POCATELLO — When Kathryn Lopez Luker was a child, she only got to go to the library once a month. For a voracious reader like her, that was simply not enough.
“In between library visits I would just read and re-read and re-re-read what we had,” she said.
But then one day when she was around 12, a bookmobile came to her neighborhood and changed everything.
“Every week I could get a new book – or a stack of them,” she said.
As an adult, she’s giving back the magic of her childhood bookmobile to young people in Pocatello. Luker is now the head children’s librarian at the Marshall Public Library, and this is her 18th year running and overseeing the book wagon, a program she spearheaded that gives out thousands of free books to kids every year.
Their best year yet? 2020. When kids couldn’t come to the library due to the pandemic, Luker decided to give “every single kid in every school” in the Pocatello area a book. That year, the program gave away 13,230 books – as compared to about 7,000 in a typical year.
“You can say, ‘Wow!’” she said after sharing that number.
The book wagon makes its rounds to events all year, but summer is its busiest season. During the summer, Luker said they give away about 200 books per week. Luker drives the wagon out to different city parks twice a week during lunchtime when the USDA summer meals program is bringing in crowds of kids.
On Friday, Luker brought her book wagon to Lower Ross Park and set up a table full of books. Soon kids were lined up and agonizing over their choices. What to pick?
Eliza Schmidt, a volunteer and retired librarian, made suggestions.
“Do you like dinosaurs? Do you like princesses? Do you like space? You could be an astronaut,” Schmidt said to various children who approached their table.
Eventually just the right book would catch a child’s eye and they would light up, taking the book and hugging it to their chest. Other children giggled, smiled, and even did a high-step dance in delight at receiving their new reading material.
For Luker and Schmidt, it’s a scene that plays out over and over and keeps them coming back year after year. The program also helps kids to start their lifelong journey with reading, Luker said, and that’s definitely worth it.
“Reading helps them develop as a person, intellectually and emotionally,” she said. “It helps them build connections between people. There’s not a whole lot of diversity here in Southeast Idaho, but if a kid reads about someone from a different background, it gives them some awareness and compassion and understanding, and I think it makes our world a better place.”
Juli Hafen brought her three grandsons to the park on Friday and said the program is “wonderful.”
“I would love to see kids reading more than they do,” she said. “Anything that encourages that is a good thing.”
The book wagon gets its books from three main sources: books donated from the public, gently-used library books, and new books purchased with grants.
Some recent funding has come from the Idaho Commission for Libraries, which allocated funds from a donation it received from the Scottish Rite Masons of Idaho Foundation for summer reading programs.
This funding is key because “many public libraries have a summer reading budget of zero,” Donna Eggers, a spokesperson for the ICfL, wrote in an email.
And summer reading is invaluable.
“Many studies show that children who do not continue to read over the summer can lose as much as three months of reading achievement,” she wrote. “Research shows the more ‘fingertip’ access to books children have, the more proficient they become as readers. Kids who only read in school will rarely be great readers.”
As a sign draped over Luker’s table read: “bright futures begin with summer reading.”