Vending machines give Detroit kids access to free books

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Stepping up to a new vending machine at the Patton Recreation Center in southwest Detroit, DaJean Spear had a choice to make and it had nothing to do with chips or pop.

Instead, the 10-year-old Gompers Elementary-Middle School student was selecting a new book to take home — for free.

Through JetBlue Airways’ “Soar with Reading” program, DaJean and other Detroit kids up to 14 years old can take the books through Labor Day.

Last week, DaJean took home “The Maze Runner,” a young adult science fiction book by James Dashner. On Wednesday, he was eager to flip through a book written in Spanish.

“I’m going to read them and give them to my friends,” he said.

The machine is among five installed across the city.

JetBlue, in partnership with Random House Children’s Books, has a goal of delivering 100,000 books to the city’s children. If it’s not met by summer’s end, the remaining books will be distributed through local partners, said Tamara Young, a JetBlue spokeswoman.

The airline, which offers flights out of Detroit Metro Airport, launched its reading program six years ago and first tested the vending machine initiative last year in Washington, D.C. The effort targets areas deemed “book deserts” where families have limited access to buy age-appropriate books for their children.

Research commissioned by JetBlue found some areas in Detroit had only one age appropriate book for every 42 children.

Detroit last summer beat out four other cities — Houston; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Los Angeles and New York — in the running for the vending machines through JetBlue’s online #BookBattle competition. Detroit earned 48 percent of the nearly 1.3 million votes cast.

The machines were placed in high traffic areas of the communities most in need, including community centers, churches and parks.

Lisa Bryant, recreation center supervisor at Patton, said she’s filling up the machine an average of three times a day. Staffers plan to rotate in new selections every two weeks.

Among the offerings are Richard Scarry’s “Just Right Word Book” and “Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket” by Tatyana Feeney.

“It gets a lot of attention,” she said. “We put it right here at the main entrance so no matter what door you come in you always see it.”

Other literacy efforts have also ramped up in Detroit over the past couple of years.

A grassroots campaign known as Detroit Little Libraries is working to promote reading in the city through the Little Free Library, the take-a-book, leave-a-book movement. Since the campaign launched in September 2014, the group has worked with partners to put up 150 libraries in front of people’s homes, small businesses, parks, community gardens, police stations, worship houses and health centers.

For information about JetBlue’s program, visit

Book vending machine locations

■Matrix Center, 13560 E. McNichols

■Northwest Activities Center, 18100 Meyers

■Patton Park, 2301 Woodmere

■Rosedale Park Baptist Church, 14179 Evergreen

■Samaritan Center, 5555 Conner