A Donated Library: Books for Refugee Children

Children’s books paired with passionate book people are a potent combination. On April 27th of 2017, I was reminded just how potent.

A few months ago, I was chatting with my neighbor on our driveway. She shared a few frustrations regarding processes at her work in an organization which helps place refugee families in the greater Seattle area. These families have run from war, famine, or natural disasters–sometimes more than one. They come to the World Relief offices and spend hours filling out paperwork as they are processed. If they have small children, their kids have to wait patiently, often for hours.

Since I’ve stepped away from the classroom to focus on my family and my writing, I’ve gotten to spend time getting to  know my local booksellers, librarians, authors and illustrators. I knew my cadre of book people would have good suggestions for books to potentially entertain these kids. Why not set up a small collection of books at their office? The idea of an waiting room library was born.

Nothing makes a librarian or bookseller happier than being asked about books to fill a specific need. I also asked for suggestions on social media. Not only did the book community have ideas, they also wanted to donate books. The books, we thought, should be for kids who may or may not read English and they should see themselves reflected in those books. The families are from countries like Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Moldova, Russia, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran and many others.

When Independent Bookstore day came (called Seattle SEABookstore Day in Seattle proper) most of our northwest indie bookshops get in on the action. One county librarian said she’d help by purchasing books created by our nearby authors and illustrators. This way she could support the locals as well as local business. All of this while helping a cause in which she believed. By the end of the week I had a stack of excellent titles.

At the recent LA SCBWI conference, I was fortunate to hear the executive editor of Salaam Reads speak. I approached her after and told her it was nice to have a publishing imprint where I knew I could find appropriate, quality books with Muslim characters for families and friends (including the refugee center). When I told her of my idea she said she’d be happy to send a box of books for the center, too.

The project hasn’t finished by any means. Since setting up the library to great success, other books have called out to me too. I recently came across Kadir Nelson’s beautifully illustrated Blue Sky White Stars, which I bought for the library. Also, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls may be appropriate, as well, with its rich collection of inspiring women from around the world.

I received a card from my neighbor soon after. “Could you send this pic of our staff to say thank you to all the wonderful people in the children’s literature community? The kids absolutely love the books. Honestly I don’t know who loves them more the kids or staff! I’ve caught several staff reading the books together, as well as parents! Many blessings be upon you.”

The children receive the gift of empowerment and entertainment through books carefully selected by generous professionals.

I’ve been informed a local foster care facility has a library in constant need of graphic novels. I think I can predict the response I’ll get when I ask for some help finding titles.


While mild-mannered in public, behind closed doors MARK HOLTZEN has been known to groove to his diverse collection of music, cook and garden with moderate skill and make weird faces at his children and students. You also might find him inhaling handfuls of popcorn, struggling to learn new guitar chords or riding one of his bikes through Seattle. Currently on a teaching hiatus after years in an elementary classroom–including science at a gifted K-8 school–he writes essays, middle grade novels and is working to create more regional history for kids. He continues to be amazed and thankful (mostly) for the universe and its inhabitants daily. His debut picture book was A TICKET TO THE PENNANT with Sasquatch Books. Find him at his blogTwitterInstagram or Facebook.


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