Through BookSpring, Emily Cicchini puts millions of free books in the hands of Texas kids (2024)

Through BookSpring, Emily Cicchini puts millions of free books in the hands of Texas kids (1)

At a time when the state's leaders are keen to take books away from children, BookSpring has been putting them into the hands of millions of young Texans, 90% of whom come from low-income families.

The 50-year-old Austin-based nonprofit, which grew out of the 1960s-era Reading Is Fundamental movement, has long been dedicated to childhood literacy and personal book ownership. Among the promoters of the early movement that started in Washington, D.C. were members of the presidential Johnson family, including RIF co-founder Lynda Johnson Robb.

In recent years, under director Emily Ball Cicchini, an established playwright, BookSpring has multiplied its give-away efforts, published its own digital titles in Spanish and English, and, like an increasing number of nonprofits, purchased and rehabilitated its charitable nerve center. It's committed to growing home libraries of 20 books per child, which studies indicate leads to more educational success later in life.

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Clearly, the need is there.

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"We still have book deserts in Texas," Cicchini says. "And Texas is dead last in the country when it comes to parents reading to their kids."

Through BookSpring, Emily Cicchini puts millions of free books in the hands of Texas kids (2)

What does it take to become a cultural leader?

Cicchini was born in 1965 in Lansing, Mich. to two Midwesterners, John Waldron Ball, an entrepreneur, and Shirley K. Hickman, a United Church of Christ minister. Creative at an early age, she wrote poetry, dabbled in visual art and performed whenever possible.

During Cicchini's teens, her family fell apart as her father's businesses failed, her parents lost their house, and her mother left to build a new life.

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Cicchini headed out on her own. At age 17, she apprenticed at Lansing's Boarshead Theater, then spent four years at the Goodman School of Drama at DePaul University in Chicago.

"I studied with people who became famous," she jokes. No slacker, Cicchini worked with major theater companies, including Cleveland Playhouse, where she met husband Ron Cicchini. Yet another creative outlet soon beckoned: "I became interested in writing. I had been writing children's plays for years."

That led to a life-changing fellowship at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, one of just three fellows in the initial 1991 class. Her mentor at a time when playwriting was the hot specialty in the department of theater and dance was the late David Mark Cohen.

Buoyed by the training, Cicchini quickly became a cultural leader rather than a follower.

Entrepreneurial like her father, she self-produced and served as artistic director for the Texas Young Playwrights Festival, based at Dougherty Arts Center from 1994 to 1997. Scripts from high school students were performed at the former Capitol City Playhouse and were workshopped at the University of Texas.

From 1997 to 1999, she co-founded and uplifted play development through Austin Script Works, which landed her a residency under Pebbles Wadsworth at what is now UT's Texas Performing Arts. There she worked closely with national artists such as Philip Glass, Bill T. Jones, Robert Wilson and Spalding Gray.

From 1999 to 2003, she cultivated donations for new plays at Zach Theatre. Cicchini: "I learned that to do things, you need to be able to raise money."

"I was so proud of the work that was done," she says. "We were capturing the culture of the moment. And I always kept up with my own writing. Writing to me is a form of self care. It helps me navigate and understand the changing world."

Through BookSpring, Emily Cicchini puts millions of free books in the hands of Texas kids (3)

How children became the point

While Cicchini continued to write for children, she also delved into early childhood learning, especially among those with disabilities. She became involved with the Very Special Arts (VSA) program, established by Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center "to provide people of all ages living with disabilities the opportunity to learn through, participate in and enjoy the arts."

"My work was focused on, in particular, kids from birth to age 3, when the brain is growing the fastest to give each child a really good start with rich experiences." she says of the VSA chapter for which she served as arts education director from 2003 to 2006. "VSA of Texas, now Art Spark, got underway about the same time as Reading Is Fundamental, helping people, helping communities, through a project that was of and in the community.

"There was something hopeful about that period of history and politics, that the communities we build and the actions we take can really help lift people out of poverty."

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At the same time, she worked with Judy Matetzschk-Campbell's children's theater group, Pollyanna, for which she wrote a dozen or so plays that toured all over Texas. One of her plays was "Just Bee," about three women bees who fight over a garden during a time of drought.

At one point during her playwriting efforts, however, Cicchini realized that: "I'm done. I had always focused on arts first, education second. I decided to flip those two values around, and doors began to open."

Not that she would never write another play — over the course of a few chats, she shared some promising ideas — but she moved on to arts education and social justice causes. She also earned her Ph.D. from UT, she says, "as a way to better harness technology and be more effective at helping people to learn."

Through BookSpring, Emily Cicchini puts millions of free books in the hands of Texas kids (4)

BookSpring becomes mainstream

In 2015, Cicchini took over BookSpring. "It's an odd role, executive director," she says. "The more you lead, the more you're just enabling those around you to be their best."

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Among the ways that she has helped transform that nonprofit:

  • BookSpring has built on its building-block program, which gives up to three books — of the child's choice — to own forever.
  • It now operates on a budget of about $2 million a year, twice what it was when Cicchini took over.
  • It distributes 300,000 books to 144,000 kids each year.
  • It now serves, not just Austin, but cities all across the state.
  • It has given away a total of more than 6 million print books.
  • A donation of $10 translates into four print books for kids.
  • It is building a digital library in the face of barriers to digital rights.
  • Responding to complaints that there were not enough books in Spanish, it has commissioned Spanish-language titles.
  • In 2022, it purchased a former branch bank building off West Slaughter Lane and Menchaca Road, renovating it to become BookSpring's permanent home.

"I can see myself finishing out my career with BookSpring," Cicchini says. "I think about consulting and I think about writing again. Yet nothing in my entire career has sailed so fast with so many advances. People love BookSpring, and I love this cause of building up children's literacy. I do see it as a way of helping to save democracy — to save the future.

"This is where I should be."

Through BookSpring, Emily Cicchini puts millions of free books in the hands of Texas kids (2024)
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