Books 4 Kids Promotes Empathy and Equality Through Books

Mar 8, 2018

Coleen Liebsch answers questions from John Harris Elementary School students during a reading event for her program Books 4 Kids.
Credit Jackie Hendry

 A few years ago,  Coleen Liebsch had to make a choice: would she finish the horror novel she was writing, or would she jump on an unexpected opportunity?

Today, her creation--the Books 4 Kids program--donates books to  children in  South Dakota and around the world.

Coleen Liebsch is an author...publisher...and CEO of Books 4 Kids. She loves books.

She also knows that a school book fair   can make a student feel like an outsider . Liebsch says when she was growing up, her family couldn’t afford to send her with much money to buy books.

“I always felt like my friends had so many different books and I could pick the cheapest one that was available, and I always felt left out," she says. "And I didn’t realize that affects both ends of the spectrum until my son was born.”

By the time she became a mom, Liebsch had a degree in sociology and was working in marketing. She admits she overcompensated a bit when her own son started taking money for book fairs as a preschooler. She’d send him with what she calls "too much money’" in a fancy leather wallet.

“And one day he started crying, and he said, ‘Why can’t I take my money to school in a baggie like everyone else?’" Liebsch recalls. "And I didn’t realize both sides of the spectrum feel left out. Because the ones who have too much feel guilty because their friends aren’t getting as much as they are, and the ones that don’t have enough feel bad because they feel like they’re left out.”

These stories stayed in the back of her mind for years. By 2014, she’d retired from marketing to focus on writing, and her 12-year old niece asked to write a book together. It was a short story about caring for a new puppy. Liebsch says they’d only planned to make it a family keepsake.

“Then in order to buy enough to give Christmas presents to our family, it was just a little more to buy a hundred, and then I thought it’s just a little more to buy a thousand and just bargain-wise it didn’t make sense. So I bought a thousand books and then went, what am I gonna do with a thousand books?" 

Then Coleen Liebsch had an idea. She asked some of her former marketing clients if they would cover the cost of the book in exchange for a sticker on the inside cover with their company’s information. Then, she and her niece took some of the books to a kindergarten class in Brookings.

“And in that very first group we went into we walked into the classroom, they were sticking their tongues out at us, they were being snarky, they were being horrid to each other, just mean,” she says.

Liebsch took pictures while her niece read the story to the kids. When she looked at the pictures later that night, she realized, “in a series of six photos they went from being snarky and mean to each other to smiling, sharing the books and laughing with each other. And with the sociology background of course I sat down and wondered, ok, what’s going on here.”

A group of fourth graders flip through their new books after a Books 4 Kids event in Sioux Falls in March.
Credit Jackie Hendry

That’s where she got the inspiration for Books 4 Kids--a program to bring free books to students across South Dakota and beyond with the help of business sponsors and individual donations. She added a publishing division to her marketing agency, and began looking for books that centered on  lessons about caring for animals and being kind to others.

“And then the next year we added three books, and we’ve added two books every year since,” she says.

Now, Coleen Liebsch travels to schools throughout South Dakota--sometimes 30 in a school year. At this event at John Harris Elementary in Sioux Falls, she uses Skype to connect South Dakota students with authors from around the world.  

The program’s youngest author is Adam Kadia--an eleven year old who lives in the Kingdom of Bahrain, an island in the Persian Gulf. His mom found the Books 4 Kids program through a mutual connection online.

Adam’s book  is about a young Libyan boy named Hakeem who travels and makes friends around the world. After he reads, the students ask Adam questions. One asks where he got the inspiration for the story. He says the unrest in the world made him want to write a story about about how it affects kids. .

“I’m sure you’ve seen in the news, like Syria and Iraq, and I was wondering why not write a story about it and make people aware of all the kids that are suffering," he tells the students. "And I was thinking of how anybody can spread peace, I guess, cus Hakeem’s a boy not an adult.”

Adam’s passion for writing about peace earned him recognition from the International Peace Institute and a meeting with the president of the United Nations. But impressive as that may be, the Sioux Falls grade-schoolers are more interested in his every-day life. They’re surprised to hear he does not live in a castle in the Kingdom of Bahrain, and that his country also has Walmarts, Targets, and Starbucks.

They’re especially excited to hear about his favorite author, J.K. Rowling.

That’s just one of the reasons Coleen Liebsch is so glad to have Adam as one of the Books 4 Kids authors. She says it’s important to remember that even at a young age, students begin forming their opinions about the world around them.

“Depending on the country, we may think they’re violent, we may think they’re very very different from us. We tend to look at them according to the news, whatever the news is telling us as far as what they’re like,” she says.

As the students hear  Adam’s work and talk to him, they  can see that even from across the world they have things in common.

And that brings Coleen Liebsch back to the goal of Books 4 Kids: fostering empathy in young people through the unique connection that books can bring. She says that’s especially important now when topics ranging from school shootings to basic bullying garner more and more attention.

“One of the things we found that’s the most important thing for building character is making sure kids feel like they fit in, making sure they don’t feel like they’re an outcast," Liebsch says. "And that’s what a book fair can do when everyone’s exactly equal.”

And that idea has gained plenty of traction since its start in 2014. Earlier this year the program reached a milestone: it has now donated 20,000 books to children across six different states and to a school in Africa.

As thrilled as she is to reach that point, Coleen Liebsch has no plans to slow down. She calls it an honor to be involved with kids, to encourage kindness and inclusion, and to share her life-long love of books.