Inspired by a recent incident in Troy, two Waldo County women are launching an effort to teach children tolerance through stories read aloud. They are co-hosting a free “Picnic of Books” Saturday, June 16, at Triplet Park in Unity for children of all ages — preschool to preteen — to bring lunch, stretch out on quilts and listen to stories that promote appreciation for cultural differences.

They need some initial help — volunteer readers (adults and older teens) and people to bring quilts for the picnic, which will run from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. And in a companion effort, the pair are seeking donations of cash and labor to build Little Free Libraries in neighboring communities, beginning with one in Thorndike.

Appreciation for differences

When Leaverton, of Searsport, learned of an incident in Troy, where the new business sign for a halal butcher shop was defaced, possibly in a hate crime, she wanted to do something. The shop, Five Pillars Butchery, is owned by Kathryn Piper, a cousin, and her husband, Hussam (Sam) Al-Rawi.

“The incident in Troy made me think about how we come to appreciate people who are different from us,” said Leaverton, an artist, writer, director and University of Maine professor who teaches storytelling.

“Katie is my cousin’s daughter,” Leaverton said. “I contacted her to show my support. I wanted to do something but didn’t know what would be useful. We did some brainstorming and came up with this idea based on my interest in keeping the issue out in the community, and in supporting them.”

Power to transform

In her storytelling course at UMaine, Leaverton said she does something along the lines of the Picnic of Books with her students. “We read and interpret children’s literature as an oral performance,” she said, “so I’m familiar with children’s literature and its oral power — and how much we rely upon it culturally as a way to introduce children to culture, to ideas, and to help them master so many things.

“Literacy has so much power to transform,” she said.

Piper, the mother of two young children, said, “We wanted to host some kind of event to continue the dialogue that began from this incident. Education through reading is one of the best ways to reach people, and if we focus the reading event on tolerance and cultural awareness, it nurtures these concepts at an early age and creates comfort surrounding topics that can often be difficult and uncomfortable conversations, especially for those who were not introduced at early ages.”

The Triplet Park Storybook Picnic is modeled on events Leaverton discovered through an author friend who travels to different towns throughout Central America to host “Picnics des Palabras,” which translates to “Word Picnics.” The friend’s books were well-loved in libraries, Leaverton said, but fewer books are published in Spanish than in English. “For a long time … kids only encountered (her books) at these Word Picnic events,” she said.

“Literacy is essential for expanding our horizons since we encounter cultures through books, traveling beyond our own backyards,” Leaverton explained. “Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the dangers of a ‘single story.’ She says, ‘Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again and that is what they become.’ I was surprised by the literacy rate in Maine. We rely upon books to accomplish so much teaching, but not everyone can read.”

Little Free Libraries

For the Triplet Park Picnic of Books, Piper and Leaverton are selecting books that promote cultural understanding. They hope families will join together, and that adults will volunteer to read. After the picnic, Leaverton and Piper will donate the books to a local organization or school and make sure some books make it into local Little Free Libraries.

Aside from the immediate objective of offering a fun opportunity to hear stories read aloud in a tranquil outdoor setting, another objective for Piper and Leaverton is getting more Little Free Libraries built in neighboring communities.

There already is a Little Free Library in Triplet Park. A project of Literacy Volunteers of Waldo County, a Little Free Library requires approximately $75 in building materials, and they typically are built with donated labor. Literacy Volunteers provides the materials and some help.

The mission of Literacy Volunteers of Waldo County is to empower adult learners by increasing their literacy skills, improving opportunity through reading, and enhancing a culture of literacy within our community. Maine ranks number four for children living in poverty, at 24 percent. Another statistic that spurred on Leaverton and Piper is that in the U.S., one child in four grows up not knowing how to read.

The Literacy Volunteers of Waldo County website states: “Literacy is learned. Illiteracy is often passed along by parents who cannot read or write.”

After a conversation with Piper, Heirloom House owner Zoey Bond agreed to host a Little Free Library at her Thorndike location. Piper and her husband plan to cover the cost of building it, and books Leaverton has purchased for the Triplet Park Picnic of Books will help to stock it.

Others have also offered support, including Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine. “Karen Maryslaughter got in touch with us after she heard about (the picnic) and offered to promote it on their website,” Leaverton said. “Also Mary Roberts from Regional School Unit 3 — she’s a literacy advocate. She is promoting it on her website.” Friends also have volunteered to read at the event on Saturday, she said.

“For the Triplet Park Picnic of Books, we have books for younger kids and older kids,” Leaverton said. “For the older preteen crowd, maybe just a chapter would be read — and then they could check it out at the library. If they like the book, we'd try to get it and put in the Little Free Library.

“We have some old goodies and classics — Dr. Seuss, but also newer books, including ‘Beautiful Blackbird’ by Ashley Bryan, which is essentially a story about the joys we discover in difference, but also about self-acceptance.”

Of their endeavor Piper said, “We are neighbors that make up a greater community, and like a family, it takes hard work and communication to be healthy. Since we live in a culturally expanding world, it is more vital to work hard and find our commonalities to unite on instead of focusing on our differences in order to divide us.

“Once we find our commonalities, it is easier to tolerate one another’s differences.”

Volunteers needed

The organizers are seeing volunteers to bring quilts, to read, and to serve refreshments at the June 16 event in Triplet Park. Contact Lisa Leaverton at with questions, to volunteer, or to donate toward the purchase of children’s books.

To get to Triplet Park: From the intersection of Routes 9 and 139 (School Street) in Unity, drive on Route 139 for less than 0.1 mile to the Unity Community Center on the left. Park in the Community Center's parking lot and cross Route 139 on foot to reach Wood Lane. Walk down Wood Lane and Triplet Park will be on your left, marked with a large wooden sign.