Palmetto High School student starts traveling library to help combat
local literacy challenge
As a kid, Abby Hamm’s favorite book was “The Library Dragon,” which tells the story of a fiery dragon who kept “sticky little fingers from touching and clutching, pawing and clawing, smearing and tearing her precious books.”
In many respects, Abby has become the heroic character featured in the Carmen Agra Deedy tale, unlocking access to books for children and adults in her community.
Committed to improving literacy rates in Manatee County, the 18-year-old Palmetto High School senior founded “Book by Book”—a traveling library program that supplies children with reading materials.
“At 7 years old, I was already saving the world with fictional friends and exploring the sea with make-believe monsters twice my size,” says Abby. “My heart was broken for those who had not experienced the excitement of reading that I discovered at an early age.
“As someone who had been instilled with a love of reading as a young person, it was heart-wrenching to see a child denied the same privileges I had.”
Abby’s effort to improve literacy rates in Manatee County began when she was a high school sophomore seeking admittance into the Junior Manatee Leadership program.
In an essay detailing the biggest problem in Manatee County, Abby wrote about a brokenness in children rooted in illiteracy. She noted the hardships, discouragement and hopelessness spawned from a lack of reading skills, and the slim opportunities to escape from the problem.
Determined to demonstrate someone cared enough about their success to provide them a book of their own, Abby created Book by Book.
“The impact of handing out Dr. Seuss, Junie B. Jones, The Magic Tree House and other examples of literary genius is unimaginable,” says Abby. “Putting books into the hands of children who would otherwise not have reading materials available opens the opportunity to perform on grade level.”
Statistics show children who are not on the proper reading level by third grade are four times less likely to graduate on schedule, and 60 percent more likely to be incarcerated later in life.
“When I first began giving out books, all I had was a big dream, a family that believed in me and a box of classics with tattered covers,” Abby says. “From the beginning, my goal has been to put reading materials into the hands of children in my community.”
She organized book drives to grow her portable libraries, reaching out to teachers and clubs at her school and other schools, churches and support groups.
“An influx of books came to our house, and our garage was filled with them,” Abby says. “I thought we would be collecting books only for children, but a great variety of books became part of the mix, including books for adults, Christian books and baby books.
“More opportunities for distribution just kept popping up. Sorting them for proper distribution became my next challenge.”
Now, two rewarding years later, the sorting and sharing of donations has resulted in more than 4,000 books distributed in Manatee County.
“A variety of reading options are made available,” Abby says. “We want to make sure students are introduced to non-fiction as well as fiction. But the children most often find their favorites in zoo- and animal-themed books.”
Book by Book provides reading material to local schools and organizations, including Palmetto Elementary, a Title I school. It has two 500-book libraries in low-income neighborhoods. Also benefitting is an alternative school, Just for Girls Elementary, in Bradenton.
The girls line up in gleeful anticipation for free book fairs or when the Book by Book library cart arrives. On occasion, the girls get to select from customized baskets filled with a mix of books and extras, such as spiral note pads, coloring books and drawing pads.
“Rather than reinvent the wheel, I attempt to connect with rooted nonprofits like the Salvation Army, the North River Pregnancy Center, Anchor House at Port Manatee, Head Start and local nursing homes,” says Abby.
At Mt. Carmel Resource Center, recipients are both children and adults. El Crucero Church in Palmetto offers weekly tutoring sessions, where books can be checked out from the cart.
As Abby approaches graduation, her goals remain firmly planted in community service. A recipient of a Florida Bright Futures Scholarship, Abby plans to attend Palm Beach Atlantic University and major in ministry, with a concentration on Christian social ministries.
“My heart is in helping people,” she says. “My dream is to be in an internship program where, at the end, I can be plugged into a group that is making a difference.”