Kids flock to North Minneapolis playground — for free books

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Maybe pop culture celebs like The Joker and Hannah Montana outnumbered classic characters such as Alice of Wonderland fame at a book give-away Tuesday in a north Minneapolis park, but, hey, a book is a book.

And the idea behind Summer Strong is all about getting 20,000 books and information into the hands of Minneapolis public school children and their families, especially those struggling to make ends meet.

At least 100 kids came more for the books than the swings at Cleveland Park playground adjacent to Lucy Laney Elementary on Queen Avenue N. Throughout the day hundreds more youngsters flocked to three other sites for stories in print.

If they wanted, kids could enjoy a free meal or snack, too.

Community Sketchbook focuses on the economic and social challenges facing communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, and how people are trying to address them.

It is made possible by support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation, and some Minneapolis Foundation donor advisors.

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The event surely gladdened the heart of project coordinator Char Myers from the Minneapolis Public Schools. Only days since school bells signaled vacation and here were throngs of kids toting off books they might actually read this summer, a time when kids out of classrooms too often suffer from an educational “summer slide” backwards.

“They can take as many as they want,’’ Myers said.

And take they did.

“I found a lot of books I like,’’ said Ciara Jones, 14, balancing a pile of reading material boasting illustrations of both Hannah and Alice.

“I think it’s pretty good for the community to get books,’’ she said, as her younger brother held up tomes with Toy Story and Mickey Mouse characters along with a book of Irish folk tales. Book donations came via First book and the Kids in Need Foundation.

Need for books

The need is keen for some, explained Sean Sweat, a reading specialist and AmeriCorps Vista staffer from the Hospitality House Youth Development who helped bring 60 excited kids to choose books.

Last year, when Sweat was new to the job at Hospitality House, he established a reading incentive program. If kids read 10 books they’d earn a free kid’s meal at the Culver’s in St. Anthony, only some kids told him they didn’t have a hope of winning because they had no books in their home.

The charity has since established a lending library with 1,200 new and gently used books thanks to donations from churches and Girl Scouts troops.

The books help keep up children’s reading and learning over the summer, Sweat says.

Two of his avid readers chimed in. Arianna Alston-Norals, 9, reads “cuz it’s fun.’’ Isaac Ross, 9, says, “When you read, stuff comes to life.’’

OraLee Law had a cane in one hand and a push-cart full of books in the other to replenish her home library. “For my grandchildren and great-grandchildren,’ she said, recalling the $32,000 in tornado damage to her home last year.

OraLee Law with granddaughter Donisha Law with her daughters Bryonna and Aryonna.

Law, who worked 11 years as a Minneapolis school library assistant, says she knows how important it is for a child to read well.

The event was spearheaded by Minneapolis Public Schools with the support of the City of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Police Department, the city Park and Recreation Board, Hennepin County Library and the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board.

Summer classes

The day also afforded parents the opportunity to enroll their children in summer school classes aimed at improving reading and math skills and for school personnel to pass out a brochure listing summertime resources, including the free Summer Meals Program for children ages 1 to 18 at local schools, parks and other community sites, clothing and shelter information and kid-safety tips.

There’s one more thing.

On my way home from Cleveland Park, I stopped at that Culver’s restaurant in St. Anthony to verify they reward kids for reading.

“It’s my mom. She’s all about giving back,’’ says the store’s general manager, Ben Sparks, about Diane Sparks, one of three owners of four area Culver’s. The partners support “25 or 30” school and community reading programs, he says.