How the people of the book became the people of the library

With over half a million kids around the world getting free books every month, the PJ Library is changing families, communities and the publishing world, and plans to keep expanding its offerings

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

PJ Our Way, one of the newer programs within PJ Library, geared toward the pre-teen set (Courtesy PJ Our Way)
PJ Our Way, one of the newer programs within PJ Library, geared toward the pre-teen set (Courtesy PJ Our Way)

LOD — Sitting on the pint-sized couch in the bright, busy Gan El-Nagmen kindergarten, the stuffed, oversized figure waits, its floppy green arms outstretched for hugs and squeezes from the class’s five-year-olds.

The stuffed doll was made by one of the class parents after reading “Where Do I Go When I Am Angry?” a book in Arabic about how to handle emotions.

It’s one of the many tactile ways in which this kindergarten — like others participating in the extensive PJ Library program founded by the Springfield, Massachusetts-based Harold Grinspoon Foundation — capitalizes on the books it receives over the course of the 10-month school year to teach ideas, values and, of course, a love of reading.

While tangible results are hard to come by, over ten years into this global children’s book-reading network, organizers, publishers and community leaders say the impact the books are having is unmistakable, with young minds increasingly exposed to Jewish ideas — or Israeli values in Sifriyat Pijama (the Israeli PJ Library) and humanistic values in Maktabat al-Fanoos (the Arabic PJ Library) — and publishers are more likely to put those themes into their pages.

The Lod kindergarten is one of 2,800 preschools that take part in Maktabat al-Fanoos, or Lantern Library, the Arabic-language book program created by the PJ Library, a global early childhood reading program that started off as a project to expose American Jewish children to Jewish books.

Maktabat al-Fanoos, one of the more recent additions to the US-based program, now brings books to 90,000 young Arabic readers.

Reading 'xxxx', a Maktabat al-Fanoos book at a Lod kindergarten (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Reading ‘Where is My Shadow’, a Maktabat al-Fanoos book at a Lod kindergarten (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

“We’re the largest gifting book program in the Arabic-speaking world,” said Galina Vromen, director of Sifriyat Pijama and Maktabat al-Fanoos.

Maktabat al-Fanoos was established in 2014, nine years after PJ Library and its cascading list of reading programs. It just marked two million books given to all children in Arabic preschools across Israel.

“Now these kids — and their families — are reading the books at home as well, building libraries in houses that may not have had much of a book collection,” said Ahlam al Masoudi, the energetic, veteran teacher at the Lod kindergarten. “They talk about feelings in the books and it helps them figure that out at home.”

The goal of Maktabat al-Fanoos is not just getting the kids to read, but acquainting them with books, said Vromen.

“They shouldn’t be terrified of books and learning to read when they get to first grade,” she said.

That’s a serious consideration for the Arabic-speaking population, which hasn’t always had the wherewithal to read or buy books to have at home.

“Maktabat al-Fanoos makes books very accessible to these kids and their families,” said Fatma Kassem, a supervisor of Arabic pre-schools in Israel’s Education Ministry. “In the past, books were just not as accessible to them, and that made it harder.”

The Education Ministry is a full partner in Maktabat al-Fanoos, contributing 70 percent of the funds used to run the program. It’s not the first time the ministry has had a children’s book program; My Bookshelf At Home was another ministry book-buying program that often required funding from the parents to participate.

Maktabat al-Fanoos is a better fit, said Kassem.

“It has books on all kinds of subjects,” she said. “It opens the conversation between parents and kids.”

A report released in June by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in collaboration with Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, also known as the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, surveyed basic skills among people aged 16-65 in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving in 34 countries.

When comparing scores between Jewish and Arab adults, there were significant gaps, particularly in literacy, in which Jewish adults scored 264 on average, while Arab adults scored an average of 225 – a 39-point gap.

There are no current figures showing how Maktabat al-Fanoos affects Arab adult literacy, or that of Arabic-speaking preschoolers, but Kassem pointed to clear advantages of the program.

