The world is getting a little smaller for Maria Keller.
And it’s not just because the Plymouth 14-year-old is an insatiable reader, absorbed simultaneously in the world of Harry Potter and Scout Finch.
Just back from a trip to New York City for a national award, Keller is studying a map of the United States and world for her real-life journey to collect thousands of books for children in need in every state and country in the world.
“It’s unimaginable how few books these kids have,” she said.
It’s an ambitious goal made more realistic, though, since Keller finished collecting 1 million books last year for the nonprofit, Read Indeed, that she started in 2009 — a feat for which she’ll be honored Dec. 7 during CNN’s annual special, “CNN Heroes.” Keller is among three teens honored as CNN’s “Young Wonders.”
It follows another award in October by the New Jersey-based Charles Lafitte Foundation, awarding Keller its first “Junior Changemaker” award and $5,000 for Read Indeed. And in March, Keller was recognized as one of two youths for the Jefferson Awards — regarded as the “Nobel Prize” for public service.
“It’s been a pretty big year,” she said at a Hopkins warehouse where she collects and sorts books. “The awards are nice, but it’s not why I do this.”
As a self-proclaimed introvert, the quiet teen doesn’t like the limelight and doesn’t have much time to celebrate. Between lacrosse practice and leading her freshmen class at Orono High School — and reading the “Harry Potter” series for the seventh time — Keller is trying to collect at least another 1 million books to send to kids in all 50 states and every country in the world.
One million books
With her mother working as a book editor and freelance writer, Keller and her younger brother grew up surrounded by books. So as an 8-year-old, she was baffled one day by her mother’s response when she asked why some of her classmates didn’t read as much as she did: Maybe they couldn’t afford books.
“It just amazed me that other kids didn’t have bedtime stories read to them,” she said. “It was shocking to me. And I wanted to change that.”
Enter the goal to donate 1 million books to children in need by the time she was 18.
“I was 8, so I think I just thought of the biggest number I knew,” she said of the 1 million mark. “I don’t think I thought of the magnitude.”
But it turns out it wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.
What started out of her garage with strangers leaving a pile of books on her front steps has now morphed into a Hopkins warehouse room, stacked with wood pallets and sturdy boxes of books, holding up to 20,000 books at a time. With the help of some media attention, corporate book drives and volunteers, she hit the 1 million book mark — more than $4 million worth of books — in fall 2013, five years early.
“We thought, ‘Oh, this is such a cute-little-girl idea that’s not going to go anywhere,’” said her mother, Maura Keller. “I was pretty blown away. She doesn’t lose momentum.”
Twice a month, volunteers — mostly children, from scouts to church groups and families — help Keller, her mother and younger brother, Ryan, sort and distribute books to children at hospitals, orphanages and schools worldwide. Her father, who works in design, created Read Indeed’s logo. And together the family celebrates Keller’s success with trips to Arizona and New York City for the recent awards.
On a laminated wall map in the warehouse, she marks off the 41 states her books have gone to with green stickers. On a world map next to it, pink stickers dot 16 countries — from Pakistan to the Philippines. In all, she’s collected and distributed 1.3 million books.
“It’s crazy how much the community has responded,” she said.
To save on shipping costs, she sends books with companies when they send supplies abroad or with church groups and mission trips to give books directly to children.
And although her books end up all over the world, Keller is still focused on helping local Minnesota kids. She said about 80 percent of the books she collects are from Minnesotans and go to Minnesota schools, hospitals and other groups.
Like Minneapolis’ Andersen United Community School, where Keller raised enough money to give all 1,200 students three books last year.
“That was incredible to give every kid a book,” said school Principal Denise Wells. “Many of our kids don’t have books at home. It’s a wonderful gift.”