins encountered the reality of these statistics first hand. Jen thought that there had to be a way for readers, writers, publishers, and teachers to connect to help improve students’ access to books. She knew there were many adults who were very fond of particular children’s books—ones they read as a child or now read to their children–and enjoy sharing that appreciation with teachers and students through giving.  She came up with the idea for BookMentors and told some friends who offered to help, and a year later the platform was launched.

SO: How is Book Mentors different from similar sites such as Donors Choose?

DH: BookMentors differs from other teacher crowdfunding sites in that it is only focused on books, and therefore becomes a space where donors and teachers can have the pleasure of an exchange entirely focused on literature and reading. Bookworms and teachers can affirm their joy in sharing books with children.

Furthermore, some sites require projects to be fully funded before they can receive the items. On BookMentors a teacher can ask for just one book, some less than $5. This allows many donors to participate and allows most individuals the opportunity to become “philanthropists.”

We wanted to create a space where readers/donors and teachers could connect and feel like the gift of a particular book to a particular classroom mattered, and they were not just participating in a big, impersonal literacy nonprofit that had nothing to do with specific books from their own childhood or personal experience. We hoped to create a literacy nonprofit that passionate readers–people who knew and cared about particular titles —could get excited about.

SO: How exactly does Book Mentors work?

DH: On BookMentors, it is simple for teachers or librarians to request copies of specific books – as many or as few as they like.

BookMentors’ donors can then go on and fulfill as many copies as they choose. Donors may search based on a book they’d like to give or a school or location they’d like to give to. Donors can even post donations for specific books that have not been requested, and teachers can scoop them up!

Recently, we launched Book Drives, which have been very successful for teachers in a particular school who want to work together to request books for their various classrooms. It’s a great way for them to connect with donors in the form of parent teacher organizations, scout troops, sororities, church groups – who want to give back and have fun competing. There is a donor leaderboard, which offers a fun gamification incentive!

SO: Soalt has mentioned that Book Mentors is meant to be more of a community. How exactly is it more of a community?

DH: BookMentors is a community of donors, teachers, librarians, and folks who want to give/get/talk books. The site allows for donors to “offer” books to teachers; ones that were particularly meaningful to their childhoods. Teachers are able to peruse the “offer” section and see if any of those books resonate for his/her students. Through the “talk” section on the site, folks can post their tributes to particular books. In the teachers’ requests section, teachers can describe their classrooms and why they feel particular books will really enable them to teach to their students.

We wanted to create a site where individual donors and teachers could connect more directly than on other donor contribution sites, and actually post and fulfill individual requests. The “thank yous” in the “talk” section express the excitement and gratitude teachers and students feel when they receive new books specifically for them.

The comment section allows for donors to thank the teacher or to comment on what that books means to them. For many donors they tell the teacher they can’t wait to read that book or buy that book for their child or grandchild, since it comes so highly recommended.

SO: What are some of the most frequent books that are asked for on Book Mentors?

DH: Our most common book request right now is The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Seattle writer Sherman Alexie, which has had 128 donations with 16 requests still currently open. We have had teachers from all over the country express how this book has really resonated with their students, including schools with high Native American populations. We also have regular requests for How Rocket Learned to Read for younger children and The Book Thief for older readers.

Are you interested in becoming part of the BookMentors community? Join up at BookMentors.org!

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