Scarsdale Public Library’s free kiosks are community treasures, places where residents can find or leave a few good books. Thanks to the efforts of two Fox Meadow teens, Asher Kohn, a Scarsdale High School sophomore, and his brother, Zane, an eighth grader at the middle school, the selection at these lit lovers’ hubs is now more socially relevant than ever.
Earlier this month, the two launched Diverse Books Teach Tolerance, a community service project that will stock the kiosks with books by or about people from diverse backgrounds.
“Our goal is to basically just spread tolerance around our community of different races and different cultures,” Asher, 15, said. “We’re trying to spread this tolerance through literature. We’ve created a schedule of themes for each month — for example, this month is Black History Month — and each month we’re going to be putting new books into the kiosks.”
Added 14-year-old Zane, “We’re trying to get our messages across to all different kinds of readers. So we have children’s books, young adult books, and adult books.”
Youth offerings for this month include the novel “The Mighty Miss Malone” by Christopher Paul Curtis, in which the narrator is a 12-year-old African American girl, and “Black is a Rainbow Color” by author Angela Joy and illustrator Ekua Holmes, featuring a child who reflects on the meaning of being Black.
The idea of creating a project around Scarsdale’s three library kiosks at Chase Park, Hyatt Field and Crossway Field came to the brothers after Asher participated in an extraordinary summer program, the Experiment Digital, last year. Aimed at promoting cross-cultural exchange and leadership skills, it provided U.S. high school students a chance to engage with peers nationwide, as well as those around the Middle East and North Africa region. “It was a little nerve-wracking at first,” Asher remembered, “but eventually, because I got to know these people, it was nice.”
The program assigned participants weekly homework on the topic of leadership, and also encouraged them to create a social action project proposal. The proposals were then submitted to The Stevens Initiative, an international effort to build global competence and career readiness skills for young people, for review. Winning proposals would receive grants, enabling young people to bring their ideas to fruition.
Asher and Zane came up with the idea of Diverse Books Teach Tolerance together, drew up a proposal and threw their hat into the ring. A little over a month ago, the brothers got good news: “We were 1 of 15 grant winners, out of around 3,000 applicants,” Asher said. Zane was thrilled: “We definitely weren’t expecting to win anything, so we were really happy when we won.”
Armed with their grant and a mandate, Asher and Zane turned to the Scarsdale Public Library for help. Teen Services Manager Jennifer Brinley was eager to assist. “When I was hired to run the new teen services department in December 2020, my director assigned me to be the library’s liaison for the library kiosks in Scarsdale,” Brinley said, noting that the kiosks themselves were originally implemented by the boys’ older sister, Danielle, a Scarsdale High School senior. Asher and Zane, Brinley said, “are using the kiosks as points of community access and outreach for their community service project, Diverse Books Teach Tolerance, [and] I was the obvious choice. I welcome the opportunity to interact with and support local teens, as that is quite literally my job.”
Personal experience made it easy for Brinley to see the need for the Kohns’ diversity initiative. “My own upbringing was quite sheltered due to a lack of diversity among my peers, teachers and neighbors,” she said. “Travel is a great horizon-broadening tool, but travel is not safe right now. Reading is a great alternative in 2021! I agree with Asher and Zane’s belief that we can build a better world through reading diverse books. The long-term return on this investment they are making in Scarsdale now will be felt far into the future, and that makes me proud to help them with their project.”
To select which books will be added to the kiosks each month, the boys consult a spreadsheet of suggested titles compiled by SPL librarians, and also mull over recommendations from the English department at the high school. “We’ve basically been doing just a little bit of research about each book to see whether we think it would be good for that month,” Zane said. “I’ve been kind of like the steward for the kiosks. I go around once every week or two to check in on the books and add new books. We have stickers and bookmarks in each book to let people know about the program.”
If the evidence is any indicator, Diverse Books Teach Tolerance has been a big hit so far. “I put the books in the kiosks early one weekend this month and three days later when I checked on the Chase Park kiosk every single one of them was gone,” Zane said. “It was in the middle of a snowstorm too, so we were pretty surprised!”
The brothers want to continue the project even after their grant runs out. To help, visit diversebookstt.com, where there is a wish list and a link to a GoFundMe page, along with a calendar of upcoming monthly themes for the year. “This is really important for our community,” said Asher, “and we hope it has a really big impact.”