Schenectady teacher Cesaera Pirrone could barely contain her excitement as she darted from box to box, picking out 3,000 books for her students.
She picked out alphabet books “so little guys can read to their younger siblings.”
Then she caught sight of the graphic novels. She ran over to grab a box.
“Graphic novels! That appeals to a lot of my guys who are reluctant readers,” she said.
Then it was on to grab the new Peter Pan series — because there’s a girl and a boy as main characters.
Pirrone was one of hundreds of teachers who drove to Niskayuna’s school bus garage this week to pick up free books, distributed by a nonprofit called First Book.
The books are brand new, popular titles, donated by publishing houses. Disney sent the 500,000 books offered in Niskayuna, but First Book has arrangements with every publishing house, officials said.
Usually, teachers order books through First Book’s website, paying 45 to 75 cents shipping per book. But this time, the books were free.
Some teachers from downstate rented Ryder buses to haul away books. Others came with pickup trucks. Pirrone, however, had one of the biggest hauls. She had specifically requested 3,000 books for her entire school, Central Park International Magnet School in Schenectady.
By the time school ended at Central Park, teachers and volunteers from the New York State United Teachers union had spread the books out on tables in the parking lot. Children swarmed the tables, jostling to get a look at every book before carefully selecting the two they’d get to keep.
One student hesitantly held a book out to a volunteer, asking how much it was, not willing to believe that it was really free.
Other students took one look at the giveaway, and thought of family members at other schools.
Malakhi Hooks, a fourth-grader, was one of several students who had to be told they could not pick two of the same book.
He could have two books, he was told, but why would he want them both to be the same?
Hanging his head, he shrugged and handed one back. Then he slipped into the line for chapter books and picked out a second book well above his grade level.
No one questioned him this time, and he headed off with what he wanted: a book for himself, and one for a cousin not lucky enough to be attending Central Park International Magnet School.
“My cousin loves big books, like this,” he said. “She loves chapter books.”
Hooks does too. Although he picked out a graphic novel about Captain America for himself, he’s already read the first two “Harry Potter” books and is working through the third one.
He’s also seen the movies — to his dismay. It’s better to read the book first, he said, because the movies spoil the climactic ending.
“It feels like more of a surprise when you read it,” he said.
As for Captain America, he was hoping for good artwork.
“Really hoping they’re going to have some action,” he said.
The book giveaway had two goals. First, Pirrone hoped that if the right book got into a child’s hands, it could build a lifelong love of reading.
“These books — they’re our students’ favorites. They know these characters,” she said. “Kids are realizing they want to read.”
Secondly, teachers want to build home libraries for children — where they, their siblings and their friends could all read a beloved book.
Pirrone urges children to keep books that she gives them so that they can pass them on to others.
She hopes that if a fellow student describes the reasons why the book is worth reading, the next child will be far more likely to read it than if an adult recommended the book.
Using her own money, Pirrone bought 500 books for her seventh- and eighth-grade Social Studies students this year, trying to get them all to fall in love with reading. All the books were through First Book, for 45 to 75 cents each — costing Pirrone more than $300.
She couldn’t afford to buy enough for the rest of the K-8 school, she said.
Until the books were delivered, free, to the bus garage.
“To have this opportunity to bring almost 3,000 books to my students!” she said, tearing up. “You know they love to read. You know it in your heart. They don’t know it yet.”