Storybook Maze brings life to Baltimore book deserts with pop-ups, vending machines and buses

Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun/TNS

Araba Maze’s nonprofit, Storybook Maze, brings free books with diverse characters and storylines to areas with limited access to books. She started out giving them away through pop-ups and vending machines and now she’s doing it at a larger scale.

As a book lover herself, she read to her nieces and nephews on the stoop of her West Baltimore home. Often the neighborhood kids would gather and listen to the stories. Maze didn’t mind the extra company, but the children never wanted to leave after story time. They would tell her they didn’t have books at home for their own families to read to them.

“That really got me thinking about how to get free books,” she said. “From there, I just gave away the books that I had. And then I became a librarian thinking that that was like, you know, going to solve the problem of book access.”

Maze graduated from Bowie State University with a bachelor’s degree in English in 2011.

Unite for Literacy, a group promoting reading, publishes the Book Desert Map which charts book availability based on the percentage of households that have more than 100 books. The map shows Baltimore as mostly red, indicating 10% or fewer homes have access to that many books. West Baltimore is nearly all red while East Baltimore is mainly red with some exceptions. In 2019, the most recent figures available, Baltimore’s average reading score for fourth graders was 19 points lower than the national average, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Maze ties the lack of books to the low literacy rate. To make sure she offers books that will capture kids’ interest, Maze handpicks the items she gives away. Depending on the pop-up, the books can vary. Maze said she listens to the community to see what kids want; the books often have characters of color, but she has given out textbooks as well as science and history books. With the help of grants from organizations like the United Way and donations from social media, she hopes to transform the way some kids view books.

“When I was a librarian, I noticed that the kids that were coming into the library weren’t the kids necessarily, who I was reading to out in the streets, and sometimes it’s not the kids who need it the most,” she said.

She wanted to reach the kids who didn’t have a routine of going to these places. Library-going is generational, she said.

Maze is now a part-time traditional librarian so that she can work as a “Radical Street Librarian,” as she’s nicknamed herself, full time. Her nickname reflects her determination to get Baltimore excited about reading.

Maze not only does pop-up book giveaways, she uses grant money to fund the free book vending machine at the Randallstown YMCA Swimming Center. Kids use a token given to them by the staff to select a book.

Maze won the United Way of Central Maryland’s Changemaker Challenge, receiving a $15,000 grant to fund the vending machine and another $5,000 grant as the audience choice in 2021.

“Araba has this kind of tenacity. If you’ve talked to her, you see the energy that she puts behind her work,” Renee Beck, vice president of marketing and innovation at United Way Central of Maryland, said.

Maze also works with organizations such as Be More Green, an after-school program focused on eating healthy, on Juneteenth celebrations.

“[Books] are replacing video game time, books are the video games,” Dominic Nell, better known as Farmer Nell, the founder of Be More Green, said. “It’s not just some cool Instagram she does, she’s really having an impact.”

Social media is big part of Maze’s work. Followers are able to donate and send books to her. Her Instagram and TikTok are full of book recommendations featuring characters of color and snippets from pop-ups.

Maze recently won a $20,000 grant through Event Brite’s Reconvene Accelerator competition to fund her next project, an effort to make the reading experience come to life by filling a bus with books and snacks and creating an immersive experience that uses senses like taste, touch and sight. The book bus will also take kids to literary landmarks, in an effort to associate positive memories to the stories.

She’s heard from teachers and parents that some children have negative perceptions about books, but she still hasn’t lost faith in changing their perspectives.

“We’re trying to change that mindset,” Maze said. “One of those ways is creating curious, happy, imaginative experiences with books that leave kids going from hating reading to hungry for books.”

This article is part of our Newsmaker series, which profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at