Rocket Science: Rebecca Cohen
The Brooklyn Book Bodega co-founder on the power of collective efforts, YA literature trends, funding libraries, and old Sesame Street albums.
Rebecca is an educator and co-founder of Brooklyn Book Bodega, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the number of 100+ book homes in Brooklyn. Research shows that households with 100+ books boost life outcomes for children and adolescents.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a couple of books actually. I’m reading a book on the history of music called Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres by Kelefa Sanneh.
Basically, it’s an anthology of the history of music and the roots of music in the U.S. What’s great about it is that you could spend a very long time reading a page because you play all the songs as you go. If you really like music, it’s a great read. It’s for my family book club and my brother picked it.
What was your favorite book as a kid?
Honestly, for me, it was whatever book I was reading. I read a lot. I was the kind of kid reading the back of the cereal box at breakfast as someone was talking to me. A voracious reader, because I wanted to know about life beyond where I lived and what I was doing.
I think I read for adventure. I read for experiences that I didn’t have or hadn’t had yet. Whether it was Crime and Punishment or Little Women or something, it was a way to break past the four walls and have different experiences.
What’s one of your favorite bookstores or libraries in the world?
I’m a big Books Are Magic fan, they’re really civically-minded. Books Are Magic donated financially, and they have a setup wherein customers can buy a book for themselves but can also buy a book for us. They’ve been awesome.
When we started Brooklyn Book Bodega, we really didn’t know how we would be received by libraries and bookstores. We see ourselves as an important third piece of the puzzle around literacy. Libraries are awesome, but there can be limitations.
Sometimes there are fees (though thankfully New York City has gotten rid of fees and late fines), but they’re not always open, and people may not live conveniently near a branch. There are limitations.
And bookstores are awesome, but there are limitations there too, right? Books cost money. At the average cost of like $18 a book, building out a shelf of books costs a lot of money.
We also work with the library as a partner in literacy, book access, and book choice for kids and families. So, that’s been a wonderful relationship too.
Can you think back to that inflection point, that actual real-time moment when you thought, “Okay, we’re actually going to do this?”
That’s a good question. I thought about the idea of giving out books for decades. Then, in the fall of 2018, I sat down with my co-founders, Seema and Tamara. Every Wednesday morning talked through ideas like, “What do we want to do? How do we want to do this? Who do we want to serve? What does the research say? How do you do this in New York City?”
A lot of book banks start in more suburban or rural areas where people have lots of real estate, right? The first thing you do is fill up your garage with books.
Brooklyn is not necessarily a place with a lot of garages just waiting to be filled with books. So, we connected with another parent at our school who’s a gym supervisor at a community center. He said, “You want to give out books? I have a lot of books. Let’s talk. Let’s get these books out.” Our first event was shortly after, and we hit the ground running because he had a ton of books.
What do you see as a trend, good or bad, happening in Young Adult literature?
YA literature has just broadened so much since I was a kid. If you are interested in a genre, you can just go down that rabbit hole for a really long time.
Graphic novels, fantasy, dystopian fiction … so many doors have been opened in the past 20 years. Kids can look at what’s available and think, “I like this … and it’s going to lead me to this and this and this down the shelf,” which is great.
You develop into a lifelong reader when you get to read what you want, and you have a choice about what you read. That’s an awesome trend. But you can’t live on dessert alone. It’s really important to try out other genres, more challenging content, and other ideas. Being an open-minded reader is an important skill to develop.
That book, Major Labels, is maybe not the book I would’ve chosen for my family book club. It’s taken me a long time to read it. I read it really slowly because it’s really dense. But it’s really worth reading. And I value being an open-minded reader.
What’s your superpower at work?
I’m going to say research, really digging into the research, the rationale, the why behind why our work matters.
I started teaching 22 years ago, and I saw very clearly in my classroom that there were kids who could read but didn’t read. Once that switch turned for them and they became readers, doors of opportunity opened to them.
I had this like in the back of my head for 18 years before I started to actualize it. It was only because I approached two super smart people with this idea and they were like, “Let’s do it.” Brooklyn Book Bodega would not be here without that momentum from my co-founders.
So actually I think my superpower is sort of plugging that research drive into a collective effort. There’s a real power to the team that started this, working together and capitalizing on each other’s strengths.
What’s your favorite building in New York City?
Off the top of my head, the Guggenheim is awesome. There’s like always that question, “Do you start at the bottom or do you start at the top?” How do you view art and how does the physical place impact the viewer’s experience?
What’s your favorite wall decoration in your home?
I love picture book illustrations. So, I’ve been collecting little illustrations from different illustrators and I have a wall full of them. In some other path, in some other life, I would’ve pursued some more studio art.
The President just called and wants you to be the next Secretary of Education, what’s your first official act?
We need to get funding for librarians and libraries in every school. I mean, let’s fund the best, the most awesome librarians. At my school in Texas, we had the most phenomenal librarian. A librarian can guide you and say, “I know you as a reader, and here’s this author I want to introduce you to.”
Librarians are super skilled and not frequently valued in school budgets. Oftentimes, they’re the first to go. Having that space can be a lifesaver for some kids.
The Book Bodega is seemingly everywhere. What’s been your biggest challenge as you’re trying to reach all areas of the borough?
Funding. We started off as entirely volunteer-led. We’ve done a fair amount of fundraising, but if we could tap into some more financial support and add more staff, we could do way more.
What are you listening to right now, music or podcast-wise?
This American Life. Tons of it. Also, whatever my three-year-old wants to listen to. There are some really good old Sesame Street albums. I mean, they’re full of awesome guests. Old-school Sesame Street songs have been on repeat for sure.
Who’s a creative person you really admire?
I really like Donald Judd’s art, it’s phenomenal. I lived and taught in Texas, where you learn to appreciate big sky, and seeing those pieces in big spaces is extraordinary.
Admittedly, I don’t know that much about like the man himself, but I admire his art and what he did with Marfa and his Soho studio. You think of him as having worked in big indoor and outdoor spaces with big sheets of metal.
It’s interesting because the SoHo space has its own beauty, but it’s so much smaller. He wasn’t a prisoner of scale.
What do you like about having your base of operations in the Navy Yard?
It’s wonderful because the Navy Yard is a community. It’s a great incubator for businesses and nonprofits.
And the physical space for us is incredibly useful and safe. Books are heavy, so having a loading dock, working elevators, big doorways … all of those things are not to be underestimated. Before the Navy Yard, in a different space, we were carrying box by box up steps from a cellar. So, I appreciate a good loading dock.