By: Jessica Michael Bowman

The Packhorse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky

NPR’s Morning Edition shares the story of the Pack Horse Library Project. Give it a listen!

If you came to this post hoping for a foray into the macabre or for some bone-chilling, creative writing inspiration, I apologize.  I so wanted this post, in the spirt of today’s holiday, to be haunting. I wanted it to stick with my readers – an eery feeling they can’t shake, to confront them like the jump scare they all know is coming but that still catches their breath and finds them leaping out of their seats and goosebump-riddled skin. After they read it they would be changed – peeking furtively around corners, turning on lights to keep themselves from being swallowed up by darkness. Today seemed like the perfect opportunity to invite the ghoulish and grim into the classroom, perhaps through a study of ghostly folklore.

However, just like the best of horror films and stories, this post has taken a sudden, jarring turn. While I did originally aim for research-based instructional practices, practical and even lighthearted, and tried to stray from the inspirational all-in-my-feelings vein my posts usually take, my heart could not shake the recent impression made by the Packhorse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky. And while I acknowledge that today is Halloween, I think so much of this post has to do with my “teacher view” of October.

October always feels so much to me like the month when things begin stalling. It’s a time of transition, reflection, and wistfulness. Like leaves on trees, some of us are struggling to hang on. The year is no longer new. Now, we’re in the trenches. Knee deep in the dirt, in the midst of our toil. It feels as if the year has just begun and yet we stress and worry, because it also already feels half over. And yet, as always, there is still so much to do. Have we covered it all? Taught our students what they need to know? Are we making any difference? How long is it until winter break? At this point, my earlier reminder of finding beauty in the dirt is perhaps an annoying echo that is reverberating in your head, only adding to your mild headache.

If you find yourself climbing one steep mountain just to stumble down into another valley, then this post is for you. So many teachers I work with this time of year need a little pick-me-up, some rallying before they tackle that next climb. To have their wells filled, even just a bit. For this reason, I’m setting aside what I had tentatively titled “the power of metacognition in the elementary classroom” and instead I’m introducing you to the Packhorse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky – aka my spirit animal hero beings.

During the Great Depression poverty, destitution, and illiteracy were the realities of many American children. Within the Eastern Kentucky region of the Appalachian Mountains, where many did not have running water, electricity, or access to books – brave, pioneering women, cradling books, brought literacy and a love of reading. Known as the Packhorse Librarians, they forded creeks and lead their horses through backcountry, often with no roads. These women towed pillowcases and packs stuffed full of books, some handmade and created from discarded pages, some donated, heading out on horseback to bring books to the remote mountain areas, to make readers where there was often little hope.


Grace would ride that horse, and he would swim through the creeks. She had mountains to climb and valleys to go through.

Feeling inspired? When a teacher first shared their story with me, I certainly was. I couldn’t help but see the metaphor for us as teachers, to try to connect my own cause and beliefs to theirs. As teachers, so often we’re faced with insurmountable fear and unparalled stress, the odds stacked against. The need is so great and we can feel so inadequate in many ways, so spent. We travel up the same mountains, just to go through new valleys.

But when I think of these women, leaving their own families at the early light of dawn and returning as dusk sweeps in, I recognize their toil but see the worth of their sacrifice. I imagine the joy and wonder of those children, being read to under that chestnut tree – discovering words and a burgeoning love of reading for the first time. I feel the wear of a long journey, the weight of the librarians’ haul. But I also hear words – read aloud for the first time, uttered softly one at a time, and then strung together and echoing through the valleys.

And I wonder if I can be that for my students – those who may not have access to books at home, or be encouraged to be writers and thinkers, those who aren’t afforded the opportunities to fall in love with story and craft their own. I wonder if I, like the Packhorse Librarians of Easter Kentucky, can meet my children where they’re at. When they are struggling and even when it seems so daunting, when they can’t meet us where they are or find their love of reading… will we we bring the books to them?

WVCTE is wondering… How do you meet your readers where they are? How do you share your love of reading?

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Jessica Michael Bowman is a literacy coach for Berkeley County Schools, unabashed bibliophile, and advocate of lifelong literacy. When she’s not coaching teachers, teaching students, or blogging for WVCTE, she’s probably crying over a book. Aside from literacy, her other loves of life are traveling with her family and adding to her music collection. You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.

Categories: Blog

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