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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Festival of Books showcases literacy in Tucson


Staff from Make Way for Books, a local early literacy nonprofit, share interactive stories and books with children and families at the Tucson Festival of Books. This year will be Make Way for Book’s ninth year at the festival.

Amazon recently ranked Tucson as No. 7 in it’s top 20 most well-read cities in America, which is no surprise here. The Tucson community celebrates its love for literature every year at the Festival of Books, held on the UA Mall. The event draws in thousands of book lovers, giving programs that work towards increasing literacy in Tucson a louder voice in the public sphere.

Pima County’s downtown public library launched a Bookbike program in 2012. The bike, loaded with books, takes monthly trips to different locations and events around Tucson to distribute free books to those who don’t normally make it into a library. 

Karen Greene, also known as the “Librarian on the Move,” was responsible for bringing the Bookbike to Tucson. 

“I was first introduced to the Bookbike concept by a colleague who sent me a link to the first Bookbike which was located in Chicago,” she said.

Since 2012, the Bookbike program has given away more than 20,000 books to people in senior centers, halfway houses, soup kitchens and more.

“That’s where we’re hitting the folks that are not necessarily coming to the library, and we can talk with them about our GED, English language and job help programs,” Greene said.

RELATED: Center for English as a Second Language celebrates diverse UA culture

Since receiving state grant money to fund the project, Greene has installed a Bookbike at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library downtown, as well as the Eckstrom-Columbus and Santa Rosa libraries. Her initiative has influenced 10 other libraries to start their own Bookbike programs.

“My ultimate goal locally is to have a Bookbike in different regions of the city, so that every part of the city would get a Bookbike visit, not just the downtown area,” Greene said. “My goal internationally, is world domination by the Bookbike-to have it be a regular thing for libraries, bikes and books to go together.”

Efforts for increasing literacy in Tucson are not confined to the public library system. The UA also takes an interest in helping the community access different types of literature.

Nestled on the fourth floor of the education building at the UA, the newly renovated Worlds of Words center houses one of the largest collection of global children and adolescent books in the United States. It also hosts many artists and scholars in residence. 

The center provides a unique research space for all ages to discover the power of international literature and serves the Tucson education community with exclusive, credible resources.

Rebecca Ballenger, coordinator of outreach and collections, is the only full-time staff member at Worlds of Words. She helps organize all events, programs and content that the center produces.

“[Worlds of Words] is used primarily for research by pre-service teachers and teacher-educators who are looking to expand global perspectives through children’s literature,” Ballenger said.

The center also works as a platform for the community to evaluate and discuss different types of global literature and create new ways for educators to integrate literature into the lives of their students. 

“We have public events for the community,” Ballenger said.  “We have Wild Fiestas once a month and we offer professional development for teachers who want to come in and see how they might incorporate this literature in their classroom.”

With the Festival of Books only a few days away, Worlds of Words is working overtime to set up their exhibits, galleries and presentations to showcase to the public. The center will display literature and original artwork from many different authors and illustrators, such as Joan Sandin, Mary J. Wong, Grace Lin and more. 

“This is a place that the whole university community should feel welcome to come to,” Ballenger said.

RELATED: Tucson Top Five: the best local book nooks Tucson has to offer

A helpful resource for educators looking to increase literacy for students in Tucson is located not far from campus. Make Way for Books operates as a nonprofit organization serving over 30,000 children and parents, and over 700 educators. Their mission is to enhance the quality of early child care with a literary emphasis. 

“Our hope is that children are better prepared for kindergarten, that we’re easing the burden on the K-12 system,” said Ally Baehr, director of community engagement at Make Way for Books. “Therefore, children will arrive in kindergarten ready to read, ready to succeed, ready to participate.”

Make Way for Books works with early child care providers, centers and preschools to meet these goals and make sure they are providing the right kinds of books to young children.

“We hope that we’re creating a culture of literacy,” Baehr said.

With the influence of programs like these, Tucson’s love for books doesn’t seem to be fading any time soon. For more information about the Festival of Books happening this weekend, visit

Follow Kathleen Kunz on Twitter.

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