Mason Adams Published

High School Student Uses Music, Nonprofit To Raise W.Va. Literacy Rates

Rania Zuri stands with preschoolers during a reading of her book, “It's Mountain Music to My Ears.”
Rania Zuri stands with preschoolers during a reading of her book, “It's Mountain Music to My Ears.”
Courtesy of Rania Zuri

This story originally aired in the Feb. 3, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.

High school student Rania Zuri has made it her mission to end book deserts in West Virginia.

Book deserts are places without libraries and bookstores, threatening literacy rates for young children. A senior at Morgantown High School, Zuri founded the LiTEArary Society to provide books to preschool children across West Virginia.

She recently spoke with Inside Appalachia host Mason Adams.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Zuri: I’ve always been a bibliophile my whole life, and I had a classics book club in middle school. But in ninth grade, I was working on a project to set up a small library for young girls, when I learned about book deserts and the vast book deserts that exist in our own country. I decided to combine my book club with my passion for ending the book desert into the LiTEArary Society, which is a play on words of literary and tea. We are an entirely youth-led 501(c)(3) nonprofit with the mission of ending book deserts for preschool ages three to five from disadvantaged families. At this age, the children are too young to check out a book themselves from the library, and their families or caregivers don’t necessarily have the disposable income to go out and buy books. That means Head Start, because it is the federal preschool program for preschool children from households at or below the poverty line.

Adams: Once you started to dig in, what did book deserts actually look like on the ground?

Zuri:  Well, it’s definitely been very different from just reading about it. But as I went out, and I traveled throughout the state, and I’ve been traveling throughout Appalachia, in the most remote and rural parts of the region, and seeing that these children – they have their faces, they have stories, and they have backstories – I have been constantly met with questions at every stop. There’s always new stories and new faces, but always the same question: “Can we take this book home?” And so it’s always a delight for me to tell them that it was their book to take home and call their own.

Adams: Can you tell me about your childhood and what your reading experience was like?

Zuri: I wasn’t a kid that had everything. I didn’t have the latest toys or video games and things like that. But I always had books. I was so fortunate enough to always have books in my life. They’re just so important to have as a child, as there really is a magic in reading. I truly believe that books are a ladder out of poverty. That’s where kind of the inspiration of my mission came from, from my own background. I was the kid that always had a board book or princess book, whatever.

Members of the LiTEArary Society at Morgantown High School. Courtesy of Rania Zuri

Adams: So you helped found the LiTEArary Society and then this past year, you all gifted a brand new book to every single preschool child in Head Start across West Virginia. That sounds like it took a lot of work.

Zuri: Oh, it did. It took a very long time. I called this project the West Virginia Head Start Road Tour. It was almost 7,000 brand new books in total, and I traveled to every single Head Start center in the state to donate these new books. I held reading circles with the children. Many of the children in Head Start didn’t have any books at home. It was my favorite part to give them the books. Some of the children, when I handed out the books, they were jumping up and down from excitement. That was truly a delight.

Rania Zuri signs her book, “It’s Mountain Music to My Ears” at the West Virginia Tourism Center. Courtesy of Rania Zuri

Adams: Now you’ve gone from bibliophile, to mountain book ambassador, to author. Tell us about this new book that you’ve been working on.

Zuri: My latest initiative has a musical aspect to it. I wrote and illustrated a series of rhyming Appalachian-themed children’s picture books about an Appalachian hare named Billy Bob. My first book in the series is called “It’s Mountain Music to My Ears.” It tells a musical adventure of the Appalachian hare named Billy Bob, who goes through the hills and hollers of West Virginia, and he meets different Appalachian animals that each play different Appalachian musical instruments like the spoons, the mountain dulcimer, the mandolin, the banjo, washboard.

Zuri says her next book is already in the works. She’ll be promoting it soon.