With this article, Children’s Bookshelf launches an occasional feature that will focus on literacy organizations and the work they do to promote reading within their communities.

Seven years ago, Emily Moberly was fresh out of college and teaching bilingual high school juniors and seniors in Honduras, when she had a life-changing realization. While the students were working on in-class essays, Moberly had been re-reading her favorite book, To Kill a Mockingbird. As a student handed in a paper, she asked Moberly why she was reading. “You’re the teacher,” she said. “You could be doing anything.” More of her students shared their thoughts about reading: almost none of them had ever read a book for enjoyment, and couldn’t understand why anyone would.

Moberly thought about her own childhood: “Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, but my childhood was so rich because of reading,” she said. She decided that day to do her best to inspire a love of reading in her students; when she came back to her home in San Diego over the holidays that year, she filled up a suitcase with books and brought them back with her. She marveled at “how quickly and powerfully the books impacted the students’ lives.”

Following her time in Honduras, Moberly moved back to San Diego and onto other fields of work, but she would often hear from those students, many of whom had become lifelong readers. It was so rewarding to know that she had been influential, and she missed that feeling. Moberly’s friends also recognized that she had a calling; in fact, they encouraged her to start a literacy-related nonprofit. In 2009, her friends were able to help Moberly raise the money she needed to file the paperwork to kick off her 501(c)3, and Traveling Stories was born in 2010. The group’s official mission is to “empower kids to outsmart poverty by providing the literacy and money management skills they need to be productive members of society.”

Seven years later, the San Diego-based nonprofit is going strong, though the organization’s focus has somewhat shifted. Initially, Moberly explained, she worked on opening libraries in international communities, doing so in South Sudan, Cambodia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the Philippines. Those libraries are now largely self-sufficient. But back in San Diego, Moberly began to see a need for the same type of direct action within her own community. Rather than establishing libraries, however, she designed a different model of literacy promotion: “What if we brought our service to where kids are already hanging out?” she reasoned.

In 2011, Moberly established the first “StoryTent” in a San Diego farmers market. Since then, locations have expanded to include skateboarding and art festivals, comic book stores, libraries, and other public areas. The organization is now looking into establishing tents in Wal-Mart locations. The tents, which are set up to be cozy and welcoming, provide books geared toward readers ages two to 12. Though it is always okay for readers to take home books, the organization doesn’t hold as many outright book giveaways as it did in the beginning. Years of experience have taught Moberly that kids tend to value taking home a book a lot more if they see it as a “special treat.”

An important component of the StoryTents are “book bucks.” Readers earn a book buck for every book they read or have read to them; they can then use their book bucks to get prizes like mechanical pencils, play dough, gift cards, and even something big like an Easy-Bake Oven. Many of the readers who first stop by the tents are not frequent readers and are primarily incentivized by these prizes—but over and over, Moberly has seen something wonderful happen as the kids return to the tents each week: many of them “fall in love with reading” for its own sake.

Rewarding kids for reading with book bucks has another benefit: “Kids learn money management skills,” Moberly said. They are even invited to negotiate for more book bucks if, for example, a book they read was especially challenging. Another perk of the very popular book bucks: Moberly and her team don’t generally need to do a lot of marketing outreach—kids take care of that by spreading the word themselves amongst their friends and family. The StoryTents in San Diego now each draw between 40 to 60 readers a week. The organization has a small San Diego-based staff and relies heavily on volunteers to help with the day-to-day operations.

Traveling Stories acquires its selection of books from both individual donors and publishers. The group also networks with schools, libraries, after-school programs, the YMCA, and other literacy and nonprofit organizations within the community. However, Traveling Stories is purposefully independent from educational settings, because their aim is for kids to develop positive associations with reading outside of their schools and on their own terms. “The kids who come to the Story Tents are there by choice,” Moberly said.

For Moberly, the mission behind Traveling Stories is as critical today as ever before: “Literacy rates in the U.S. are shockingly low.” While poverty and hunger may be more apparent to the eye than illiteracy, the value of learning to read has a resounding impact on a child’s life: “Reading is one of the most powerful tools needed to become independent and to break the cycle of poverty,” she said.

The success of the Traveling Stories model has caught on and the program has expanded to satellite locations in Turlock, Calif., Toronto, and Nashville. At home in San Diego, Traveling Stories is focusing on its budget needs for the next year. On Giving Tuesday, it launched an end-of-year fundraiser, with the goal of raising $50,000 by December 31. In order to ensure that the StoryTents stay for another year, San Diego children have taken it upon themselves to help with the fundraising—by donating their own book bucks. Now, organizations are matching the book buck donations from the kids with real money.

When she launched Traveling Stories, Moberly didn’t know that readers would also be learning about and practicing civic engagement—and she couldn’t be happier about it: “That’s what the world needs now: to think of others and to care about our communities,” she said.

Do you know of a literacy organization that you think should be included in this feature? Please send pitches to Matia Burnett.

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