One Teacher, Four Wheels, Hundreds Of Books: A Look At South LA's Bookmobile

12th-grade teacher Claudia Cataldo stands among the books she's giving out to community members in South L.A. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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Claudia Cataldo's gray two-door Honda Accord is filled almost to the windows with books. Hundreds and hundreds of them.

Picture and young adult books are in the backseat. Novels and nonfiction are in the trunk.

"Sometimes when I'm driving, you know if I have to, if I just slow down kind of abruptly, I feel books flying in my head," she said.

Cataldo converted her sedan into an improvised bookmobile as part of an effort to deliver books to her 12th grade students from Los Angeles Unified School District's Santee Education Complex, just south of downtown.

But with school campuses and public libraries closed during the pandemic and more and more students having had a hard time getting new books, Cataldo revived a low-tech, old-school concept: the bookmobile. Her effort has evolved into a community distribution for people of all ages.

Some of the demand comes from families who don't have reliable transportation to get to the few libraries open for curbside pickup — and many of those families don't have Internet access to place books on hold in the first place.

There's also growing demand from parents who run across Cataldo's outreach efforts at places like the Central Avenue Farmers Market. Last Thursday, with the help of some former students, she spread out dozens of books on folding tables underneath white canopies.

Isabela Tambriz browses the books offered by Claudia Cataldo at the Central Avenue Farmers Market. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Isabela Tambriz wandered over with her three kids from the main stretch of fruit and vegetable vendors.

"Miramos que hay libros y el libro es muy importante," Tambriz said. ("We saw that there were books, and the book is very important.")

Before the pandemic, her family visited the public library up the street once a week, but it's been closed since March.

Her 4-year-old son enthusiastically spells out his name N-A-T-H-A-N and tells me one of his favorite books is "The Three Little Pigs."

Tambriz fills a plastic bag with picture books for Nathan and his 2-year-old sister, and picks the young adult novel "Gone Away Lake" for her oldest daughter, who's 10.

She said you learn good things when you read.

'THE FREEDOM TO CHOOSE WHATEVER THEY WANT TO READ'

After schools closed in March, Cataldo heard from students that were both depressed and frustrated by the pandemic. She's taught at Santee since 2006.

"It turned out they were actually getting bored on their devices and screens, which is, you know, extraordinary," Cataldo said.

Like Tambriz's kids, many students relied on the library or their school for new reading material before the pandemic. When Cataldo first started trying to fill the gap, she pulled from her own collection and delivered books to individual students. As the need grew, she started asking for donations on social media and her car became a roving bookmobile.

She'd pull up to her students' homes, throw open the doors and pop the trunk. Her students, their families and anyone who happened to walk by could pick anything from the collection.

"It's the freedom to choose whatever they want to read, that then makes them want to read more," Cataldo said. "So that's a very important thing for me to be able to give them, which is the complete choice and no pressure."

"Harry Potter," "Diary of Wimpy Kid" and "Captain Underpants" have been some of the most popular titles. There have also been a few surprise hits.

"I didn't realize so many kids wanted to have Shakespeare to read in their free time," Cataldo said.

At the beginning of June she put out a call for donations on social media and people from all around Los Angeles answered. Cataldo drove from her home in Marina Del Rey to East Hollywood, Eagle Rock, Beverly Hills and Watts to pick up books.

"Frankly, I'd rather spend hours behind the wheel than behind Zoom," Cataldo said.

Claudia Cataldo and volunteers wheel a mound of books from her car into the Central Avenue Farmers Market. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

At the invitation of L.A. Councilman Curren Price, she started distributing books at the Central Avenue market. She's also popped up at the Crenshaw Farmers Market and established libraries at shelters and transitional housing programs.

"I want them to feel like books can be a treasured possession and one of the best ways to escape from the negativity that's around us, especially right now," Cataldo said. "The books are theirs to keep. I don't want them back."

Cataldo will return to her virtual classroom when LAUSD's new school year starts on August 18. She'll have less time to captain the bookmobile, which has helped bridge the gap between teacher and students.

"They can come here and we can be together and it's not the classroom and it's not school, but it allows me to see them in person and see their faces and talk to them and catch up on what's going on in a way that you can really only do in person and not virtually," Cataldo said.

Thursday will be her last day at the Central Avenue Farmers Market, but she plans to continue to distribute books on the weekends, like at the Crenshaw Farmers Market on Saturdays. She's still taking donations through Instagram and is also open to attending any event that could use a free book table.

"This has been so rewarding to me, I'm not going to stop," Cataldo said.

Yandel Morales, Yahir Morales, their aunt Bonnie Morales and friend Aylen Arrendondo hold a sign they made for Dr. Cataldo's bookmobile. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

DONATED BOOKS KEEP ON GIVING

At the Central Avenue market last week, the first person to stop by was Bonnie Morales, who brought along her nephews. Cataldo was Morales' teacher back in 2004 at Thomas Jefferson High School.

"I became really attached to her because you know, she was not like the other teachers," Morales said. "She actually cared about the students."

Morales is still an avid reader. Her soon-to-be-born daughter has been listening to her read aloud from Spanish literature greats like Gabriel García Márquez.

Books are set up by age range to help parents find which books might be best for their children. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

"We come every Thursday now because.the kids are not going to school. They gotta read," Morales said.

She helps watch her late brother's children while their mom works a factory during the day. The kids are assigned at least two hours of reading. Morales also insists they practice reading in English and Spanish.

"We just want them to be smart," Morales said. "I want them to do better and I don't want my nephews to have a job that they don't like. I want them to do something good for the community. They're very smart and friendly, but we're just trying our best."

The kids are building their own library with milk crates from the bakery next door as shelves.

"I like to read any books I find," said Morales' 10-year-old nephew, Yandel. But if he had to choose, he'd pick comics or something about magic.

"It helps me because it helps me learn better so I could help other people who [don't] know how to read," Yandel said. "Maybe it might be good for me to help them. Maybe they could help other people."