A book-dispensing vending machine is proving irresistible to kids

Ashley Copple, Early Literacy Coordinator at Turner USD #202, stands with the vending machine. Photography by Zach Bauman.

Everyone knows vending machines filled with junk food goodies are irresistibly attractive to children. Now, an innovative reading program that stocks vending machines with books is proving just as sweet.

The novel notion to pack machines that normally shell out candy to kids with books instead and install them at elementary schools was made possible through a partnership between three local nonprofit literacy programs: Lead to Read KC, Turn the Page KC and Literacy KC.

The vending machines have space for approximately 250 books, which is around 20 copies each of 12 to 15 titles. Student favorites include the Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey, the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems and the Pizza and Taco books by Stephen Shaskan. Vending tokens are given to students as incentives and rewards, and they can use the tokens to “buy” a free book to take home. 

“It’s a shiny machine that certainly gets everyone’s attention,” says Angela Pritchett, Lead to Read KC’s communication manager.

The program began last year at Turner Sixth Grade Academy in KCK, and now there are also vending machines at Trailwoods Elementary School and Kansas City International Academy, both in KCMO.

According to Lead to Read KC, statistics show the crucial need for children to have easy access to books. In Kansas City, only 21 percent of third graders are reading on grade level, Pritchett says. 

If children are not reading by third grade, they are four times more likely to drop out of high school. Eighty-five percent of teens in the juvenile justice system are functionally illiterate. And illiteracy affects the rest of their lives—they are likely to face underemployment, unemployment and poor health outcomes, says Pritchett.

It’s these statistics that drive Lead to Read KC and its army of volunteers to bring books to where children are, and the vending machines are just another arrow in their quiver.

“We distribute 2,700 books a month through our program Reading Is Everywhere, which we have been doing since 2011,” Pritchett says. “A total of 53,000 books have been put in baskets every month in 65 locations where children are often waiting, such as in health care offices, barber shops, restaurants, social service agencies and salons.” 

Reading mentors are also an integral part of promoting literacy. “We have mentors from Burns and McDonnell, H&R Block and American Century, among others, who come to read with children for 30 minutes every week,” Pritchett says.

“In 2011, Mauricio, a Whittier Elementary student in KCK, was paired with a reading mentor who was a civil engineer,” Pritchett says. “Mauricio and his family had emigrated from Mexico, and he knew only Spanish.” The two met once a week, and Mauricio learned English quickly.  

Pritchett remembers that Mauricio’s favorite book was The Tale of Despereaux because he identified so much with the mouse.

Today, Mauricio is a sophomore at UMKC studying to become a civil engineer, just like his mentor. And just like his mentor, he works with students on weekends helping them learn computer coding.

“Mauricio still has his copy of The Tale of Despereaux, which his mentor inscribed and gave to him many years ago,” Pritchett says.

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