Both airplanes and books have the ability to take people on journeys. Now with the help of Read On the Fly, children can take flights of fancy while ascending into the clouds to cruise at thousands of feet.
On Wednesday, Nov. 15, a group made up of representatives from the Association for the Education of Young Children, Southeast Alaska (AEYC), Friends of the Juneau Public Libraries, United Way of Southeast Alaska, Alaska Litho, and Rainforest Custom gathered at Juneau International Airport’s charter plane wing to shelve boxes of books for one of their new Read On the Fly shelves.
Read On the Fly’s goal is to increase literacy amongst Alaska children by encouraging them to pick up a book instead of an electronic device before, during or after a flight, according to its website. The idea originated from Alaska travel writer and journalist Erin Kirkland of Anchorage. As an avid reader, three years ago when performing her annual holiday purge of her sons’ toys, she noticed one of them had outgrown his books. She wanted to do more than donate them to local thrift stores that were already well populated with used books.
“As a travel writer, I fly through Alaska’s airports very frequently, and I noticed, especially in our more rural communities, kids are very much running amok and there’s not really anything for them to do. So I started looking at literacy rates, which are pretty low for Alaska. Are our kids ready for school? Not really, especially in the rural areas,” Kirkland said. Lack of reading at home and school readiness preparation from preschools are contributing factors, she said.
Alaska’s literacy rates are indeed low. According to Kids Count Data Center, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, being able to proficiently read by the end of third grade is crucial to children’s educational development; unfortunately in Alaska in 2015, 39 percent of children were below the basic achievement level for fourth graders as measured and defined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reading test.
Kirkland contacted Alaska Airlines to see if she could leave a box of books at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in the main seating concourse area for people to take, but the airline had already been planning to make the place more kid friendly, so they began talking about shelving. The Read On the Fly name came from the former Anchorage airport manager and soon a logo was designed for the first shelves. It was official.
“Right away people were emailing me saying we want one in our airport…When an airport calls me and say we want to start a bookshelf, I find the community partners to pull it together, but really, it’s the community that’s ultimately responsible for it,” she said. Read On the Fly is not an entity, but a diverse group of local volunteers spread across the state.
Last winter she came to Juneau to meet with president of United Way of Southeast Alaska, Wayne Stevens, executive director of AEYC Joy Lyon, and others to figure out how to set up bookshelves in Juneau that could be maintained locally. Alaska Airlines paid Rainforest Custom to build the shelves (one past security, and the one in the charter plane wing), and Alaska Litho placed the logo on them. AEYC is donating books children have outgrown from its Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which are for kids up to the age of five. Friends of the Juneau Public Libraries will donate books targeted for kids 5-18 years old. Both will regularly stock the shelves.
“It’s not like the Little Free Libraries where it’s take a book leave a book,” Kirkland said. “It’s you take a book… If you’re a kid between the ages of 0-18, take a book. There’s no expectation that you have to give it back… Hopefully they’ll pass them along to someone else, but they don’t have to do that.”
By May of 2016, there was one shelf behind security and there were three in the main area of the Anchorage airport; now there are six, since play structures were added to the airport that had book nooks in them. Besides the two new ones in Juneau, Fairbanks and Ketchikan also have two. Valdez and Bethel each have one as well. Kirkland said she hopes Read On the Fly keeps expanding throughout Alaska.
“Reading can take you anywhere, and that’s why I love it. …Stepping on an airline and opening the pages of a book can be so similar. You can go anywhere you want to in a book even if you can’t physically go there yourself,” she said. “That’s why Read On the Fly is such a personal project for me.”
Read On the Fly is in part supported by Best Beginnings, a public-private partnership that collects money to promote early literacy so Alaska children will succeed in school. The partnership accepts monetary donations. To give books to the Juneau airport shelves, donate through the Amazing Bookstore located in the Airport Shopping Center and operated by Friends of the Juneau Public Libraries. For more information, go to readonthefly.com.
• Clara Miller is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.