Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

The Noble Neighbor is a nonprofit organization associated with St. Louis, MO, bookstore The Novel Neighbor. It exists to bring free books and author visits to systemically underserved schools and students. It’s a great example of a grassroots project that’s making an outsized impact on the community by supporting literacy as a way to promote social justice.

I had a wonderful chat with Noble Neighbor Executive Director Andrea Scarpino, who shared some profoundly inspiring statistics and information:

  • In some neighborhoods of the U.S. there’s only 1 book per 833 kids. Can you guess which city that’s in?
  • Such “book deserts” have increased during the pandemic.
  • The impressive number of books The Noble Neighbor provided to students in just a couple of years.

Give it a watch (or scroll down to read a transcript), and then let me know what you think!

Maya Smart: Hello. I'm so excited to be joined today by Andrea Scarpino, who's the executive director of The Noble Neighbor in St. Louis, Missouri. Welcome, Andrea.

Andrea Scarpino: Thank you. I’m so excited to be talking with you today.

Maya Smart: Can you tell us just a bit about The Noble Neighbor and the services you provide to your community?

Andrea Scarpino: Absolutely. Yeah. So The Noble Neighbor is the sister nonprofit organization of the local independent bookstore named The Novel Neighbor. So what we do at Noble is bring books and author events to underserved kids in our community. So kids have the opportunity to meet an author and then also go home with a copy of the author’s book.

Maya Smart: And so was that something that began with The Novel Neighbor and then took off and realized it was a big enough thing to warrant its own organization?

Andrea Scarpino: Yeah, exactly. So The Novel Neighbor bookstore started doing author visits at schools. So different publicists and publishers would send an author to a school to sell books, basically. And what the bookstore staff realized was that authors were not being sent to lower economic schools where the publisher or the publicist didn’t think that they would actually be able to sell enough books to warrant the trip. So bookstore employees started to see this as a social justice issue, that half of the St. Louis community was not getting access to authors that the other half of the St. Louis community was getting access to.

So they started to kind of simmer on how to make an organization that could help to fight some of that educational inequality. So we started to kind of be formed around late 2019 as a way to combat that social justice issue and be able to bring authors into schools because we guarantee a book buy. So we say, “Hey, we’re going to buy 200 kids a copy of this author’s book.” The publishers are so happy to send us that author. So we’re able to kind of close that gap between lower income and higher income schools.

Maya Smart: What a wonderful mission and a phenomenal service that you're providing to schools. Can you talk a little bit about what you think are the biggest benefits of kids having the opportunity to meet an author in person and take a book home?

Andrea Scarpino: I think many of us know that there’s a correlation between having access to books and increased literacy, but there are also studies that show that when kids have an author visit their school, they are twice as likely to read above their grade level than when they’ve never had the opportunity to meet an author. So for us, we really think of the author visit as our secret sauce. When kids have the opportunity to meet an author, especially an author who looks like them, and then get a chance to take home a copy of their book, they get really excited about reading. They read characters who look like them and who sound like them, and that all increases their interest in reading and their kind of desire to increase their own literacy. What we find is that kids get excited about reading because of the author visit. So then when they take their book home, they’re super excited about starting to read it.

Maya Smart: So there's something about that personal connection and seeing the person who created it, having an opportunity to ask questions and hear a bit about their thought process in creating the book that really resonates with kids and makes them more into it. Do you track data yourself after the visits? And what sorts of things do you use to measure the success of the program?

Andrea Scarpino: Yeah. So we give all of our schools, our partner schools, a evaluation to do at the end of the visit. So we ask every single kid who’s gotten the opportunity to meet the author just different questions. If they had a good time? Also, their likeliness of continuing to read the book after the author has left. We found last year, 99% of the kids said that they were likely to read the book after they had the opportunity to meet the author. And kids on their evaluations write things that help us to know they’re really responding to the authors.

So last year, for example, one of the authors we brought was a poet and middle-grade author named Julian Randall. And Julian Randall’s book, Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa included a ton of Spanish. So a lot of Spanish words throughout. During his presentation, Julian spoke Spanish to the kids at different points. And a girl in the audience got up and asked him a question in Spanish and then translated in English for the rest of us. And it was a really powerful moment that was clear that she was responding in part to who he is as a person, that he was able to include some of his culture and some of his language in his writing and in his presentation. 

