Family literacy activist Pam Leo helps a child select a free book through her Book Fairy Pantry Project. Contributed / Pam Leo

Longtime family literacy advocate Pam Leo of Portland is the Book Fairy.

“I have the next best job to Santa Claus,” she says. “People are happy to see me because I’m always bringing them books.”

Through her nonprofit Book Fairy Pantry Project, Leo has distributed thousands of children’s books across the Greater Portland area since 2016, on a mission to get books into the hands of as many kids as possible, as early as possible, and get parents reading to them. Lately, the project has attracted attention in other states and is starting to spread.

“The number one thing children need to be readers is to be in love with books,” said Leo, author of “Connection Parenting” and the children’s book, “Please Read to Me.” “That happens if they have books, and are read to.”

She holds drives for gently used children’s books at schools, churches and food drives. She searches at Goodwill stores regularly for books, and Goodwill has donated gift cards to help with her mission, she said.

While one of Leo’s initial plans to distribute books through food pantries has not taken off as she’d hoped, other organizations have jumped in to help get books to families who need them.


Jen Dadiotes, a lifelong member of the Scarborough United Methodist Church, was thrilled when she learned about Book Fairy, and she recruited members of her congregation to help run a book drive.

The results of Scarborough United Methodist Church’s book drive, all donated to the Book Fairy Pantry Project. Contributed / Scarborough United Methodist Church

“The church was very excited to help her. She’s amazing,” Dadiotes said.

Church members collected 14 bags of books, which Leo then sorted. She attempts to pair each book with a stuffed toy that is relevant to the book to make them more enticing to children.

Dadiotes said she was struck by how much Leo is able to accomplish on her own. “She showed me her whole process and said she doesn’t have a lot of help,” she said. “It would be great to have people volunteer and help her.”

Many members of her congregation have grandchildren, she said, and they’re happy to continue pitching in for Book Fairy.

Head Start, a federal program that promotes school readiness for children up to age 5 from low-income families, has become a main distributor for Book Fairy. Leo recently delivered 400 bags of books to be distributed among Head Starts across the state, she said. Other active distributors include the Women, Infants and Children Program and Maine Needs group. Leo also distributes to the Portland Housing Authority.


Despite wanting to do the best they can for their children, too many parents simply lack the support system and resources they need to instill reading into their kids’ lives from an early age, Leo said. Throughout her career she has worked with teen parents, parents in prison, parents in recovery from addiction and low-income parents.

“There’s no shortage of gently used children’s books, so there’s no reason that children should not own books,” she said. “A child’s whole future and quality of life are going to depend on whether that child can read. It’s a key to everything.”

Growing up with books and being read to is a top indicator that a child will be prepared to enter kindergarten, ready to learn, she said, and if kids don’t learn to read, they can’t read to learn. The majority of impoverished children in the U.S. do not have one book to call their own, and there is one book for every 300 children in low-income neighborhoods, she says.

Raising Readers, a program that paired every child in the state of Maine with a book each year from birth to age 5, recently ended after 23 years, so Leo said it’s more important than ever to ensure that the gaps left by that program are filled.

As part of her mission, she has started a read-aloud parenting program at various venues, including Birth Roots Maine in Portland. The “story hour for expecting parents” emphasizes the importance of reading to children from birth. “That can be a foreign idea if people don’t know you can read to babies before they understand,” Leo said.

“What’s most important is getting books to parents, because it gets them that tool to bond with their child,” she said. “The greatest need of every child is to be securely bonded with one adult,” and reading, she said, is proven to facilitate that.


In this photo from 2020, Harrison Fream, an Eagle Scout from Scarborough, talks with Book Fairy Pantry Project founder Pam Leo about a Little Free Library they started at Kennedy Park in Portland. File photo / The Forecaster

In addition, early reading is linked to many positive outcomes later in life.

“If children have a minimum of 20 books, they stay in school longer and have all kinds of benefits,” she said.

Leo has donated copies of her own children’s book “Please Read to Me” to Maine Medical Center, in hopes of getting at least one book to parents of newborn infants that they can bring home from the hospital.

“Receiving it (at birth) puts them on the road to reading immediately,” Leo said.

Leo has worked frequently with the East End Community School in Portland. Recently, she collected 300 early reader books and packaged them in groups of five, then gave them to the school to distribute to kids at random. Kids were given an hour to trade books with each other, which she said associated fun and excitement with reading.

Four years ago, Karen Fream, a literacy coach at East End Community School, encouraged her son, Harrison, then 16, to build two Little Free Libraries for book distribution for his Eagle Scout project, one in Kennedy Park and over in the Riverton neighborhood. Leo filled them with books and refills them throughout the year.


“We all have Little Libraries in the suburbs, but it’s great to have them in the city,” Fream said, adding that Leo does a good job at providing “a diversity of books, so that all kids can see themselves in a book.”

Through social media, Book Fairy has spread to other states as well. An Eagle Scout in New York state collected over 5,000 books to distribute to food pantries there, Leo said. She’s also heard from a group of moms in Nashville who are implementing the project in their local food pantries.

Leo said she hasn’t given up trying to get books into pantries here in Maine.

“If people can’t afford food, they can’t afford books for their children,” she said.

In the meantime, she’s pursuing all available avenues to reach kids and families least likely to have access to children’s books of their own.

“We’re all going to be affected by whether or not children grow up to read,” she said.

Leo accepts donations at Maine Needs. She asks that people make an appointment with her so she can meet them to receive the donations. More information about the project is available at

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