juvenile justice

Summer Reading List: Book Drive Helps Teens Behind Bars in The Bronx

Boogie Down Books owner Rebekah Shoaf holds donations meant for teens at the Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx, July 10, 2019.
Boogie Down Books owner Rebekah Shoaf holds donations meant for teens at the Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx, July 10, 2019. Photo: Eileen Grench/THE CITY

For teens held at Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx, a book can be an education — and an escape.

But juvenile justice advocates say the center’s library supplied by the city Department of Education can’t always get kids enough of the books they want to read.

So they’re hoping a partnership with a local bookseller — and the kindness of strangers — will help turn a page.

The teens’ wish list is long, and illustrative of what’s on their minds: From “Tears of a Hustler” and “The Rap Year Book,” to “Born a Crime” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

“Just giving a kids a book, and then checking in a couple days later and just asking how they are going with that and just having those conversations…it’s really a nice thing,” said  Mia Abrahams, a legal coordinator with the nonprofit Friends of Island Academy.

She says in the course of working daily with the 50 or so 17-year-olds currently at Horizon, she found they had a hunger for books. But they were requesting titles that weren’t available.

And the youths are often released or transferred to another facility before the books they ask for ever arrive at Horizon, she said.

So, she reached out to Boogie Down Books, which describes itself as “a bookstore-without-walls for kids, teens, families, and educators in the Bronx and beyond.”

Voracious Readers

Based in Mott Haven like Horizon, Boogie Down Books has no permanent physical location. It operates online, and runs pop-up bookstores as well as book clubs throughout the borough.

Friends of Island Academy and Boogie Down launched “Books for Horizon” in mid-May. The project aims to swiftly get reading material to teens at the detention center.

“They read books pretty quickly,” said Abrahams, noting that series are popular. “You can give a kid a book and then you go back to two days later they’re like, ‘Miss, I need Book Two!’”

Fliers placed local coffeeshop Mottley Kitchen in The Bronx ask for book donations for incarcerated teens.
Fliers placed local coffeeshop Mottley Kitchen in The Bronx ask for book donations for incarcerated teens. Photo: Eileen Grench/THE CITY

The collaboration functions as an online wish list, currently 58 titles gathered from the young detainees’ favorites as well as suggestions by educators and advocates.

Once purchased by donors online, the titles are shipped to Boogie Down, which gives them to Friends of Island Academy for distribution.

This week, the first 60 books will be delivered to Horizon.

The Department of Education did not answer questions about how many books it has at Horizon or the process for requesting new titles. But Danielle Filson, an agency spokesperson, said: “School libraries help build lifelong learners, and we’re grateful for book drives that will bring more reading materials to Horizon Juvenile Center.”

‘Nothing But Beneficial’

Mary Beth Zeman, a board member of the nonprofit Literacy for Incarcerated Teens and author of “Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian,” said that kids in juvenile detention centers tend to read more than your average person — often due to the boredom of incarceration. She said they just need to have the right books in their hands.

“If a bookstore can partner [with a juvenile justice organization], that’s nothing but beneficial,” said Zeman. “The bonus on that is going to be that their literacy rate and academic skills will in turn improve and it’s going to benefit them.”

Zeman noted that improved literacy can greatly lower a teen’s recidivism rate — especially if the person earns a high school diploma or GED.

But, she warned, “you can’t just be providing them with academic textbooks. They’ll prop up their bed with it.”

Boogie Down owner Rebekah Shoaf, who worked for 14 years in New York public schools, said she hopes the drive will also create a sense of community between the teens at Horizon and their Bronx neighbors.

“I think there’s something really personal about seeing that wishlist and seeing the books that the kids are interested in reading and getting even just the smallest sense of who they are as readers as young people as children and as people,” said Shoaf.

The book drive is ongoing, and additional titles will be added to the list as Shoaf and Abrahams look for new funding sources.

Lewis Holman, a 60-year-old tax accountant living in the Bronx, already has paid for multiple books for the wishlist.

The Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx.
The Horizon Juvenile Center in The Bronx. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“I had a nephew who was incarcerated for a few months, and I know how much books meant to him,” said Holman. “So, I sort of had him in mind as I was doing the shopping.”

Holman said that his nephew had one 300-page book with him in his cell. “You know, a thick novel,” he explained. “It just kind of didn’t matter what it was, he was just so glad to have it.”

Sign up for “THE CITY Scoop,” our daily newsletter where we send you stories like this first thing in the morning.

Want to republish this story? See our republication guidelines.