And then in the evaluation, so many kids mentioned how powerful it was to hear him speaking Spanish, that they normally don’t have somebody come to their school and speak Spanish with them. So we know from that kind of evaluation that kids really get excited and feel seen when they’re able to meet their author.

Maya Smart: So the visits really present an opportunity for them to see and be seen and to hear and be heard, so powerful. And you mentioned the particular reaction that the student had to the author speaking in Spanish, is that an intentional effort on your part to bring authors who have similar backgrounds to the kids and the schools that you serve?

Andrea Scarpino: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, that’s part of our mission. There was a study done in 2018 that only 10% of children’s book characters were black in that entire year of publishing. Only 10%. 50% were white and then another, I think 27% were animal characters. So this huge percentage of kids in our country are not getting access to books with characters who look like them. So we do tend to try to bring authors who look like the kids in the schools where we’re going. So, for example, we brought Julian Randall to a school that had a high percentage of Latinx students.

We brought the author Kelly Yang last year. She had a book out in part about the pandemic, the early days of COVID. And part of her book discussed being an immigrant. She had moved from Hong Kong back to the U.S. right at the start of the pandemic. And she talked about the racism her family experienced coming back to the U.S. right at the start of this pandemic. And we brought her to a school that had a high percentage of Asian and Asian American students who really connected with her story and had had some of those similar experiences. So part of our goal is to always connect a particular demographic of a school with particular authors so that kids can see who they look like represented.

Maya Smart: And the larger book buys that you mentioned, for example, 200 books of a particular author's work going to a school. Do you think that that gets on publishers’ radars and it sort of helps authors build their audience and boost their sales figure and sort of a ripple effect?

Andrea Scarpino: I hope so, yeah. I mean, last year for our Giving Tuesday campaign, we chose a book that was edited by Kwame Mbalia called Black Boy Joy. And we said, as part of our campaign, “We want to buy 500 copies of this book.” So all Giving Tuesday, when we were asking our supporters for donations, we mentioned Black Boy Joy and 500 copies, and we ended up surpassing our goals. So we were able to actually give, I think almost 700 kids a copy of Black Boy Joy. So my hope is that that did help bring attention to Kwame Mbalia’s beautiful collection. And it did help the publishers know that these are books that people want to read.

Maya Smart: You said that the organization started in 2019. Can you talk about what it was like starting a nonprofit at that point in time?

Andrea Scarpino: Yeah. So I wasn’t the executive director at that point, but I think it was a little touch and go. So we had our very first kind of inaugural events. We had our Kid Lit Trivia fundraiser in February 2020, and then everything shut down. So we really had to pivot quickly to virtual events. And what we found, honestly, is that a lot of authors wanted to continue doing these events, so we’re very willing to continue showing up in a virtual setting. And we’ve done… I mean, last year we had 16 virtual author events. We were able to give kids nearly 3,500 books. So we were still able, even in the virtual space, to get a lot of kids a lot of books. This year, however, we are hoping to mostly move back to in-person events. So a lot more authors are touring again in person this year. Obviously, we’re going to have to be flexible with the changing health situation, but our goal this year is to have more and more authors actually meeting kids in person instead of virtually.

Maya Smart: Do you get the books to the kids prior to the event or after the event?

Andrea Scarpino: We always try to get the books to the kids before the event. If it’s a picture book, it can be really great for a teacher to have, or a librarian to have read the book to the kids before they get a chance to meet the author. And for some of our middle-grade authors as well, schools will have started reading some of the book. So maybe they’ll have read three or four chapters before they have a chance to meet the author, which I think makes the discussion even richer, because kids already have a sense for the characters and maybe some of what’s going to be happening in the book.

Maya Smart: And with the virtual events, by the point you switched to virtual events, were kids pretty familiar with technology? So is it sort of a setting with the Brady Bunch Squares with all the kids visible, and then they're able to ask questions?

Andrea Scarpino: Yeah. It kind of depends how large the event is. So when we’ve had 10 or 15 classrooms at a time, we tend to use a service called StreamYard. So kids are actually watching kind of on YouTube. So what they see is YouTube, basically. And their teachers can write in questions. We found that that works a little bit easier so that classrooms aren’t coming off of mute in the middle of the presentation and things like that.

