I wasn’t always Barby the book fairy. I was born and raised on the South Side of Milwaukee.

Photos courtesy of Barbara Cerda

Barbara Cerda | Milwaukee, WI

My parents are immigrants from Mexico, my mom grew up here and my father came when he was seventeen. I became a teen mom when I was fifteen years old, and again at nineteen. My parents helped me so much with my first daughter. Looking back, I think that is how my book collection started. My mom used to work at a school and brought books home to my daughters. 

When the pandemic hit and we had to start working from home, it was hard. I went outside with the girls, we would write positive messages in chalk on the sidewalk and then we walked to the park. On these walks, we noticed these little free libraries. There were about four of them within a two-block radius of my house, and they were always empty. I used to drive past them and not really pay attention to the little libraries, but as we spent more time walking outside, it was hard to not see them. Schools were closed and libraries shut down, so I wanted to contribute to these libraries to make sure that kids in my neighborhood had access to learning tools during the pandemic.  I went home and started cleaning out my bookshelves and my girls’ bookshelves. Together we dropped our books off at the little libraries. My girls used their little red wagon to carry the books. I put a few in each library, to spread them out and by the end of the day, all of the books were gone.

I had more books so I filled the libraries up again. With the free little libraries, the idea is you can take a book and you leave a book.  I feel like that doesn’t always happen in the hood, because people may not have books to give away. People love free things —free things are just so amazing. I didn’t get mad that the books were gone. I just thought, “Oh, okay. Let’s just fill them up again.” So, my girls and I did that again and the next day the books were all gone—again. I thought, “Okay, well, I’m not giving any more of my books away. I can’t part with them.” So, I turned to Facebook. I updated my Facebook status and said, “Hey, if you all are getting rid of any books, leave them on your porch. I’ll come pick them up. I’m filling up these free little libraries by my house.” And that’s how it started. 

I started getting messages, there were so many people that wanted to donate books. I created a “book fairy” route and my daughters and I would pull their red wagon and pick up the books.  After I picked up the book and put them in the little library, I’d take a picture of a library and I shout people out on my social media with messages like; “Thanks to X for filling up these little libraries in the hood!” Interest in my project kept growing, and people were messaging me that they have books to donate. My sister Valeria helped me create a website. She’s been really instrumental in this project. A lot of people really feel part of it, which is important to me because it’s not just me doing the work, it’s people donating their books and contributing. Social media helped us get the word out, but real people made it happen. 

Then I heard of a City of Milwaukee grant called “Love Your Block.” They were giving out $500 for projects that were created in response to the pandemic. I came to them with my project. I hit them with statistics like, “Studies show that reading decreases depression and stress, and this is what people need during this pandemic.” I eventually received two rounds of funding from them and was able to purchase about a hundred new books. 

I decided to focus efforts on collecting used books and fundraising for books where neighborhood children can see themselves reflected in the stories. It is important for me to buy books that are empowering and portray positive messages. I partnered with a local bookstore called Boswell Books. They were really nice and helped me order books that were written by Black and Brown authors since that is who lives in my neighborhood. Then I took it further and began a subscription service, which includes books and items from local artists and vendors. This project is completely supported by the community and my family, so that’s been really beautiful.

I am thrilled to announce that I recently started a virtual bookstore called La Revo Books, along with my sister. I want to be able to bring some positivity to the south side of Milwaukee and for people to say, “Hey, you know what? The inner city is not bad at all. Look at these wonderful things that we’re doing here.”  

 Barbara Cerda | Milwaukee, WI

Barbara’s story is part of Love Wisconsin’s Covid-19 series. Through this series, we are featuring shorter stories to offer a  time capsule into life in Wisconsin during this extraordinary time. This story was produced by Hedi Lamar Rudd.

You can learn more about Barby the Book Fairy here. You can learn more about Litte Free Libraries here.

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