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“Pajama Mama” and the book bus are helping young Arlingtonians read

Jennifer Sauter-Price with R.E.A.D’s book bus (staff photo by Matt Blitz)

Kids dance around tables full of books outside of Arlington Science Focus Elementary School on an overcast December afternoon. There are stories in Spanish, books about Black history, and novels about being the next president, all waiting to be picked up and read.

And parked a few feet away from the book fair is a bright blue “book bus” with a dragon painted on the side.

In the middle of it all is “Pajama Mama,” aka Jennifer Sauter-Price, dressed in her best dog pajamas. She’s the executive director of the Arlington-based nonprofit R.E.A.D. with a mission of providing brand new books to young children who may not have access to them.

R.E.A.D stands for “read early, and daily” and it’s the brainchild of Sauter-Price.

“We want to help [kids] grow libraries and encourage their families to read to them on a daily basis,” she tells ARLnow.

There’s ample research that there’s immense benefits in constantly reading to kids prior to them entering kindergarten. It improves their vocabulary and helps them associate words with feelings along with a number of other benefits, studies show.

Sauter-Price’s R.E.A.D program is simple: Families sign up and get to choose one new book a month for each kid under the age of five in their family.

“It would be really easy for me to just hand them a book, but we learned that families are more engaged when they choose their own book,” says Sauter-Price, who is a mom herself and lives in the Arlington Forest neighborhood. “They feel more empowered.”

Currently, there are about 200 children enrolled.

The books available, Sauter-Price notes, are intentionally chosen to reflect Arlington’s community.

“We have a diverse population of young children here. We have kids who speak English, Spanish, Arabic, Mongolian,” she says. “I search high and low to find those books as well as one that have a diverse set of families.”

Two bilingual books inside of R.E.A.D’s book bus (staff photo by Matt Blitz)

These are what are called “mirror and window” books, ones that reflect the child themselves (mirror) and ones that show the community they live in (window).

Sauter-Price describes a time, pre-COVID, when she showed up to a community event with a book featuring a mom wearing a hijab.

“There was a group of Muslim moms and when one of them saw [the book], they started crying,” she says. “She was like, ‘I’ve never seen this before. Thank you.'”

When asked what are the most popular books, Sauter-Price says that’s universal.

“I would probably say anything about transportation or things that go ‘vroom’,” she laughs.

The book fairs across the county that Sauter-Price puts on, like the one held at Arlington Science Focus Elementary, are revenue generators for R.E.A.D, allowing her to buy more books for more families who are in need.

In 2021 alone, Sauter-Price says the fairs have done about $125,000 in sales, much of which goes back to the program. The hope is to double those sales numbers next year.

Community donations and grants also help to finance R.E.A.D. In the summer of 2019, the program received a $50,000 grant from the newspaper publisher Gannett to spruce up an old school bus.

R.E.A.D’s book bus (staff photo by Matt Blitz)

Sauter-Price drives this bus around, brings it to fairs, while families can also shop out of it. She always dress in pajamas because, she says, “it breaks down barriers.”

Future aspirations for R.E.A.D. are high. Sauter-Price just got her peddler’s license meaning she can do “pop-up” book fairs on weekends in commercial areas like Ballston and Clarendon. She’s planning to start doing that this month. Additionally, beginning sometime early next year, the nonprofit is partnering with Virginia Hospital Center to provide a bag of books to uninsured and underinsured moms-to-be.

If R.E.A.D. is able to reach all of those moms, Sauter-Price estimates that it could mean the program could be working with as many as 1,800 babies and young kids a year.

That’s okay by Sauter-Price, who says some of her best memories are reading to her own kids. While they are both grown now and likely don’t want their mom reading to them, reading remains a huge part of Sauter-Price’s life.

She says, “I just feel like my whole life has just been sort of leading to this.”

This feature article was funded by the ARLnow Press Club and was previously published in the Press Club’s weekend newsletter.

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