Penkava: It takes a village to raise a reader

I lived with my parents, but was raised by the library. Some of the greatest moments of my life happened in books.

I fell in love for the first time when I met the angelic Becky Thatcher in Chapter 4 of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” I began my life’s first great adventure when I saw the Shadow of Scartaris on Mount Sneffels in Chapter 14 of Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” And when Dr. Frankenstein’s monster came to life in Chapter 5, I began a lifelong fear of the dark … “I beheld the wretch … the miserable monster I had created … and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.” Geesh.

When I got married and had a family, our house was basically a library with a kitchen and bedrooms. Bedtime books and stories were a tradition, and it was not uncommon to hear, “Read it again!” as the kids fought for excuses to not turn off the light. Maybe I shouldn’t have read them “Frankenstein.”

There didn’t pass a day in my classroom that I didn’t read to my students. We laughed at Willy Wonka and his Oompa Loompas. We cried with Billy when his beloved coonhound Old Dan was killed by a mountain lion and buried where a red fern grows. And we gasped out loud when a tiny bat named Stella Luna became lost in the dark, dark forest.

To this day, books continue to help me weave my way through life … a fusion of trips to the library and the resultant turns of the pages. My grown-up children still read, and, not too long ago, I got a telephone call from our youngest daughter that literally opened a new chapter in my life. It went like this …

“Hey Dad, I have a new project for you!”

“OK … what do you need painted now?”

“No, it has to do with books.”

“Books? You mean I don’t have to paint your kitchen again?”

“Well, now that you mention it, I do want to change the color. But that can wait. You’re going to love this idea!”

She went on to explain about a program called “Little Free Library.” Basically, it is described as a “take a book, return a book” place where neighbors can share books with each other. The Little Free Library is a self-constructed wooden depository that holds books. It sits on a post in front of your house and passers-by can stop by and take a book. For free.

After I heard this idea, I went right to the “Little Free Library” Internet site and learned all about it. This nonprofit, tax-exempt program’s goal is to simply share books and the love of reading. It’s kind of like getting the people of the cities and towns and villages of the world to all partner up for literacy.

Well, I immediately decided that this was for me. It was like I had an opportunity to show my gratitude for what books had done for me through all these years, and, at the same time, do something positive for our neighbors, besides serenading them by playing my banjo on my front steps on warm summer evenings.

So I built my Little Free Library, registered it as one of the 15,000 worldwide – the first one in Crystal Lake – and installed it by the sidewalk in front of our house. I stocked it up and people are actually stopping by and getting books. Why, one anonymous person even surreptitiously placed a book in my library. It was titled “Banjo for Dummies.”

Now, thanks to my daughter, I’m moving on to still another exciting program. It’s called the “Little Free Kitchen Painter.”

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. Visit to learn how you can start your own Little Free Library. He can be reached at

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