WINONA, MINN. – Willy Wonka gave out golden tickets so kids could discover the wonders of his chocolate factory.

Tammy Eastep gives out golden coins so kids can discover the wonder of reading.

The first-grade teacher at Jefferson School in this southeastern Minnesota city raised almost $10,000 to buy a vending machine and fill it with books. School administrators aren't certain, but they believe theirs is the first school in the state with a book vending machine.

Each week, students who live up to the school code — respectful, responsible and safe — are chosen by their teachers to receive a golden coin and taken to the machine in the lobby. There, they can select a book that's theirs to keep. Each student also gets a golden coin on their birthday.

"They love grabbing it out," said Maggie Maine, the school principal. "They get super excited."

The idea came to Eastep on a snow day last year. She'd read about other schools that used the vending machines, and sitting at home with her husband, Dave, she blurted out, "Will you pay for it?"

She didn't mean that he should dig into his own pocket. But she hoped that perhaps his employer, Celanese Corp., might come up with the money.

Dave Eastep didn't laugh. He told her to put together a proposal, and that started months of fundraising.

"She cold-called. She wrote letters. She met with groups," Maine said. "It's been her baby."

And local businesses and foundations came through. Celanese contributed; so did RTP Co., Winona National Bank, Midtown Foods, the Eagles Foundation and the BK5K Foundation.

All told, they came up with almost $10,000, enough to buy the machine and about $4,000 worth of books to keep it stocked through the school year and probably beyond.

Eastep gets emotional when talking about the machine and the students. With 42% of its students eligible for free or reduced lunch, Jefferson serves a population that doesn't always have learning advantages.

"There are a lot of kids here who don't have books at home," Eastep said, her eyes brimming with tears. "That was a huge reason behind this."

On a recent visit, four students trooped out to the lobby to receive their golden coins. Eight-year-old William Hennessy is already an avid reader.

"I just read books for fun," he said. "I like reading." His selection: "Who Would Win? Falcon vs. Hawk." Alissa Fitts, also 8, chose "Little Acorn."

"I felt happy," she said, clutching the book to her chest. Ten-year-old Talia Gondola, calling the machine "a neat idea to do," picked a book written in Spanish, "Un Único Destino." (She's in the school's Spanish immersion program.) And 6-year-old Juliette Raadt chose a Junie B. Jones book, "Cheater Pants."

When the machine first arrived, the area was blocked off for a week as it was being installed. The kids all thought it was a candy machine, Maine said with a laugh.

"But since we unveiled it," she said, "I haven't heard one word about candy."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402