The Book Truck Brings Free Books to Thousands of L.A. Students

A bookmobile staffed by teen volunteers gives away high-demand YA titles to low-income students or those who are in foster care or experiencing homelessness.

Book Truck teen volunteers make recommendations to students.
Photo by Jack Ludden

In the courtyard of David Starr Jordan Senior High School, a Title 1 school in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, teens arranged some 600 new books on folding tables, library book carts, and wooden bookshelves inside a parked bookmobile.

The teenagers were volunteering with the Book Truck, a peer-to-peer literacy nonprofit. The traveling bookmobile gives away high-demand YA titles to teens who are in foster care, experiencing homelessness, or come from low-income families. The volunteers wore name tags and were ready to help classmates choose two free books.

An English teacher watched the setup from the side. “You’re too far from the lunch area. I’m afraid nobody will see you,” he said. The teacher thought the lack of reading culture on campus could translate into few customers. “I’ve got three readers coming,” he told Elizabeth Dragga, the Book Truck’s founder and director.

The event drew many more than three students. With music playing in the courtyard and nachos out for munching, some 175 students browsed the titles. Conversation buzzed about genres, plot lines, authors, and best sellers. Students waited to check out their selections so they could take them home. For many, these were the first new books they’d owned.

By the end of the lunch break, all the books were gone, and the nacho platters were barely touched.

“All of a sudden, we had a campus full of nerds,” says Laura Schickling, then senior program manager at City Year Los Angeles, an organization that facilitated the event. Students carried their books around campus and read between classes, grumbling when asked to put their books away.

“Do you have the first in the ‘Twilight’ series?” a male student asked a classmate. “I’ll swap it for my copy of Hunger Games or Thirteen Reasons Why.”

Regarding the English teacher’s concerns about engagement, Dragga says, “It wasn’t the first time people expressed concern that the books wouldn’t draw a crowd. But we find that they typically do.”

According to Schickling, at the time of the event, the school had a library that was open two or three days a week—but the collection was limited, and the books didn’t reflect the lives of the students.

“The Book Truck titles featured characters our students could relate to, and books in which they could envision themselves,” Schickling says. The peer-driven program’s young volunteers receive orientation training by Book Truck staff in how to recommend books, and they work with each student to find a good reading match. Over the past year, some 50 teens have volunteered for about 350 hours collectively at Book Truck literacy outreach events.

Book deserts

Growing up in “book deserts,” as communities with a dearth of books are often called, can lead to a literacy gap among low-income families. A 2016 study underscored the connection between book deserts and areas of concentrated poverty.

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, illiteracy is linked to both unemployment and incarceration. Every day, 3,000 students with low literacy drop out of school. Barriers to public library use in high-poverty communities can include fear of accruing fines on overdue books and difficulty finding transportation to the library.

The literacy challenges in California are particularly acute. The state is ranked 37th in teen literacy, based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading scores for eighth graders, a test for math and reading. A quarter of the state’s six million students can’t perform basic reading skills.

A high number of school libraries in the Los Angeles Unified School District have been closing, compounding the challenge of getting books into young people’s hands. “If there is a librarian on campus, we work with them at the event,” says Dragga. (Jordan High has since hired a full-time librarian.)

“What’s at stake is literacy, which is a civil rights issue and an equity issue,” says Jeffrey Wilhelm, a Book Truck board member and professor of English at Boise State University.

The broader research suggests that adolescence is the last realistic window of opportunity for turning reluctant and aliterate readers on to reading and making progress toward literacy, Wilhelm adds.

Students browse the offerings on display at a Book Truck event.
Photo by Marie Nguyen

Outreach on wheels

A shortage of outreach and programming for teens prompted Dragga, a bookseller and former librarian, to found the Book Truck in 2011 and establish it as a nonprofit in 2012. At the time, she was working as a middle school librarian at St. Timothy School in Los Angeles. At a chance meeting with Cornelia Funke, international bestselling author of the middle grade fantasy novel The Thief Lord and the “Inkheart” trilogy, Dragga persuaded Funke to provide the literacy nonprofit with critical seed funding. The author remains one of the nonprofit’s largest donors.

“What I loved about Elizabeth’s approach was that she said, ‘I want to give teens the books they want. Not the books that I think they should read,’” says Funke, who worked as a social worker in Germany before she became an author. “Teens need our support so desperately. How could I not jump at the opportunity to help?”

Funke purchased a vehicle to serve as a mobile library. On the outside, the Book Truck looks like a simple white cargo van, a sleek Ford Transit Connect with a red-and-white logo. Over the past eight years, this bookmobile and team of volunteers have brought literacy programming to nearly 15,000 teens across Greater Los Angeles and have distributed more than 25,000 high-quality, high-demand books.

Last year, 74 percent of funding came from foundation grants and 26 percent from individual donations, according to Dragga. Supporting foundations included David Baldacci’s Wish You Well Foundation for family and adult literacy and the Nora Roberts Foundation, also supporting literacy.

Dragga curates the collection based on ongoing feedback from the teens. That includes diverse authors, popular best sellers, and self-help books. The organization’s website ( allows individuals to donate money or gently used books (with guidelines), refer to a list of most-requested titles, and peruse a wish list on Amazon.

