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Books saved from waste extend the story cycle



The brick path curves through the native garden and arrives at the front steps of an inner-city house — a Californian Bungalow with a deep front verandah. Sheltered by the low verandah wall are stacks of children's books packed into plastic crates, neatly labelled and with clip-on lids.

Jill and Peter load Storycycle crates into car bootThey're sorted into categories, labels facing outwards — picture books; story collections; junior fiction; non-fiction; activity books. Here is where Storycycle stores some of the hundreds of books it will soon give away.

In the back room, light filters through the sage greys of the wattles; outside, the last of the summer tomatoes lean against their stakes in the vegetable patch. Spread along the dining table, more tubs of books are ready for sorting. Jill Allan collects up a picture book, one hand cradling the spine and covers, the other leafing through the pages. Her long fingers hold the book steady as she turns the pages, sensing their weight, pausing as her eyes scan the text and pictures.

Over the last 12 months Jill has sorted through 6000 second-hand children's books, collected by agreement with Savers thrift stores. Every Tuesday Jill and her husband collect several tubs of unsold books from their local Savers. Jill culls the books, checking for rips and scribbles and looking for newish quality reads.

As this tall, slender, silver-haired librarian meets the book in her hands, a smile flickers at the corners of her mouth — as if meeting a child who is familiar but shy. Like an adept school nurse, she makes her observations, does a bit of patching and sends the child back out to play.

Every month now, a new crate of books from Storycycle sits on a bench at a food bank in Melbourne's north. As Badger says in Barry Lopez' story Crow and Weasel, 'Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.' The food bank is now a place for both food and story nourishment.

Jill wants to see good stories in circulation. As she holds a book in her hands she asks herself, 'Would a child want this?' She's been a children's librarian for years, she's read the research. The number of books in the home is a crucial factor influencing language and literacy outcomes for children. In quiet understatement she remarks, 'It's hard to become literate without access to books.'


"Their vision statement says they want 'to see children's books fall apart through love and use, not be discarded in pristine condition'."


Jill's husband Peter removes the Savers price stickers. He says it is the perfect accompaniment to watching televised sport. He cheerfully steps around the book tubs through the house and can barely suppress his pleasure and pride in his wife's project — it synchronises well with their sustainability interests — the books are rescued from recycling or pulping, and they are getting the most out of a resource by diverting it from the waste stream.

Storycycle is a not-for-profit initiative of the sustainability consultancy run by the husband and wife team. Jill Allan is one of those quiet achievers. Surrounded by crates and tubs she shrugs, 'I like to think of this project as one small thing.'

So far almost 3000 of Jill's rescued books have been distributed through neighbourhood houses, childcare centres, playgroups, kinders and schools across the inner east and outer north of Melbourne — to Fawkner, Glenroy, Epping, Collingwood and Richmond. Families receiving the books include asylum seekers and newly arrived migrants.

New sites come on board as word spreads. These 'gently-used' books are provided free to families to help build up a supply of stories in the home. While there are government and charitable programs that address the need to increase access to books in low-income homes, generally this is done through the gifting of new books. As Jill and Peter see it, the second-hand book stream is an underused resource for augmenting home libraries. Their vision statement says they want 'to see children's books fall apart through love and use, not be discarded in pristine condition'.

There is a downside. Jill says it is depressing to see large numbers of books that are not much more than consumer goods. They don't contain stories or information — they are essentially advertisements. Jill observes, 'While a book is a thing in itself, it is not the only thing. What matters is the story that opens to you. The story is what I want to keep passing on.' She loves the words of Rebecca Solnit: 'The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates.'

On a warm day last November Jill arrived early at a community event in parklands in the northwest of Melbourne. Under big shade trees adjacent to a playground, the family services team from the local council had spread a ring of rugs and cushions. Jill delivered seven tubs of books from Storycycle. She placed them around the circle of rugs, so children and parents could comfortably rummage through them.

As people arrived Jill sat under a tree and looked through books with little babies so the older children and their parents could go through the tubs. Older children poked through the open tubs, picking out books they liked, while parents chose books for their pre-schoolers. When they asked, 'How much are these?' Jill replied, 'They're free.' There were smiles, thank yous, conversations. Hugging children and books, people left the park. At the end of the day only a handful of books remained.



Julie PerrinJulie Perrin is a Melbourne writer, oral storyteller and Associate Teacher at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity.

Topic tags: Julie Perrin, reading, children's books



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Existing comments

It's great to see children's books being re-used by needy children. People in South-East Queensland please consider organising a book drive for the Brisbane based charity BOOKS 4 PNG KIDS. This great organisation sends containers of children's books to Papua New Guinea and distributes these books to many needy schools in that poor country. Check our the BOOKS 4 PNG KIDS website for information. I organised such a book drive through my local church and schools in Caloundra and their charity workers came and collected two van loads of books from us when our book drive was completed.

Grant Allen | 03 April 2018  

Fabulous idea. So generous of Jill and Peter to sort all those books and so generous of Julie to share the story.

Christine Carolan | 03 April 2018  

A wonderfully encouraging venture and story. May this project go from strength to strength.

Gillian | 04 April 2018  

When I was teaching and given occasional extras to take junior secondary English classes I was amazed about the poor quality of oral reading with little passion. Like the music students who could play with great passion but then play like robots at liturgical events by saying "" its only church music'' , I gleaned the same answer from the students saying its just a book. So we stopped started to look at the descriptive words , the scene and really feel the story and the point the writer had intended. Then I would have them sit on the floor and read the Drover's Wife with all the passion Lawson intended for the mother , son and the dog in their lonely slab hut waiting for the snake to re-emerge. With year 10 boys not excited about Romeo and Juliet , it was a series of lunchtime screenings of Man Without a Face where Mel Gibson brings the Merchant of Venice to life with his pupil. With my grandchildren who have been given libraries of books in their first four years of life , the books are read with great passion just as Norman Swain did for us on children's radio to bring Enid Blyton alive for us. That time spent on the couch or floor away from a screen is invaluable in stimulating and building imagination just as much as the quality of story and words.

WAYNE McGOUGH | 04 April 2018  

It's not always the number of books, it's the quality. As a child in the 40's there were only two books in our house: HG Wells The Outline of History Vols 1&2 (Illustrated). Dad said they fell off the back of a truck. They shaped my world. I still have them. Mouldy and revered.

Gail Shaw | 05 April 2018  

Here in Newcastle NSW there is a similar project, volunteers collect the ore loved books and personally deliver them to schools in NW NSW. These books are not for the library, but for the children to take home, to own a book. The organisation is Books4outback. Over 3 years over 60,000 books have been delivered, as well as toys, games , puzzles etc.

Ross Lane | 19 March 2019  

This is a good idea in theory, and a project worthy of praise, however, you could wonder if any of the deserving, less well-off people who are given these third hand books, might like to have new ones as well? There seems to be a fairly upper middle-class attitude of helping the needy, and those helped should just be happy with whatever they are given. Those doing the helping feel a warm glow of having helped those less fortunate than themselves, but have they every really consulted with these people to see what they want first?

Anita Brown | 12 April 2021  

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