It may look like an ice cream truck, but what's inside Natalie Pipkin's creation may be far sweeter.
"We have a variety of baby board books," Pipkin said. "Some are bilingual."
Four years ago, Pipkin and her husband Andre started homeschooling their two children after noticing they weren’t learning certain aspects of American history.
"'Mom, if they're always lying to us, why do you keep sending us back here?'" Pipkin said about her kids. "After I picked my face up off the floor, I'm like, 'Why do I do this? Why did my mom do it?'"
So, they started traveling, bringing learning front and center. Then, something happened.
"Through those travels, we were visiting different events, bookstores, and things like that, and we discovered a whole world of books we had never seen," Pipkin said.
Fast forward to 2022, and what started as a home library turned into an online store, and now this: A bookmobile filled with stories from Black authors called Black Wordschoolers.
"They became flashlight, under-the-cover readers," Pipkin said. "They became the kids you don't want to tell to go to bed because they're reading the book."
Experts say the Pipkins got the prescription right: Reading the things of interest to her children can be like holding up a mirror to their dreams.
Andre Pipkin Jr. said it "inspired me to learn more about myself and why people learn new things."
According to the research analytics group Wordsrated, about 12% of children’s books are about African American or African characters.
"You're more likely to find a book with a talking lion than you are to find a book with a Black girl from Detroit or a child or a character from Thailand," said Dr. Miah Daughtery, vice president of teaching and learning advocacy for literacy at NWEA. "They are living lives where they see themselves everywhere else, and if we can't get them to see themselves in books, then as a child, why would I read it?"
Finding books that spark interest is one thing; the pandemic’s impact on reading is another factor.
Researchers at the Northwest Evaluation Association say after schools were shuttered, findings showed a negative impact on literacy rates for students.
Now, the numbers overall are improving. But Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic students and students at high-poverty schools have seen a slower recovery, with government funding set to run out before a full recovery can happen.
"The bleeding has stopped, so now we can focus on recovery," said Dr. Karyn Lewis, school director and student progress at NWEA. "We're starting to see some signs of improvements, but we still have a ways to go to get kids really caught up to where they would have been absent the pandemic."
Pipkin says they didn't launch the bookmobile to combat negative literacy rates but negative stereotypes.
"Although it's a celebration of Black culture, Black joy, Black stories — it benefits all of us because we're all being fed negative images and negative stories that we all get to remove, all the negativity, and step into a new story together," Pipkin said.
It's opening the door to a world of possibility for all who come aboard.
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