A Book a Day inspires young readers across Philadelphia with a focus on inclusiveness and representation

July 18, 2023
Two volunteers stand in the Puentes de Salud medical clinic with a mural painted on the wall behind them, holding children’s books in Spanish donated by A Book a Day, a non-profit run by Penn GSE student Sibylla Shekerdjiska-Benatova

A Book a Day, a non-profit run by Penn GSE student Sibylla Shekerdjiska-Benatova, has partnered with medical providers like the Puentes de Salud medical clinic to provide books to children, including titles in Spanish and other languages. Photo courtesy of A Book a Day.

When children see themselves represented in books, it helps foster a love of learning and reading. That’s the thinking behind A Book a Day, a non-profit that provides new books and literacy programs for young readers at Philadelphia-area schools, community centers and medical clinics.

Founder and Executive Director Sibylla Shekerdjiska-Benatova, who is finishing an M.S.Ed. in Penn GSE’s Reading/Writing/Literacy program, says all children need engaging and relatable books as they grow. But she pointed out that many public schools have lost funding for their libraries in recent years. Unable to purchase new books, what remains are books that are fact-based, celebrate major religious holidays or are simply outdated. As a result, students, particularly children of color, are deprived of stories that reflect their lives, languages and cultures.

A native of Sofia, Bulgaria, Shekerdjiska-Benatova said she was also surprised—and frustrated—to learn how neighboring schools in America can have vastly different resources, despite being part of the same community or even the same district. So she set out to fix the program in her own neighborhood.

A Book a Day currently works with two School District of Philadelphia elementary schools—Henry C. Lea School and the Penn Alexander School, both in West Philly—and is preparing to launch with a third.

Under the banner of “Literacy Everywhere,” the organization donates a range of titles each month, including picture books, early reading books, graphic novels, and young adult literature. Since 2014, the non-profit has donated more than 7,000 mostly hardcover books for students in grades K through 8.

To select the most appropriate titles, the organization works with school and community partners to collect student data, including languages spoken, racial composition and countries of origin. For example, children speak more than 80 languages at the two partner schools. And A Book a Day also employs students from the University who live, work and study in West Philadelphia, including from Penn GSE and the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) Center.

“Children’s literature is fundamental for being a critical adult reader as you grow up, so we try to keep a fair representation of different voices and different cultures,” explained Shekerdjiska-Benatova.

Penn GSE graduate student Marisa Marino started with A Book a Day as a graduate assistant two years ago, and she is now the social media and projects manager. Marino said the organization “embraces creativity, playfulness, open-mindedness, hard work, and curiosity” and has helped her grow as an educator.

“My class library is now filled with more meaningful and engaging picture books and chapter books,” she said. “Also, by providing literature that reflects the lives of the children within the community we serve, we aim to empower student voices.”

To expand its reach beyond traditional settings, A Book a Day has recently partnered with medical providers, such as the Books for Smiles program run by the PennSmiles Mobile Clinic, an oral health outreach program operated by Penn’s School of Dental Medicine. A Book a Day also provides books for children at the Puentes de Salud medical clinic, where 90 percent of donated titles are in Spanish.

Beyond books, A Book a Day curates interactive literacy experiences. Several BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) authors and illustrators, including Kelly Starling-Lyons and Ashley Bryan, have visited the two partner schools, providing students with career inspiration and positive role models.

"Kids are keener on listening to people who look like them and share historical facts and lives like them,” Shekerdjiska-Benatova noted.

Reflecting on her time at Penn GSE, Shekerdjiska-Benatova said that the School has helped her better understand American education, community engagement and politics. Importantly, she added, her values are the same as her professors and classmates.

“I believe in the core ideals we share here: education is important, and you must enter the field fighting for equality,” she added. “That drives all your actions.”

So what’s next? This fall the organization will launch the Voices Alive! initiative, which is a continuation of its Archive of Letters and Voices project, working with BIPOC book creators and community members to uplift their messages to young readers.

“The collection of messages we have uploaded to our website under this project contains many powerful and honest letters to young children about the value of being a kind and honest person and believing in yourself,” Shekerdjiska-Benatova said.