Meet the Woman Infiltrating Book Deserts With Vending Machines & Mobile Libraries

Araba Maze stands in front of a school bus while reading a book; a book vending machine contains picture books for kids; Araba Maze takes a selfie with a book

Araba Maze is a self-proclaimed “radical street librarian.” 

Her work is simple: provide diverse books for young people in need throughout the many “book deserts” in Baltimore, Maryland.

She does this through her organization, Storybook Maze, which brings free books to areas with limited access to books.

Those book deserts are denoted by Unite for Literacy, which publishes an interactive Book Desert Map, tagging the availability of books per household in a given area.

The map of Baltimore is mostly red, meaning 10% or fewer homes have access to 100 or more books.

The Book Desert Map shows Baltimore, Maryland
Much of Baltimore, Maryland is considered a book desert. Photo courtesy of Unite for Literacy

As a book lover who graduated with her English degree from Bowie State University in 2011, Maze quickly started brainstorming how she might bring reading and literacy to the rest of her community.

“It all started when I was reading to my nieces on my front stoop when neighborhood kids started gathering around, so I invited them to join us,” Maze shared in a YouTube video.

“After I finished reading, the kids didn’t want storytime to stop. ‘Go home and read a book,’ I said. ‘We don’t have books at home,’ was their response.”

She started by hosting regular “Stoop Storytimes,” and giving away her own collection of books. But when she became a librarian with the hopes of doing more of this important work, she realized she wasn’t reaching the children who needed her help most.

“When I was a librarian, I noticed that the kids that were coming into the library weren’t the kids, necessarily, who I was reading to out in the streets,” she told the Baltimore Sun. “Sometimes it’s not the kids who need it most.”

She learned more about library barriers and book deserts, noting that, in book deserts, up to 300 children may be required to share just a single book. 

It became clear that she needed to bring the library to the kids, instead of trying to get kids to come to the library.

Araba Maze sits on a park bench, holding a picture book with green trees in the background
Araba Maze. Photo courtesy of Araba Maze/Instagram

Maze started gathering book donations and hosting pop-up free book fairs around the community, curating options that are engaging and culturally significant. She offers a variety of books with diverse characters, or books in different languages. 

Videos on her TikTok page show parents getting emotional when they discover that the free picture book their child picks up is indeed in their native language, or children jumping for joy when they discover the books they want to read are completely free. 

In tandem with her work as a street librarian, Maze calls herself “an influencer for good,” using social media to leverage donations and spread awareness about low literacy rates and book access.

Plus, her expertise as a librarian makes her uniquely qualified to curate and recommend the best books for any child. In 2022, Storybook Maze put 3,000 diverse books into the hands of kids.

“We know that when kids have books that they can relate to and can see themselves in, they’re more eager to read,” Maze told Baltimore Magazine

“For us, this means books with Black characters, who live in neighborhoods like our kids live in, celebrate the same things they do, and reflect their lives. We also talk to community leaders, teachers, and organizations in the area and see where they think kids need support the most.”

Recent grants have supported Maze’s work in new, creative ways.

She was the recipient of a $15,000 grant from the United Way of Central Maryland’s Changemaker Challenge, which funded a book vending machine at a local YMCA. Kids use a token from staffers to select a free book from the machine.

A screenshot of an Instagram reel showing the installation of a book vending machine
The book vending machine was installed in February 2023. Photo courtesy of Araba Maze/Instagram

Maze was also awarded a $20,000 grant from Eventbrite, which will go toward funding her next project: The Book Trolley.

Her goal is to make reading experiences come to life, filling a Mister Rogers-inspired trolley with books, snacks, and comfortable seating, so kids can have a full-on sensory experience with their books. Plus, she wants to use the vehicle to take kids to literary landmarks in the area. 

Maze is still funding to make the book trolley a reality, but in the meantime, she rents school buses and partners with local organizations to bring books and literary experiences to kids — right where they are.

But there’s still a major hurdle to finding acceptance — especially with kids who are intimidated by reading.

“As I’m battling book deserts and literacy in Baltimore, I’m not just battling book access; I’m also battling the book experience,” Maze said in a TikTok

“For a lot of these kids, reading has been a mandatory thing. It’s been stressful and strenuous, so they have negative reading experiences. Reading has always been a performance; something they have to be good at … rarely for pleasure or enjoyment.”

Maze’s work to meet readers where they’re at is not just about physical space; it’s about providing books that are made for them. 

“One of the main things we’re trying to develop is positive reading and book experiences,” she continued in her TikTok. “I’m a big believer in finding the right book for every reader.”

Diverse characters are one component, but Maze also delivers diverse formats, like graphic novels, picture books, audiobooks, and more. 

And the approach? It’s working. 

“We saw kids go from hating reading to hungry for books that represent them,” Maze said in a YouTube video about her previous work. “Providing holistic book access means we also provide ways for children who can’t read to hear the stories inside.”

Header images courtesy of Araba Maze/Storybook Maze

Article Details

January 3, 2024 12:06 PM
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