GameChanger: Araba Maze

We catch up with the founder of Storybook Maze—a local program intent on increasing literary access in underserved communities.
—Photography by Mike Morgan

Imagine 300 kids sharing a single book. In book deserts, or lower-income neighborhoods without walkable libraries or bookstores, this is the average ratio for what’s available per child. But as the founder of Storybook Maze—a local program intent on increasing literary access in underserved communities and helping kids learn to love reading—Baltimore librarian Araba Maze is changing that.

Known for hosting pop-up “street-corner story times” for kids of all ages, the self-described “radical street librarian” has donated thousands of free books to children through pop-up events and a vending machine for picking out books at no cost.

Before you became a librarian, you were a teacher, giving away books to kids from your own home library. How did this evolve into Storybook Maze?
When I first started working as a librarian, I realized that the kids who were coming in weren’t the same ones I was reading to out on my front stoop. I wanted to think of innovative and engaging ways to reintroduce those kids to the idea of reading.

In Baltimore, book access varies by location, with children in the “Black Butterfly” neighborhoods estimated to have fewer books at home. How do you choose your pop-up library locations?
I’m always looking for locations with high foot traffic—where the kids already are and where the community is already going. We focus on Black neighborhoods. But also, we use a book desert [map] from Unite for Literacy, which has identified areas where children are estimated to have between zero and 10 books at home.

What goes into curating your selections?
We know that when kids have books that they can relate to and can see themselves in, they’re more eager to read. For us, this means books with Black characters, who live in neighborhoods like our kids live in, celebrate the same things they do, and reflect their lives. We also talk to community leaders, teachers, and organizations in the area and see where they think kids need support the most. Some kids need more positive affirmations, so we give them a book like I Am Amazing!

This year, you installed a book vending machine at the Randallstown YMCA, with plans for more in the future. What comes next for Storybook Maze?
Right now, we’re doing free pop-up bookstores, where we partner with community organizations to offer a free selection of curated books. Next summer, we hope to start up streetcorner story times again. We’re looking to add a “book bus,” so we can visit multiple locations a day…There are a lot of great organizations that are working toward [youth literacy], but we can do so much more. One of our visions is to make Baltimore “The City That Reads” again.