When we’ve had smaller classrooms, like if there’s only three or four classrooms of kids, then just kind of doing like a Brady Bunch square situation can be totally great and work really well. Our goal is always to have kids have the opportunity to speak directly with the authors. So ask questions directly of the authors and be able to kind of have a little bit of a conversation with them, even if it’s through the internet. So we always try to leave room and space for kids to have that opportunity to speak directly to the author.

Maya Smart: How did you find yourself in this role, in the midst of a pandemic?

Andrea Scarpino: Well, actually my background is in education. So I spent most of my career teaching. I’m a writer myself, so I love books. I love reading. I’ve always been passionate about social justice. I’ve always been passionate about literacy as a social justice tool. And I think the pandemic wore me out. I had been teaching high school and it was really hard and really exhausting. And this opportunity to do something a little bit different opened up, and I thought it was a great opportunity to use some of my literacy skills and the background I have, the love I have for children’s literature, to be able to kind of grow this organization into something even bigger. So it was actually very, very lucky. I feel very fortunate that the stars aligned and I was able to move into this position that fit so many of my interests and passions.

Maya Smart: What are you looking forward to this year now that more of the events will be in-person?

Andrea Scarpino: I mean, the biggest thing is having the authors here physically. I think that’s going to be really exciting. I mean, the authors we worked with in the past two years have been wonderful. They brought their A-game to the virtual world. They put together slide presentations. I mean, they really tried to make the virtual world as interactive as you possibly can. And also, I think it’s not quite the same as having an author standing in front of your classroom and talking to you personally. So I think that’s the biggest thing that I’m excited about is being able to go into schools physically again. I mean, all last year, I basically brought books to schools, left them on the doorstep, and walked away. So being able to actually be in a room with the author and the kids, I think is going to be pretty magical.

Maya Smart: My audience is always looking for great book recommendations, so can you highlight just three or four or five of the books that you have presented to kids that really resonated with kids?

Andrea Scarpino: My favorite book recommendation from last year was definitely Black Boy Joy, edited by Kwame Mbalia. I think it’s 17 different stories all by different Black authors, and they are amazing, delightful. There’s fantasy, there’s realistic fiction, I think there’s poetry as I recall. It’s just a wonderful collection of short stories written by some of our just shining-star authors, children’s authors especially. So I think that’s a delightful, wonderful book. 

This year we have coming up in the spring, I just happened to have this at my desk, The Last Mapmaker by Christina Soontornvat. Amazing, wonderful, wonderful middle-grade as well. As far as picture books last year, we had a delightful author named Brittany Thurman who had her debut, I believe, picture book named Fly came out, and we were able to bring her to several classrooms, and everybody loved her work.

Maya Smart: What is Fly about?

Andrea Scarpino: Fly is about a little girl who becomes a Double Dutch champion, who learns to jump rope and becomes a Double Dutch champion. And the pictures are just beautiful, Brittany Thurman talked really beautifully about how she worked with the illustrator to make the book really come alive, and her story come alive through the pictures. So it’s a really lovely, lovely picture book.

Maya Smart: And can you tell us a little more about The Last Mapmaker?

Andrea Scarpino: You know what is so special is we actually at The Noble Neighbor won a grant. The American Booksellers Association did a grant process to give away copies of her book. So we won 500 copies of her book, and she’s coming to St. Louis in May to meet with our schools, so that’s super special. And I feel really, really grateful that we were able to do that. And really, I think what I love the most about this book is the main character. She’s a powerful girl. She goes on kind of powerful adventures, and she has a lot of sass and spark and interest. And for me, that’s what kept me turning the pages. She’s a really great main character.

Maya Smart: You mentioned the grant that you won to get 500 copies of the book. Can you talk a bit about the fundraising piece of this? How does the support of individual people and foundations and other organizations enable you to give kids these wonderful live author experiences and a book to take home?

Andrea Scarpino: Most of our yearly budget comes from donations, individual donations, corporate donations. We apply for grants regularly as well, of course. But I think really what has made our work so powerful is that we have a ton of community support. We say that it costs us about $3,164 to bring an author to 200 kids. So it’s a substantial amount of money. Right?

