The classroom falls silent, the children entranced as they watch their teacher, Sue Donaldson, keep her eyes closed and move her finger in a seemingly random pattern. Whomever it lands on gets to pick which story they’re going to hear today.
Donaldson ends up picking herself, but the kids don’t let that stop them from sharing their opinions. They want to hear an Eloise story.
“I am kind of the storyteller,” Donaldson said of her role at Chapel Hill Early School, the pre-school division of Carolina Friends School.
Eloise, named after the “Eloise” children’s books of the 1950s, is a character Donaldson created based on herself to share stories of her life with the 3- to 5-year-old children she works with.
In this story, Eloise, a problem-solver, has a problem: She has too many books.
“Bookshelves were overloaded with books!” Donaldson told the children, animated and energetic. “She loved books.”
The solution Eloise comes to in her story — and that Donaldson came to when she was a young girl — is to create her own library on her front porch.
It’s a popular story. When Donaldson told it in the past, it stuck with Malia, a girl in the class. After discovering a Little Free Library, a box holding books free to the public, near her local pool, Malia excitedly ran to tell Donaldson how they could bring the Eloise story to life.
It took Malia’s grandfather four days to build the Little Free Library sitting in front of the Chapel Hill Early School. Malia helped decorate it, adding rainbow shingles and a peace sign.
“From that day on, people have been taking books from that and bringing books back,” Donaldson said.
She went from storyteller to librarian when she became the steward of the Little Free Library, complete with a special steward’s guide and a plaque for the tiny library.
“Books were going in and out like crazy,” Donaldson said of the little library’s beginnings. Though the exchange of books has slowed since its installation, the library still gets plenty of attention — from attendants of the close-by Quaker meetings, from complete strangers and especially from kids.
Schools aren’t the only location to benefit from the addition of a Little Free Library. In her Wake Forest neighborhood, Jill McCulloch put up four of the libraries.
“We decided to put one in each playground,” she explained. When she and her husband Wayne worked on the landscape committee for the area, they were in charge of beautifying the neighborhood. They found a way to do just that through Little Free Libraries.
“Oh my word!” McCulloch said about finding out about the organization. “They are all over the world. All over the country.”
In fact, there are more than 40,000 Little Free Libraries in the world — and 190 of them are in North Carolina.
To construct the libraries, the McCullochs used the shingles they had left from their cupola. For the rest of their building materials, they capitalized on the abundance of construction around them.
“I went dumpster diving a lot,” McCulloch said. They recovered building material and created their own Little Free Libraries, three of which they put in playgrounds. The fourth was installed in the neighborhood’s butterfly garden.
McCulloch wanted to encourage children to read with their parents when they were tired of playing outside. The libraries are mostly children’s books, with some magazines for adults.
“Mostly magazines for women,” she clarified with a laugh. “No Dan Brown or (James) Patterson books.”
Upon realizing that teenagers were hanging out in the playgrounds, McCulloch began stocking the libraries with more teen fiction.
Unfortunately, some teens proved more interested in vandalism than in reading. One morning McCulloch awoke to find that one Little Free Library had to be fished out of the pond. The books were waterlogged and destroyed. The door was ripped off the hinges.
She dried the library, repaired it, fixed it with a solid, windowless door and cemented it to the ground. It hasn’t left the spot since.
“I think those kids have grown up and gone away,” she said with a shrug. “Kids will be kids.”
Aside from one instance of vandalism, the response to the little libraries has been encouraging. Sometimes the books disappear and don’t come back, but McCulloch restocks the libraries with donations from neighbors.
One of the little libraries has a secret benefactor. McCulloch said that whenever she visits it, she finds it restocked and taken care of.
There’s another sign that lets her know people are getting plenty of use out of her little libraries.
“The door handles are always filthy,” she said. “I always bring a sponge.”
Even with dirty door handles, water damage and book shortages, McCulloch finds the Little Free Libraries incredibly rewarding.
“The biggest compliment I can possibly get,” she said, “is driving by in my car and seeing a young father sitting at the tables and reading to his kids.”
UNC-Chapel Hill students walking through Peabody Hall on their way to class might have noticed the locker painted with planets, Carolina Blue argyle and the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.”
UNC School of Education professor Jocelyn Glazier and her fall 2015 EDUC 567 class, a class on children’s literature in elementary and middle schools, created this Little Free Library to provide education students and UNC employees access to children’s books.
“Students thought it would be a great idea to use a school locker,” Glazier said, explaining how the already small class divided into smaller groups to create the library. Some were responsible for obtaining the locker, some for painting, some for collecting books. They even made it portable, which enabled them to bring it outside for the 2016 North Carolina Science Festival and read science-themed books to children.
“We wanted it to be accessible in a way that maybe more permanent libraries aren’t,” Glazier said.
But Glazier didn’t stop with the one library.
Over the past year, Glazier and her students have put up two additional Little Free Libraries, one in Chapel Hill’s Street Scene Teen Center and one at the Hub Farm of Durham Public Schools.
EDUC 567 students built the Teen Center Library using old set materials and stocked it with teen lit.
“Their sense of satisfaction and pride in doing this project was awesome,” Glazier said.
The Little Free Library at the Hub Farm was crafted out of an old newspaper box, making it perfect for outdoor use. Immediately after students placed the library and decorated it with painted handprints, they watched as a group of 50 elementary school students walked up the hill and excitedly noticed the books.
“It makes it all worthwhile for my students,” Glazier said. “And (it’s) also great that the elementary kids will have access to the books.
“It becomes a living monument of what they’ve done and what they’ve learned about literacy, about kids, about books.”
Glazier hopes to continue with the Little Free Libraries, eventually collaborating with schools in the area to provide access to books to even more children.
Scientist Meghan Wyrick also created a Little Free Library and set it up in her Durham neighborhood.
“As a board member, I was trying to get the community more involved,” she said. Unlike other local Little Free Libraries, Wyrick’s mostly provides books for adults.
Wyrick salvaged an old kitchen cabinet from the Habitat for Humanity ReStore to make the library. After checking Pinterest and finding mostly libraries made for the outdoors, she decided she didn’t want to waterproof hers and set to decorating it.
“It’s pretty cute,” she said. “I painted it, decoupaged it with some book pages from classic novels. I wasn’t going to read them again.”
The library now lives in the mail hut in Wyrick’s townhome community.
Those who no longer live in North Carolina have left their literary mark here, too.
Heather Williams, a former pediatrics resident at UNC, now lives in New Hampshire. But she still fondly remembers the Little Free Library she set up in 2012.
“I love reading,” she said. “I’m a pediatrician now, so children’s literacy is really important.”
Williams said she worked with her husband as well as fellow residents and an attending physician from the hospital to build the library, decorate it, paint it and stick it in the ground near Carrboro Elementary School.
“It felt wonderful to know that our little box was there, full of delights, for those walking by.”