“It enriches their vocabulary,” she said. “They’re using words from the books they’re reading in conversation.”

Working on artwork related to Malak Farooge's Lantern Library book, ' Where Do I Go When I Am Angry' at the Lod kindergarten (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Working on artwork related to a recent Lantern Library book, ‘ Where is My Shadow’ at the Lod kindergarten (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

By the time a child reaches first grade, he or she has a personal library of 24 Maktabat al-Fanoos books.

“This program is creating important change in Arab society,” said Kassem. “There is increasing research that shows that exposure to reading from an early age helps later academic success. And reading is also important for emotional development.

“Everyone takes it home, and they read it all together, all the time,” she said. “It’s a big change, because they might not have been able to buy kids’ books otherwise.”

The books in the program include original works in Arabic from authors such as Safah Amir, Fadel Ali and the late Jihad Iraqi, as well as translations from foreign works. Program evaluation has shown that more than 90% of teachers and parents like the books and consider them high-quality.

There are also books that are read by both Arabic speakers and Hebrew speakers, creating a joint literary experience whose importance can’t be overstated, added Kassem.

xxx, the energetic teacher who loves the teaching opportunities brought to her classroom by Maktabat al-Fanoos (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
Ahlam al-Masoudi, the energetic teacher who loves the teaching opportunities brought to her classroom by Maktabat al-Fanoos (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Maktabat al-Fanoos followed Sifriyat Pijama, the Hebrew PJ Library project, in Israel.

While PJ Library supports Jewish values, and Jewish and Israeli heritage with Sifriyat Pijama, Maktabat al-Fanoos supports universal humanistic values and knowledge of Arabic language and genres, said Vromen.

The Grinspoon Foundation never planned on expanding its children’s book program to this extent, said Vromen. But it believes in the importance of Israel, and Maktabat al-Fanoos helps to strengthen the fabric of Israeli society as a whole, she said.

None of this was necessarily the plan when Harold Grinspoon, the now-87-year-old philanthropist, first came up with the idea of handing out free books with Jewish content to families with young children.

The philanthropist who gives away books

In 2004, Grinspoon was listening to NPR when a report came up about country singer Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which set up book repositories for disadvantaged populations. The philanthropist, who had made his millions in real estate, was gripped by the idea that Jewish books could perhaps bridge the growing gap in the American Jewish community, particularly among intermarried families.

“It was really about Jewish values, it always has been and always will be,” said Diane Troderman, Grinspoon’s wife and co-founder. “In our community, 40% of the Jewish community was intermarried.”

Grinspoon and Troderman were familiar with those statistics from years of donating to different Jewish causes. A self-made millionaire who parlayed the purchase of a rundown two-family home into a real estate fortune, Grinspoon hadn’t always been a major giver.

It was when he met Troderman, his third wife — she was his reader, as Grinspoon, ironically, is dyslexic — that the two began expanding their charitable giving. Both were raised in secular homes, but knew enough about anti-Semitism and assimilation to grasp the importance of a strong Jewish community.

They met with representatives of Parton’s foundation and became convinced that giving away books with Jewish values could help instill greater awareness in their local Jewish community.

The Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation began sponsoring Imagination Library in Western Massachusetts later that same year, and continues to do so. A year later, PJ Library was created.

Harold Grinspoon, the founder of PJ Library, reads one of the program's books with a gaggle of children. (photo credit: PJ Library/JTA)
Harold Grinspoon, the founder of PJ Library, reads one of the program’s books with a gaggle of children. (photo credit: PJ Library/JTA)

Since then, PJ Library has expanded to more than 200 Jewish communities across the US and Canada, mailing some 170,000 books each month to participating families’ homes. The cost of the annual subscription, which is approximately $100 per family, is split between the Grinspoon Foundation and more than 200 community partners in the US and Canada. In most communities, the local Jewish Federation is the partner, although it may be the JCC or another Jewish organization in other places.

