NEWARK, NJ - Children and families in the South Ward can now conveniently access hundreds of books and foster a love of reading without fear of late return fees or fines at a library.

The BRICK Education Network launched its South Ward Reads initiative last week at Achieve Community Charter School. Approximately 1,500 free books are strategically placed in 14 locations including schools, beauty shops, laundromats, churches, community centers -- places where children and families frequent -- to encourage childhood and adult literacy.

More than half of children living in the South Ward live in poverty, twice the national average, according to the South Ward Children’s Alliance website. High concentrations of poverty can result in low access to books said Tish Johnson, managing director of external relations and communications, and coordinator of the initiative.

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“We want to promote literacy without families worrying about getting to a library and paying late fees. There’s no penalty for not returning the book,” said Johnson. Children will use a passport system to track reading progress. The child would go to any of the bookshelf locations, talk about the book they read and where they received the book to earn a stamp. T-shirts, Kindles, and other prizes are raffled every three months to incentivize reading.

Ongoing literacy is part of the South Ward Children’s Alliance Promise Neighborhood program comprised of over 20 partners to improve youth educational and developmental outcomes and transform those communities by building cradle-to-college and career pipelines.

The program also targets adults since literacy determines the quality of job opportunities that impact other socioeconomic indicators like education attainment and housing. “If you’re trying to break the cycle of poverty, literacy is a large component of that,” said Johnson.

Childhood literacy is critical for success in school and long term achievement. By grade three, students transition from learning to be proficient readers to reading in order to be proficient learners. Children who are not reading at or above level by third grade are four times more likely to struggle with completing high school or finishing within four years. Adults who do not finish high school are likely to live in poverty.

Bridges of Books Foundation, an organization that provides books to underserved children throughout New Jersey, partnered with BRICK to donate culturally relevant books so students see themselves reflected in what they read. The organization will also donate books for the South Ward monthly book club that will begin in June according to coordinators. Bilingual (Spanish language) book club meetings will be added later.

Kimberly Logan is a mom of four who lives in the South Ward but her children go to school in the Central Ward. Her children are on the honor roll and reading above grade level, she said.

“I read all the time, I’m not a big TV watcher and my children don’t watch TV until the weekend,” said Logan, whose children attend North Star charter schools. “My kids love to read. I keep them motivated by keeping them in things that constantly promote education.”

But not all kids share that same excitement.

Cynthia “Lady Rose” Roberson, a former librarian for Newark Public Schools, created a fictional brown-skinned, curly-haired girl character named “Ritta Book” to get students excited about reading out of desperation.

She watched kids struggle and had to find a different way to get through to them. Roberson created the Reading With Ritta Book program that incorporates music, poetry, art, drama, and dance to bring literacy to life and it worked.  Perhaps it was easier for kids to hear that Ritta wanted them to read instead of an adult authority figure she reasoned.

“Even though I was a librarian, they made me feel more like a dentist because it was like pulling teeth getting them to read,” said Roberson, who studied music in college and initially knew nothing about being a librarian. What started as a temporary school media specialist assignment at South 17th street school years ago, became her career until 2017 when she decided to spread the love of reading through Ritta full time.

Roberson loves to sing and dance with students to get them excited about books and reading because the messages that kids receive matter. When introduced to books in school, students have little agency over what they read or do not have enough flexibility to read without an assignment requirement attached.

As a child, Roberson was sent to her room to read for punishment which she believes contributed to her negative attitude towards books.

“I’m on a mission,” she said. Roberson struggled with reading as a student in Newark Public Schools and throughout college. Reading struggles negatively impacted her sense of self-worth and remains an area of insecurity that she grapples with in adulthood. 

“I’m trying to touch as many lives as I can, one page at a time and make literacy fun,” Roberson continued. “I want to get young people to see it as a life skill and that they have to read as if their life depends on it because it does.”