Word! Book Boxes bring free books to south St. Petersburg

The Word! Collective partnered with Keep St. Pete Lit to bring Word! Book Boxes to four locations in neighborhoods in south St. Petersburg.
Kids can take free books from Word! Book Boxes, located in four spots in south St. Petersburg.
Kids can take free books from Word! Book Boxes, located in four spots in south St. Petersburg. [ Courtesy of Maureen McDole ]
Published Aug. 17, 2020|Updated Aug. 24, 2020

Little Free Libraries, small boxes full of books that invite people to take or leave some, have seemingly popped up all around.

But there has been a void of the libraries in certain neighborhoods in south St. Petersburg. So early this year, a partnership between the Word! Initiative, Keep St. Pete Lit and Cultured Books changed that by bringing Word! Book Boxes to four locations in south St. Petersburg.

The Word! Book Boxes are former newspaper boxes that local artist Zulu Painter adorned with colorful, kid-appealing imagery that says “Read” and “Take a Book.”

The boxes are located at Community Health Centers of Pinellas at Johnnie Ruth Clarke (1344 22nd St. S); the Thomas “Jet” Jackson Recreation Center (1000 28th St. S); Childs Park Recreation Center (4301 13th Ave. S); and Jordan Park Apartments (1245 Jordan Park St. S).

The program was born earlier this year from the Word! Initiative, a St. Petersburg-based Black women’s collective founded by Leigh Davis of Creative Pinellas, local author Tenea Johnson and St. Petersburg native Toni Thomas. Their mission is to create transformative experiences through arts and culture.

They were discussing the lack of free books and decided to circle in Lorielle Hathaway, owner of Cultured Books, a children’s bookstore dedicated to sharing positive stories about people of color, to help curate the selection of donated books.

They reached out to Keep St. Pete Lit founder Maureen McDole, whom they had worked with before on their Kids Lit Fest, to help facilitate donations of funds, boxes and books to the program.

McDole said they received a large donation of books from Jennifer Frances of Bess the Book Bus. But part of the mission of the program is to present more inclusive books.

“Most donated books have white protagonists,” McDole said. “So the goal, through donations and grants, is to purchase new books that show Black people living full lives and overcoming racism.”

Those books are purchased from Cultured Books. Donations of books for the boxes can be made by purchasing a book from the store, which is open on Sundays and is located inside the Well for Life, a healing center at 833 22nd St. S.

Donations to the program can be made on Keep St. Pete Lit’s website and on the Word! Book Box’s Facebook page.

Davis said they want to make the boxes the best they can, with a mix of books that not only represent people of color portrayed positively, but people of all abilities, as well as educational books.

She restocks the boxes every week and said that the books have usually all been taken. She wipes the books down and wears gloves and a mask while she’s restocking. She said picture books and Young Adult are popular genres.

Before the pandemic kept kids out of the recreation centers, Davis said the kids were excited when she would come stock the books.

“I was known as the ‘book lady,‘” she said. “‘The book lady’s here,’ they’d say. I haven’t had that kind of engagement since the pandemic.”

Davis also said there’s interest in the community for more boxes in more locations. But one issue is finding actual boxes to house them in.

She would love to be able to keep growing the program. And she said that while the effort can be overwhelming, “when you start off in small communities, it will ripple, it will grow.”

The Word! Initiative collective is open to new members and volunteers. Those interested should reach out on Word! Book Box’s Facebook page.