“There was a void for Jewish families in America,” said Grinspoon, chatting over breakfast a few months ago. “And that left room for them to invite us into their home.”

The project grew from its initial roots in Western Massachusetts, to around 160,000 subscribers in the US and Canada.

As for impact: In a survey in 2013 of some 25,000 PJ library subscribers, 75% said they discuss Jewish-related concepts and values more because of PJ Library books, and 58% reported that PJ Library influenced their decision to build upon or add a Jewish tradition to their home life, whether with a Passover Seder, Friday night dinner or Purim costumes.

(The organization surveys its results every three years, and the results for the 2016 survey were not yet available for this article.)

The majority of PJ Library subscriber families have been part of PJ Library for three years or less, according to the most recent survey. Some 46% of subscriber families identify with one of the three major North American Jewish movements, and 28% identify themselves as “just Jewish.” One in five subscriber families identifies as interfaith.

“Harold has driven this,” said Troderman. She often jumps in for Grinspoon, whose speech is somewhat hampered by the surgery he had for tongue cancer years ago.

“It’s all measured on the return on investment,” said Grinspoon, pointing out the relatively inexpensive program. “How else could we reach Jewish families so inexpensively?”

A global bookmobile

There are now a total of 540,000 children’s books in four different languages — English, Hebrew, Russian and Spanish — distributed around the world each month by PJ Library. That’s not counting, of course, the 90,000 books distributed to Arabic readers in Israel, although it does include the 340,000 received by Sifriyat Pijama readers in Israel.

Galina Vromen, the director of Sifriyat Pijama and Maktabat al-Fanoos, the Hebrew and Arabic branches of PJ Library (Courtesy Galina Vromen)
Galina Vromen, the director of Sifriyat Pijama and Maktabat al-Fanoos, the Hebrew and Arabic branches of PJ Library (Courtesy Galina Vromen)

In the US and Canada, the books come in the mail for the young readers, making them “the best emissaries,” said Vromen, the Grinspoon Foundation executive director in Israel.

“The kids get the envelope in the mail, and there’s no way parents can get away without reading it,” she said. “In Israel, where it gets distributed in the classroom, there’s the peer pressure of the other classmates having read it.”

Israel’s Sifriyat Pijama books couldn’t be sent by mail because they would have ended up in the post office as packages, and Israeli parents don’t have the patience to stand in line at the post office to pick up a book, said Vromen.

Instead, they came up with the solution of giving the books out in the classroom.

Once they ended up funneling the books through the classroom, the program gained the power of the teacher, said Vromen. It turned out that most teachers read to their young students almost every day,

“They are our best emissaries,” she said. “They liked that the books are good and that they include values education.”

It was the teachers who “really took to the program,” said Vromen. Sifriyat Pijama began with 3,500 kids in 2009 and has ramped up to 340,000 along with the 90,000 Arabic-speaking kids.

“The Education Ministry has really taken this on board as part of what teachers do,” said Vromen. The ministry also provides financial support, buying the books and handling the curriculum used by teachers in the classrooms.

Preschool kids getting their Sifriyat Pijama books in the bags given out by the PJ Library program (Courtesy PJ Library)
Preschool kids getting their Sifriyat Pijama books in the bags given out by the PJ Library program (Courtesy PJ Library)

Sifriyat Pijama is currently distributing four books a year to half of the Hebrew-speaking first- and second-graders. The plan is to distribute to the entire school system by next year and to all Arabic-speaking schools within two years.

“I’m a convert for the government involvement,” said Vromen. “If you want massive impact, you need the government and there are a lot of great people in the Education Ministry. I communicate with them at all hours of the day.”

Kids — and parents — still read books

How did such a relatively small idea become such a powerhouse in the children’s book industry? The best answer is probably that kids and their parents still want to read books together before bed.

