Book Town, USA’s Year-Round Santa
By Vickie Newton
In the back of the mall in Pine Bluff where a department store once welcomed crowds of shoppers eager for the latest fashions, there is now a new attraction with an educational focus. They call it Book Town, USA, and it’s the only place in the mall where you don’t need money.
“Everything in here is free,” says Dr. Robert Anderson who started Book Town more than two decades ago. “There’s not a bookstore in Jefferson County or surrounding areas. The first Saturday of every month, we have a storyteller, sometimes a puppet show, and we give each child a book.”
Anderson is a spry senior whose light-brown eyes twinkle with a quick wit and a devotion to children. He remembers his childhood and cites his determination not to work on the family farm as motivation to get an education. He attended college at the tender age of 14, and by the time he was 16, he had earned a place on the faculty at Tennessee State. Not long after, he graduated from Vanderbilt University with his Ph.D.
His love for children brought him back to the Delta and led to Book Town. “People stopped reading and stores couldn’t afford it so they went out of business,” Anderson recalls. “We know we have made a difference because we have children who have come and learned to read and children who come to read and don’t want to leave.”
Book Town is a home for all things family. During the holidays, it hosts a celebration for the children, families and staff from 15 daycares in the area. Anderson is a professor at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff where he is also involved with Head Start. He and Dr. Marilyn Bailey-Jefferson collaborated to bring a program to the Delta to specifically address the educational and social needs of the youngest children, ages newborn to 36 months.
Tiffany Williams attended the Christmas program. She says her two-year-old son, Ja’carion, “knows his numbers and his ABC’s” as a result of the new early childhood initiative.
Kiana Ward, who also has a two-year-old son, echoes Williams’ appreciation. “It’s helped Bryce a lot. He’s more sociable, talks more, and can identify his colors. Whereas before the program, he was quiet and kept to himself,” Ward explains.
Bailey-Jefferson talks enthusiastically about the program’s potential to “change the trajectory” of a child’s life. “There will be conflict and chaos in life, but it’s how you respond that matters.” She and Anderson are concerned about the “dislodged” family unit and its impact on children.
Teachers like Sarah Perry support the program’s mission of helping the youngest children. Perry describes how her students have “responded to the routine of the program” and points out that within a matter of months her students have demonstrated progress in their learning and social skills.
There are grandparents, parents, and friends milling around Book Town for the gathering. Christmas music fills the air as does the possibility of a brighter future for the children standing near the trees and decorations. It is a departure from the past for many, and the man responsible moves around the room like an elf clad in a blinking Christmas sweater. Perhaps, the best gift Robert Anderson will give is free, and it isn’t under the tree.