Donated children’s books welcome New Mainer families

One graphic novel tells the story of two brothers living in a refugee camp. A picture book follows a little girl who moves to the United States from Russia. An anthology details 11 American immigration journeys from around the world. 

Eighteen different books, all of them focused on journeys, new homes, and a sense of belonging. And they’re going to about 100 young New Mainers in the Saco School Department, thanks to a partnership between the University of Southern Maine and Portland nonprofit I’m Your Neighbor Books. 

“There are so many children who have no books at home,” said Dr. Melinda Butler, Chair of USM’s Department of Literacy, Language, and Culture. “Libraries have great books. Teachers have wonderful classroom libraries. But there’s nothing like being able to have those books for yourself.”

The children are part of dozens of New Mainer families who started to arrive in Saco last summer, beginning life in their new town from a hotel. Townspeople, the school system, and local charities helped the families with some essentials, like clothes and school supplies. 

Butler, Dr. Libby Bischof, and Associate Professor Dr. Alexander Lapidus, among others, thought childrens’ books would be important, too. 

“Books are a luxury. They’re also a necessity, but when you need snow pants and boots, you’re not going to buy books first,” said Bischof, Executive Director of the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education. “We really want kids to be able to have those things that are not just the basic necessities and to be able to have those books and share them with their siblings and in their families, too.”

A $2,500 literacy grant from the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi helped pay for some of the books. I’m Your Neighbor Books, with funding from the Maine Humanities Council, matched that $2,500, allowing the group to purchase 10 boxes of books. 

The books range from pre-K to grade 8 and feature children from a wide array of countries, including China, Thailand, and Somalia. The goal: give kids characters who look like them and stories they can relate to.

“Growing up white in this country, you don’t need to look around to have your experience validated. Books and media represent you every day. But children of color, children with different immigration backgrounds, rarely see themselves represented in media,” said Kirsten Cappy, Executive Director of I’m Your Neighbor Books. “Children’s books are leading the way in the representation that builds a crucial sense of belonging for immigrant kids. This project put that feeling of belonging directly into kids’ hands.”

Because most American publishers release children’s books only in English or Spanish, all 18 titles are in those languages. That could be a problem for New Mainer families who read other languages instead. So the books were chosen, in part, with visuals in mind.

“Picture books and graphic novels allow a new English learner to pull the story from the pictures as their experience with English grows,” said Cappy.

Each child received two books to keep. The project was such a success that the group hopes to apply for another Phi Kappa Phi grant to provide more books. 

“When I gave them to my fourth-grade girls, their faces lit up. They said, ‘For us?’ ‘Yes, for you!’ It was really cute,” said Jen Rawlins, who teaches multilingual learners at the C.K. Burns School in Saco.