Parents and small children want “something tangible to read at night,” echoed Catriella Freedman, who runs the program’s newest addition, PJ Our Way, for preteens.

It’s a truism backed by stats from one of PJ Library’s surveys, conducted every three years: A significant number of parents — some 35% — are still reading to kids, often past the age of 8.

Parents like reading to kids beyond age 8, and PJ Library is honing in on that habit (Courtesy PJ Library)
Parents like reading to kids beyond age 8, and PJ Library is honing in on that habit (Courtesy PJ Library)


Reading to kids, and making sure they’re still looking at printed books, is important to parents, said Freedman. Yet the “brilliance of Harold’s idea” was putting Jewish values into that content, “making it easy for them,” she said. “And they don’t want it on an iPad, they want it in a [printed] book.”

The timing of PJ Library with the explosion of personal devices and the games kids play on iPads and tablets was actually a boon for the program, added Troderman.

“Because of parents’ desire to limit screen time, they’re over the top about making sure kids are read to,” she said.

Freedman runs PJ Our Way from Zichron Yaakov, the northern Israeli town where she moved to Israel from the US with her family nine years ago. With a background in Jewish education, she had thoughts about how PJ Library should expand, and shared them with Grinspoon when they met by chance several years back.

“PJ Our Way is very much based on those ideas,” said Freedman.

Now there are 21,000 preteens signed up for the book program, with 13,000 books send out each month, “a huge number for this age group,” which is “so locked into” tablets, video games and apps.

Her focus, for now, is on the preteen set in the US, where the program has grown because of a perceived vacuum in content for that age group.

“It’s a platform for Jewish families to feel connected,” said Freedman. “So why have PJ Library stop at age 8?”

Reading PJ Our Way books (Courtesy PJ Library)
Reading PJ Our Way books (Courtesy PJ Library)

Dina Rubin, a fourth-grader from Cleveland, Ohio, is one of ten PJ Our Way national design team members.

She said she likes getting to meet people close to her age all around the US, as they meet virtually one Sunday a month. But reading books is, of course, the best part, said Rubin, who likes mysteries, fantasy and graphic novels, but won’t turn down a good non-fiction book.

She’s not averse to the Jewish aspect of PJ Our Way, either.

“It kinds of makes me feel closer to my religion,” said Rubin. “If it’s about a famous Jewish person, it kind of makes me want to do that kind of stuff.”

It’s been a challenge finding Jewish content for that age group, said Freedman, as most tween books are geared for slightly older kids, not the 9-to-11 set.

But just as PJ Library has changed the face of Jewish children’s literature, PJ Our Way has done the same.

The preteens have a big say in what they read and how they share that with fellow readers.

A PJ Library mentor meets virtually with her “readers” six months in advance of books chosen, going through the roster of titles and, once they are selected, making videos and writing blog postss about each book. There are also Skype chats with the authors.

“Kids love authors, they’re like rock stars,” said Freedman.

Once PJ Library extended to a slightly older readership, Grinspoon, whose foundation also helps Jewish camps through JCamp180, a program designed to help non-profit Jewish camps fundraise and be sustainable — wanted to send books to sleepaway Jewish camps.

Now JCamp180 camps can apply to receive PJ Our Way books each year, one per camper per summer. The program is up to 68 camps for summer 2017, up from 46 last summer.

The incentive to get kids to go to Jewish camps comes from their younger siblings’ PJ Library books, which have a sticker asking whether they’re planning to go to camp this summer.

The PJ effect on publishers and writers

With the increasing number of titles it distributes, PJ Library has also influenced the growing number of Jewish children’s books, and the publishers that seek them out.

“PJ Library has done a wonderful job of getting Jewish values and books out into the market, they’re remarkable,” said Joni Sussman, publisher of Kar-Ben Publishing, the largest Jewish children’s book publisher, which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary.

