Story at a glance

  • Many people — children and adults alike — living in refugee camps have trouble accessing books, especially in their native language.
  • A new nonprofit named Millie’s Bookshelf is filling that need, by installing micro-libraries at refugee camps in Jordan, Iraq and Mexico.
  • The libraries that Millie’s Bookshelf creates are designed with the input of the local community.

Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” centers on the story of a book-loving girl named Matilda Wormwood who escapes her difficult home life through diving into literature. The humanitarian literacy nonprofit Millie’s Bookshelf takes a page from Matilda and stands by the idea that every child fleeing war and persecution deserves access to good books.

“Our organization is named after Matilda. Millie's a nickname for Matilda,” says Katie Howland, co-founder and executive director of Millie’s Bookshelf. “She used books to escape her own reality and create a brighter future for herself. And we just want that opportunity for every other displaced kiddo.”

The organization launched one year ago, and they have installed microlibraries at the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, located a few miles south of the Syrian border. The Za’atari camp is one of the largest refugee camps in the world. So far, Millie’s Bookshelf already operates or has plans to install their micro-libraries in Jordan, Iraq and Mexico.

Howland has worked in the international development sector for many years, including at the United Nations Foundation. She also volunteered at the only maternity clinic in Jordan’s Za’atari camp.

“There would be women who come with their kids, and they would be waiting for quite some time,” she says. “The kids just had nothing to do. I remember sitting there and thinking this would be a really great opportunity to provide some sort of informal education.”

Howland spoke with some of the parents and heard how difficult it was to get their hands on a book in the camp. She says, “Most of them had no idea where to even find a book, where to find a library or a bookstore or anything of that nature.”

The libraries that Millie’s Bookshelf installs are designed with the input of the local community. The organization conducts surveys to figure out what kinds of books are most desired. Their typical “Millie's Reading Corner” includes three bookshelves with between 400 and 600 new books in the local language.

“The reality is that a lot of organizations are only providing English books, even when the local communities don't speak English,” says Howland. “We think it's really critical to cultivate literacy and a love of reading your own language.”

Published on Dec 06, 2019