Huntington Beach’s Butterfly Book Project grants new life to unwanted children’s books
The words and ideas inside a book can last forever in the minds of readers, but the fate of books themselves is much less certain.
They might sit on a shelf and collect dust or be packed up into boxes and trucked off to the dump. Discontinued or deemed undesirable, they could lapse into silence for decades, unless someone intercedes.
For teacher Amber Cambria and library volunteer Sheila Plotkin, the idea of a discarded book is unthinkable. But it wasn’t until the two met this summer, by happenstance, that the fellow book lovers devised a plan to put unwanted titles into the hands of people who needed them.
A teacher for the online public school California Connections Academy, Cambria makes regular trips to Huntington Beach’s Central Library with 4-year-old son Davide.
In addition to checking out books, the pair often visit the site’s Friends of the Library used bookstore, where donated books are sold, and the proceeds go back to the library. There, they might find any number of titles for $1 or less.
When books pile up at her Huntington Beach home, Cambria, 42, puts them in the trunk of her car and drives around filling up Little Free Libraries, where people offer books free for the taking, or hands them out at in-person school events.
Plotkin, 86, began volunteering for Friends of the Library in 2004 and quickly segued from the gift shop to the bookstore, where there was more action.
“I work Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 8 a.m. to whenever,” she said during a recent visit. “This is my area — I do the teens and the children’s sections.”
Plotkin replenishes the stock with new donations when holes start to appear in the rows. Once a month, she pulls books that have sat on the shelves for two months to make room for new inventory.
Cambria and Davide happened to visit the store on a pulling day and were looking through books slated for discontinuation. Plotkin encouraged them to take the whole pile and they got to talking about books, Little Free Libraries and literacy.
The two quickly struck up a friendship and agreed on the next pulling day, Cambria would take the unwanted books and distribute them however she could.
“I love books, and I love what books do,” the teacher said of her mission. “But I also want to see the love I have for books and literacy in others. Kids having books in their homes, it does something to the imagination, it does something to the mind.”
“It beats sitting and watching television,” Plotkin concurred.
After picking up the first boxes from Plotkin, Cambria had a feeling this endeavor might grow. She was going to need a name.
“I’ve always loved butterflies — my son and I plant milkweed in the spring so the butterflies can come and eat,” she said.
The idea of a life cycle, of an endless energy passing from one stage to the next, appealed to her. So, she named the endeavor the Butterfly Book Project, creating a Facebook page for people seeking children’s books.
When she went to tell Plotkin about the name, the library volunteer told her she had something for her. She’d found a note card inside a donated book — of a monarch butterfly — and decided to keep it.
“She said, ‘This is just meant to be,’” Cambria recalled. “And now that monarch butterfly card sits on my desk.”
Not long after Cambria set up the Facebook group, requests began coming in.
Jamie Hunter heads a ministry at Refuge Calvary Chapel in Huntington Beach, where volunteers become “book grandparents” to early readers at Westminster’s DeMille Elementary School, providing students in three grades with books throughout the school year.
“We put a message in each book; it’s a message of encouragement, like ‘I’m thinking of you today,’” the Fountain Valley resident said Thursday. “Our main focus is to get the kids into reading, so we want fun books.”
Giving children books at their reading level encourages literacy wherever they are, Hunter reasons. But finding 120 books for early readers several times a year is a tall order.
So, when she came across the Butterfly Book Project, Hunter got in touch and soon found herself loaded with titles ready to gift DeMille students returning from winter break.
“It’s amazing, absolutely amazing, especially given the amount of kids who don’t have access to books,” she said of the project.
Fountain Valley High School sophomore Myra Chen heard about Cambria’s project from her mother.
As president of the campus club DBC Around the Corner Books, Chen and fellow members install Little Free Libraries throughout the community, stocking them with items collected in drives or from members’ own households.
The group is currently working on a Little Free Library at the Boys & Girls Club of Huntington Valley and needs books for children and pre-teens. Cambria’s project was a perfect fit.
“I met her at her house. She had this brown bin of books in the front,” Chen said of her first pickup, adding she hopes more will follow.
Cambria said she loves seeing the smiles on the faces of people who get books that otherwise would have faced an uncertain future.
“They’ve been on a shelf, and no one took the time to grab them,” she said. “That’s where the Butterfly Book Project comes in — every book gets a new life.”
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