And we find every time we go out and ask our community for support, that they really show up, which we are so grateful for. We do fundraising events. We do used book sales, where people donate books to us and we sell them so that we can buy the new books to donate to kids. But really so much of our support comes from the community saying we really value what we do, we believe in getting kids books, and showing up and supporting us.

Maya Smart: And within that $3,164, very specific amount, is that the book, is that the author's travel or honorarium?

Andrea Scarpino: It’s mostly the book costs, honestly, and anything supplemental. That’s a little bit of a rounded number. We did all of the math of what we spend on our book donations and tried to come up with as accurate of figure as possible. But that includes anything, getting the author there, getting them the book, any supplemental gifts that we give kids, stickers or bookmarks, or anything like that.

Maya Smart: Is there anything I haven't asked about your programs or community impact that you'd like to share?

Andrea Scarpino: I read a policy report actually just this morning from 2021 that showed that our community book deserts have only increased during the pandemic. So, one aspect of their policy report was that some neighborhoods of Washington, DC, there’s one book for every 833 kids. And to me, that is devastating, that in our nation’s capital, there could only be one book for every 833 kids. I think what I always try to get across is that our organization is interested in literacy and making the world a better place through literacy. We believe that kids can and will learn to read if we give them the resources and access to books and access to characters who really resonate with them and that that is a way to make our community stronger and our world stronger. So it really is an opportunity to make the world a better place.

Maya Smart: And for people who are interested in creating author experiences for kids in their community or neighborhood or school, what advice would you offer to them about setting up something similar to what you've done?

Andrea Scarpino: Yeah. So I think the first thing would be to connect with your local independent bookstore. So The Noble Neighbor comes from The Novel Neighbor bookstore, and I know a lot of independent bookstores are very community focused. A lot of them have their own nonprofits that are literacy based. So reaching out to your local independent bookstore, I think is a really good starting place. 

Many children’s authors are also pretty accessible online. You can find them on Twitter, you can find their website with email addresses, and things like that. So I think it’s also a great opportunity to connect with an author directly, just kind of reaching out to them online and seeing if they want to come and do even a virtual visit with your school or your church group or whatever your organization is. I think a lot of children’s authors really are accessible and want to connect with their audience.

Maya Smart: Are there other things they need to do or think about?

Andrea Scarpino: I think asking the community for support is a really good first step as well. Our founder calls The Noble Neighbor a common-sense cause, and that’s true. I think everybody wants to see kids reading. Everybody wants to get books into the hands of kids. So I would say, ask. Ask your community. They can say no if they don’t want to. But the more you ask, the more people you’re going to find who say yes.

Maya Smart: And then after you've had a visit, you mentioned the surveys. Are there other things people should think about in terms of documenting the success of the event? Should they keep track of the numbers of attendees or take photos or what things do you recommend?

Andrea Scarpino: Yes. All of those things. So we always take photos at events. It can be a little bit challenging because you don’t want to get photos of kids without their parental permission. But we love taking photos, we love when we have a great opportunity to have an author in a photo with a bunch of kids. I think keeping track of all of the kids who are there is really important, that’s how we get our numbers. So we know, for example, in the last two and a half years, we’ve donated 6,000 books to kids. We had 35 author events. Keeping really good track of those numbers, I think can be really powerful.

So our goal this year is to donate our 10,000th book to kids and hopefully connect kids with their 50th author. And I think again, having those numbers can be really, really powerful. So keeping good track of the number of books you’re donating, the amount of money you’re raising, the number of authors you’re connecting with is all really good.

Maya Smart: How can people find you online if they're interested in supporting your work or just following it on social media?

Andrea Scarpino: I would love to have people follow us on social media. So our handle is just Noble Neighbor. We’re on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn under Noble Neighbor. Our website is www.thenobleneighbor.org. So we’ve got lots of information on our website. We’ve got a list of our upcoming school events this fall, and then there’s also, of course, a donate button if people feel so inclined to donate. So our website should be really easy to find. We have a mailing list as well if people want to get regular updates from us, and then social media is always just Noble Neighbor.

Maya Smart: Fantastic. Thanks so much for your time today. I appreciate it and know that many people will be inspired to create some author experiences in their local communities.

Andrea Scarpino: Thank you so much for having me. It was lovely to talk with you.