Five days, 2,100 miles, 13 schools and 700 books

When Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, got to Wibaux Elementary School in Wibaux, Mont.—population 458—with her car loaded full of books, the kids had an immediate favorite.

“The book about chicken farming,” Curtis says, referring to Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer. “They were so excited there was a book about chicken farming, because that is what their families do, and they’d never seen it reflected in a book before. They could see themselves on the pages.”

Photo of adult reading to a room full of children

In total, Curtis drove 2,100 miles, visited 13 schools and gave away more than 700 books as part of AFT’s Reading Opens the World program, which has given away more than 1.5 million books since it launched in December 2021. At every school she visited, Curtis encountered the same thing she saw in Wibaux: libraries that needed contemporary, relevant books, and in some instances, a librarian.

That was the case in Wilsall, where Mandy Johnstone is serving as the school’s first certified librarian. During Johnstone’s initial review of the library’s inventory, she found a 118-year-old children’s book that perpetuated inaccurate, harmful portrayals of Native Americans. She replaced it with titles like Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story; Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids; and Firekeeper’s Daughter—all written by Native authors and all published within the last four years.

Curtis discovered the same need for relevant books in Billings. When one boy saw a book on the history of the city, it was all he wanted to read.

“He immediately came up and asked if he could take it home,” Curtis says.

She found the same thing in Crow Agency School, where students learn in the Crow language, and in Baker, Hardin, Hellgate, Pryor and Trout Creek.

“When people found out we were doing this, we started getting phone calls asking if we could stop by and bring books,” Curtis says.

She is going to load up her car again in the fall and drive another few thousand miles.

“Our kids need books that are less than 100 years old, and our schools want to be able to provide them,” she says. “Reading Opens the World is making that possible. It’s giving our kids access to books that reflect who they are, and introducing them to people and places they’ve never seen before, when so many other places are taking that away. We are opening the world while other places are closing it down, because that’s how you nurture compassionate, knowledgeable kids.”

[Melanie Boyer]