Titles that are currently popular with students include Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, Becky Albertalli’s Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, books by Neal Shusterman, and “anything by John Green,” according to Dragga. “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series are widely read, but not as much as they once were.

To prepare for events, volunteers organize the books into 10 categories, and each book spine is marked with an identifying sticker. Realistic-boy main character, for example, is signaled by a man and LGBTQ by a rainbow. Titles are shelved in similar categories, with the most popular ones stacked at the top and bookmarks identifying each title as “scary,” “sad,” “mystery,” and the like. Volunteers wear stickers noting the book categories they’re most equipped to talk about and encourage browsers to explore a book’s title, author, cover art, and blurb on the back.

The friendly rapport goes a long way. “A reluctant reader who feels incompetent will reject books,” says Wilhelm.

Other kids just might not see the point of reading. Jonathan, a Book Truck volunteer, had no books in his childhood home, and his mother is illiterate. At 15, he found reading tedious and was about to drop out of Hollywood Media Arts Academy when he happened upon a Book Truck outreach event. “I wasn’t a reader, but I thought, ‘Hey, it’s free,’” Jonathan says. He left with three books, including Cheryl Rainfield’s Stained.

Jonathan was drawn to Rainfield’s story of Sarah Meadows, 17, who was born with a port-wine stain on her face and longs to be normal. Bullied daily, Sarah is abducted on the way home from school and has to fight to save her life. Her journey as the underdog resonated with Jonathan, who had also suffered bullying and abuse.

“The way Cheryl expressed trauma, sadness, and healing really touched me,” Jonathan says. He stayed up until 2 a.m. to finish it, and that was the first time he had read a book not assigned by a teacher. “All of sudden, I got a taste of something I had never had before,” he says. “I understood the purpose of books.”

He read another book received from the Book Truck the next day, and within a week got a card from the Los Angeles Public Library. Instead of dropping out of high school, Jonathan, now 20, graduated early and started taking college classes. He now owns “too many books to count.”

Fellow Book Truck volunteer Alfredo was also a nonreader until he was captivated by Alex Sanchez’s The God Box, which he spotted in an LGBTQ display at the Los Angeles Public Library during Pride Month. Alfredo was taken with the story of Paul, a religious teen living in a conservative town, who meets Manuel, who is Christian and openly gay. Reading about Paul grappling with his own sexual identity helped Alfredo accept himself and his process of coming out.

“At school, books and stories were chosen for me,” Alfredo says. “The God Box was the first book I read that had characters that could be people I knew.”

Like Jonathan, Alfredo found out about the Book Truck when it visited his school. Kayla Hayempour, 15, discovered it on the Internet while searching for a mitzvah project for her bat mitzvah some three years ago.

“Books are the escape from whatever we have going on at home,” says Kayla, who volunteers with the truck and is a self-described book nerd. She likes meeting people and forming connections during her time at the truck.

Other young people connected to the project through Dragga. Eli Ludden, 16, knew her from childhood as his favorite bookseller at Children’s Book World in Los Angeles. He got involved with the Book Truck when he was in fourth grade by launching a book drive with a friend. He told his sister, Justine, 14, about the organization, and she told her friends. Now, Eli volunteers between 10 and 30 hours a month, and his sister and her friends volunteer as well.

On a recent Sunday evening, Eli and Justine congregated around their dining room table with Justine’s friends Jojo Manning, 14, and Maddie Rogers, 14. They were divvying up books to read so that they could better recommend them.

“When I volunteer, I feel like the visitor and I are diving in together, looking for that good fit,” said Justine.

“When it happens, it’s the best thing ever,” Maddie added.

Jojo said that young people need books that reflect their own lives.

Often, the volunteers meet teens who announce that they aren’t readers. “We get that all the time,” Eli said. “Between 30 and 50 percent of the teens coming to our events say that. And I get it: For many, reading is associated with homework, not pleasure. It’s on me to ignite that spark. Then 90 or 95 percent, usually 100 percent, end up with at least one book.”

“As a teenager, I feel like adults are talking at me,” Eli added. “Adults like to explain things. They don’t leave room for comments or questions. But we’re teenagers, just like the visitors. A lot of what we do is to create connections.”

“If I had to suggest something to grown-ups, I’d say, ‘Listen to the teens,’ ” he said. “Open your mind and heart to who they are and what they have to say.”

Dragga hopes that this exposure to the right books will turn teenagers on to reading and all books have to offer.

“In a perfect world, if we’re giving a teen their first book, our hope is that it is a stepping stone on the way to a library,” she says. “We want students to continue reading, to have the confidence and skills to walk into a library and find the next book they want to read.”

Ruth Ebenstein  is an award-winning writer, historian, public speaker, and peace/health activist.


Quote photo courtesy of Alfredo
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Susan Lalor

I don't understand why someone involved with this event would call people interested in books "nerds."

Posted : Jan 08, 2020 08:13

Mary Fitzpatrick

As a literacy volunteer, this story fills me with hope! I get it: they will read the stories they are drawn to, not what we want them to read. I was particularly encouraged by the story of volunteer, Jonathan. Thank you to ALL librarians!

Posted : Jan 07, 2020 05:05



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