A woman, nicknamed 'book lady,' wants to give away 1 million books to her community

Jennifer WIlliams is on a mission to give away 1 million books to people in her small town of Danville, Virginia. - Photo courtesy: Jennifer Williams Jennifer Williams, seen here with a table of donated books, wants to give away 1 million books to her community. - Photo courtesy: Jennifer Williams
By Maria Morava and Saeed Ahmed, CNN

Editor's note: Want more inspiring, positive news? Sign up for The Good Stuff, a newsletter for the good in life. It will brighten your inbox every Saturday morning.

(CNN) -- Jennifer Williams wants students to love reading the way she did as a child.

So, she decided to give away 1 million books to people in her small town of Danville, Virginia -- and she's earned the nickname "book lady" in the process.

Since Williams started in 2017, she's given away more than 63,000 books, mostly to students.

"Books are important to me," she said. "My mother was a librarian, and she would read to us until we went off to college -- not just off to kindergarten -- but to college."

Williams said she wants students and community members alike to access the possibilities that reading offers.

"(Reading) can take you anywhere," she said. "You can travel in time and space. If you can read, you can learn almost anything."

No child goes without a book

Williams had the idea to give away books after she noticed that the students she tutored would ask her to keep the books they were reading together.

Having to share the books with other students, Williams had to say no.

So, one summer, she made a goal to give away 300 books in the three sets of housing projects where she tutored. She would ask neighbors and people at her church for donations.

But even after she met her goal, she wasn't satisfied.

"My husband was like, 'Wow, congratulations,' and I was like 'Well, anybody can do that,'" she said. "I told him, 'I want to give away a million books."

So it began.

Williams started collecting donations and buying books out of her own pocket. Every year, she gives a book to each student at her local elementary school.

She also distributes books in other ways.

Scattered across Danville are 16 tiny, standalone libraries that Williams keeps stocked. She also leaves books on picnic tables and in laundromats.

She doesn't usually leave a note.

"By now, a lot of people know the 'book lady' has been there," she said.

Her community is supportive

Williams said her community has rallied to support her goal. She often comes home to boxes of donated books on her porch.

"I've lived in this town for 35 years," she said. "I went to all my friends' kids' ball games -- now, my community has come together and said, 'You've always helped us, now let us help you.'"

It's a local operation through and through. Williams said that of the 63,000 books she's given away, 99% first sat on her living room floor.

Williams also teaches creative writing and holds a book club at the local jail.

The club has gone through 28 books -- more than 400,000 pages -- since it started last year. Williams said it's a powerful connector.

"I had this mom come up to me and tell me that every time I gave (the club) a new book, her teenagers would download it at home," she said. "Now, when she calls them, they have something else to talk about."

She isn't the only one sharing her love for reading

Although lofty, Williams isn't alone in working toward such a big goal.

An 8-year-old in Atlanta launched a literacy project with her parents to give away 2 million books to underprivileged kids.

The Empowered Readers Literacy Project drew more than 2,400 children and parents for their very first event, a march for literacy in Atlanta, in 2018.

Since then, the project has donated at least 8,000 books to children.

Another non-profit group donating books is Young, Black & Lit, which gives away books featuring Black main characters to kids.

"When a child sees themselves reflected in the books that they read, when the books are a mirror to them, they feel valued," Krenice Roseman, co-founder of the non-profit with her husband, told CNN.

The organization has distributed more than 5,000 books in the Chicago metropolitan area as of September 2020.

As for Williams, she said she doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon.

"My goal is to keep doing what I do," she said. "The world is full of people who are just complaining. I'm just going to roll up my sleeves and try to do something to help."

™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Share this article: