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Book’em Spreads the Joy of Reading — One Book at a Time

June 12, 2023

Support a Cause You Care About During the Summer Reading Challenge

For years, Nashville Public Library (NPL) has issued a simple call to launch our Summer Reading Challenge: “Read; track your minutes; earn free prizes.”

But this year, things are different. Because this year, Summer Reading = Summer Giving.

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As we read to support three great Nashville nonprofits, we invite you to learn more about our community partners and the great work they do every day. 

Today, we’re taking a deeper look at Book’em, whose mission is very closely aligned with our own: put a book in the hands of every child possible in Nashville.

Meet Judi — Book’em Volunteer, IT Specialist, Lover of Books

Pumpkin soup. 

That was the first thing the kids asked about. It didn’t matter what time of year it was — they always asked if she’d be reading about pumpkin soup.

After all, it’s what Judi Hartbarger was known for.

“I used to always read two books during those sessions: Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? — one of my all-time favorites — and a book about pumpkin soup,” Judi said. “So, every time I came back, the children always asked if I’d be reading it again.” 

With nearly 20 years of volunteer service through Book’em, Judi has had a lot of opportunities to talk about pumpkin soup. Her service has taken her through the entire spectrum of volunteer activities at Book’em, from cataloging new books to reading to classrooms.

And it never gets old — not for Judi, and not for the kids who eagerly listen. 

And that’s where the joy lies for everyone.

Judi Hartbarger (center) reads to a class of kiddos during Read Me Week (Photo courtesy of Judi Hartbarger.)

A Book for Every Child

For Judi, the love of reading she shares with little readers had been instilled in her since her earliest days. Her mother was a remedial reading teacher and an avid reader herself. Every Saturday, Judi’s mother would take her children to the library, load up on books, read them all, and repeat.

And so, in 2005 — when Judi had joined the Junior League of Nashville — one of her membership requirements was to contribute volunteer hours at an organization of her choice.

She chose Book’em.

“People have to understand that kids having a physical book of their own is essential. Not all of them have Kindles or e-readers. Even for the ones that do, being able to hold a book, to see the illustrations, to see themselves and trigger their imaginations, is so important,” Judi said.

Book’em’s mission is to put physical books into the hands of Nashville children who can’t otherwise get them.

A Book-Gifting, Reading-Role-Modeling Powerhouse

Book’em began in 1989 as a supplement to the local chapter of Reading is Fundamental (RIF) — the largest children’s literacy nonprofit in the U.S.

Today, while that partnership remains strong, Book’em has evolved to fill a critical need in the Nashville community: a book-gifting powerhouse that gifts free books to children who need them most.

To date, they’ve distributed more than 1 million books to Nashville children through their various programs. But despite their evolution, the staff at Book’em haven’t forgotten their roots. In fact, they not only donate books — they serve as reading role models.

Book’em administers the RIF program at 15 schools in Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). Book’em volunteers partner with a specific teacher and classroom and read to that class five times over the course of the school year. At the end of each reading session, the kids get to pick out a book they can take home.

Having volunteered as a reader multiple times, Judi can attest to the impression those sessions leave on the kids.

“It’s just so amazing, the way their faces light up. They find it hard to believe that you’re just giving them a book that they can keep and read to mom, dad, grandma, whomever. They bring their backpacks and they run — I mean run — to get the books they want,” Judi said.

Since 1990, Book’em has also celebrated and actively participated in Read Me Day, an annual event that sees prominent local figures, celebrities, volunteers, teachers, and others join together at schools to create a fun, read-along-with-me experience for students. They’ve also grown beyond a single day, hosting two to four celebrations at different schools each year.

From reading to classrooms to processing new books for donation, as a 20-year volunteer, Judi (right) has done it all at Book'em (Photo courtesy of Judi Hartbarger.)

A Big Impact for Little Readers

There are plenty of causes worth serving in Nashville. 

But for Judi, there’s no other organization like Book’em.

“They do so much for the community. You have to be able to read if you want to get through life — it’s such a fundamental skill. Book’em makes it possible for so many children who wouldn’t otherwise have the means to grow a love of reading,” Judi said. “We don’t always have the resources — or the funding — we’d ideally like to have. But with whatever we get, the folks at Book’em use every bit of it to the fullest. They’re a ‘Little Engine That Could.’”

And if you’d like to meet the Book’em team yourself, they’ll be part of a special Story Time session at our Madison Branch Library on June 16, at our Bordeaux Branch Library on July 11, and again at Bordeaux on July 31.

Making a Reading Investment in Book’em Through the Summer Reading Challenge

You can help Book’em reach even more children by participating in our Summer Reading Challenge. For every 15 days you log reading, you earn a vote to cast for three of our partner nonprofits — including Book’em — to receive a share of a $9,000 donation.

With the Challenge lasting just 60 days this year, there’s not a lot of time to rack up votes for a cause you care about.

So, we encourage you: head over to our Summer Reading Challenge page, get registered, and get to reading!

And if you’d like to meet the Book’em team yourself, they’ll be part of a special Story Time session at our Madison Branch Library on June 16, and at our Bordeaux Branch Library on July 11.

Wizard avatar


Ed's a proud member of NPL's Marketing and Communications team. Some of his favorite books include Dracula, Once an EagleNeuromancerStarship TroopersThe Black CompanyBerserkBlade of the ImmortalBlame! and Vampire Hunter D. When not at the Library, you'll find him spending time with his wife and son, doing interval training, reading, or waiting for the next FromSoftware game.


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