One of the PJ Library Passover titles (Courtesy PJ Library)
One of the PJ Library Passover titles (Courtesy PJ Library)

Named for the youngest children — Karen and Ben — of the two founders, Judyth Groner and Madeline Wikler, Kar-Ben was established in 1975 to publish its first book, “My Very Own Haggadah,” a children’s Passover Haggadah. The company was later sold to the Minneapolis-based Lerner Publishing group.

The publisher now receives about 1,000 manuscripts a year, and publishes around 20, said Sussman. These days, a lot of their work is with PJ Library.

“They’ve certainly raised the profile of Jewish children’s books,” said Sussman. “These books are now going into many homes that, frankly, prior to PJ Library, wouldn’t have found their way there. What’s great about Jewish children’s books is that no matter where they are on the spectrum, you can find something to learn in a non-threatening manner.”

Ditto for Maktabat al-Fanoos, which has ended up supporting new authors like Malak Farooge, a Tel Aviv University-trained social worker who wrote “Where Do I Go When I Am Angry?” after working with young children and mothers in a battered women’s shelter.

Farooge has always written poems and prose, but submitted the book draft to a new authors’ competition at a local book organization, which then published it, and later connected her to Maktabat al-Fanoos.

“I wrote about anger, and how kids deal with anger,” said Farooge. “There’s not a lot of ways to do that with Arabic, with books that teach about the emotional world and emotional language.”

'Where Do I Go When I'm Angry?' by Malak Farooge Abu-Raiya​, is one of several new Maktabat al-Fanoos books by local authors (Courtesy Maktabat al-Fanoos)
‘Where Do I Go When I’m Angry?’ by Malak Farooge Abu-Raiya​, is one of several new Maktabat al-Fanoos books by local authors (Courtesy Maktabat al-Fanoos)

The second printing of her book was for Maktabat al-Fanoos, which meant that thousands of families were receiving copies and bringing a new culture into their homes, said Farooge, something that probably wouldn’t have happened were it not for the reading program.

“Until Maktabat al-Fanoos printed it, not many people bought it, because I’m a new writer, and new writers’ books don’t get bought in the same way,” she said.

For now, she wants to carefully tread the line between writing books that work for Maktabat al-Fanoos and writing prose that comes from her own emotional world, and plans on finding that balance.

The global program has created a similar demand for more original Jewish children’s books, and there are more being written now, said Kar-Ben’s Sussman. Other publishers are also getting into this niche market, knowing that PJ Library will buy a number of books in a given year.

“If PJ Library takes a book, that’s a big sale,” said Sussman. “We still publish what we publish, with books that aren’t necessarily part of the PJ program, such as a Holocaust story or same-sex family. We need Jewish in setting or context.”

According to a PJ Library spokesperson, PJ Library’s Book Selection Committee looks at a number of factors when evaluating which books to send, constantly looking for the best books that appeal to a diverse and pluralistic Jewish audience, and always looking to help bring new, great Jewish children’s books to life.

The organization is currently offering authors a $2,000 incentive for new manuscripts, and also sponsoring Tent: Children’s Literature, a weeklong writers’ retreat in August 2017 for early and mid-career authors of Jewish children’s books.

“You can’t get away from the impact they’re having,” said Rena Rossner, a literary agent who specializes in children’s books and young-adult fiction. “There are a lot of living, breathing Judaism in books that PJ Library wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, but it is a wonderful program.”

Rossner, who lives in Israel but works only with English-language books, would like to see more PJ Library books that have “enough” Jewish content and values but better quality.

“I’d like to see books about characters who happen to be Jewish rather than in-your-face Judaism,” she said.

These are arguments and discussions that don’t bother Grinspoon and Troderman. They love the fact that Jewish books and values — or Hebrew or Arabic books — are what’s being discussed.

“I said to Harold, ‘You will change the world of Jewish publication,” said Troderman. “A Russian rabbi said we are the largest pluralistic congregation in the world, and when you look at PJ Library that way, it’s absolutely true.”

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