Excited chatter filled the auditorium of Carson's Ralph Bunche Elementary School on Saturday as dozens of children flipped excitedly through piles of books before stamping and stacking them for catalog in the school's two small libraries.
"I came to help the school, and other people … and they said I can take a book I like home," said 8-year-old fourth-grader Carlyn Tanner of Compton, beaming as he and his brother Cayden, 7, sorted through a mountain of books in assembly-line fashion.
The Ralph Bunche students were accompanied by their parents and 4-year-old sister Calleigh. They had volunteered for the day-long effort to bring desperately needed books to the school's libraries.
The drive was organized by Access Books, a nonprofit group that works to improve Southern California's most impoverished school libraries. Access joined with a team of Canadian children's authors to collect around 5,000 books — some purchased new, others used and donated.
"The best predictor of how you read is access to books," said Rebecca Constantino, founder and executive director of Access Books. "For children who live in poor communities, the best predictor is access to a good school library."
Students at Ralph Bunche have lacked such access, according to Principal Synee Pearson Gourdine. The school, one of 25 elementary institutions in the Compton Unified School District, can provide only about three books per child, Pearson Gourdine said. California's Department of Education recommends 28 library books per student, according to a recent draft of its proposed school library standards.
So when Pearson Gourdine learned that her school had been selected to receive a bounty of books, and would receive help renovating its libraries, she was elated.
"If our students don't learn to read and don't experience the joy of reading, I feel their growth is stunted for the future," Pearson Gourdine said. "We want to enhance the library to where it's a place they want to visit at school and in public."
The campaign to bombard Bunche with books got a boost from far-flung literary specialists after Canadian children's author Helaine Becker visited schools in Long Beach and was dismayed by the dearth of books.
"I was really appalled by the state of the libraries," Becker said. "I thought, it's shocking; it's terrible."
She rallied colleagues to organize several book drives, which eventually led to the campaign "Air Lift to L.A."
The books include illustrated large-print texts, activity-oriented manuals and popular fiction.
Fourth-grade teacher Emma Den Hartog stressed the importance of having culturally sensitive books that "open up the world for children who may not have the opportunity to travel, or travel only within a small radius of their home."
While some children stamped and catalogued books Saturday, others helped beautify the Bunche campus by painting murals. Fifth-grader Kennedye Davis, 10, slathered red paint into the outline of a train on an outside wall, while 10-year-old Angel Benitez and Ryan Smith stood shoulder-to-shoulder painting a huge green caterpillar in the library room designated for kindergarten-through-second-grade pupils.
Sibling third-graders Ajalee and Lee Harris were among the army of youngsters encouraged by their parents to spend part of their weekend helping their school. Sorting out the libraries was a priority for their mother, Demetra Harris.
"Unorganized library, unorganized education," she said.
Some of the young volunteers were experienced book-drive helpers and were eager to share their views on reading as they stamped, stacked and racked.
"Books are a good education for all ages," said Madeline Miller, 10, a fifth-grader at Valley Alternative Magnet School in Van Nuys, who came to help at Ralph Bunche with her sister, Susannah, 8, and mother, Sandra Tsing Loh. "Just imagine a world without books. It would be pretty boring."