After the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel – when the Gaza-based terrorist organization massacred 1,200 people, mostly Jewish civilians, in southern Israel and took 240 hostages – Abby Cooper felt helpless.
The Twin Cities Jewish children’s author donated to Israeli families, but didn’t feel like she was making a difference. Cooper decided to channel her frustration into something more concrete.
“I needed to do something to distract myself from all of the feelings of helplessness,” Cooper said. “No matter what’s going on, helping someone else always makes me feel better.”
Looking around for a project, she realized that she had a large collection of children’s books. They had cropped up over Cooper’s years as an author, reading other people’s works, and receiving gifts during conferences.
Now, the books were just sitting on shelves.
“Why am I holding on to them?” Cooper thought. “Why don’t I get them to families who really need them, and who will appreciate them and enjoy them.”
So Cooper launched A Book of My Own, a new nonprofit where Minnesota families in need can tell her about their children’s interests, and Cooper will send them a hand-picked selection of new or near-new books – at no cost to the families.
Since October, Cooper has sent about 2,000 books to 200 families across the state, serving roughly 400 kids. For now, the nonprofit is a one-woman show, with Cooper balancing the book matching with parenting a two-year-old and promotion for an upcoming book launch in May.
“I have recently put out a call for volunteers to just help me manage things,” Cooper said. “I’m looking for volunteers who can help with writing grants, who can help with social media marketing, [and everything from designing t-shirts to making infographics] because I just can’t do everything myself.”
The best way to help, though, is the simplest: Donations, whether funding for the shipping costs, or books to send to families. For now, Cooper is accepting donations to her venmo (@Abby-Cooper-9), and is working on an official donation process through the nonprofit.
It takes about $20 to sponsor a family – $10 for buying books, $10 for shipping. Cooper aims to send each child at least three books, but often sends more.
Books can be bought new through Back Forty Books, a bookstore in Two Harbors that has a promo code for Cooper’s initiative, and donated from there. Or books can be donated used – importantly, in near-new condition.
“Kids are very smart, and if you’re handing them a falling apart copy of [a book] from 1970, they’re not impressed,” Cooper said. “That doesn’t make them feel good about themselves, that doesn’t make them want to read…[kids need] to feel like they are important and they are worthy of getting a nice book that you could have picked off the shelf at the bookstore.”
Cooper didn’t plan to launch a nonprofit when starting this project. She started with a post in a Facebook group for people in need, asking if anyone was interested in receiving some of her books.
“I posted, not really expecting a big response,” Cooper said. “I got over 50 responses that first time. So I was extremely busy for a few weeks. And it was magical.”
The more she spoke with families, the more she learned about their situations. Maybe they lost their home and could no longer access their books. Maybe a child was regularly hospitalized and couldn’t be safely taken to a public library. Or, for a variety of personal or work reasons, parents couldn’t drive their kids to a library.
“That actually encouraged me to continue on and to try to turn this into something even more, because there are situations and scenarios people shared with me that I had never even thought about,” Cooper said. “Things that families may be going through that prevent them from getting books on top of financial stress.”
The project is deeply connected to Cooper’s interests. As a former elementary school teacher and trained librarian, she is passionate about book access. While schools have libraries, there are a variety of bookstores, and public libraries are an essential service to many, that doesn’t mean all families and kids can access them – or that they can get personalized help.
For example, “school libraries don’t always have certified school librarians there to help kids pick the best books for them,” Cooper said.
Many public libraries are chronically underfunded and under-staffed. Meanwhile, studies have shown that family book ownership is one of the top predictors of academic success for children – as important as whether parents have a college education or not.
But this isn’t just about academics for Cooper. Having quality books for kids is “important in the greater sense of the world, in helping kids become intelligent, empathetic, well-rounded people.”
There’s also something different about the confidence built when kids have a physical book, feel a sense of ownership, and can build community around it.
“The child needs to be able to revisit the book, to be able to share the book with family and friends,” Cooper said. “There’s a proud feeling for a child when they have a book that is theirs. It can really increase self-confidence, not only when it comes to literacy and reading, but confidence in who they are and what they deserve.”
Cooper has gotten a surge of donations, support, and offerings of help from online groups. An attorney reached out to, pro bono, to help her turn A Book of My Own into a registered nonprofit. Part of that support has also come from local Jewish moms’ Facebook group Minnesota Mammalehs. (Editor’s note: TC Jewfolk runs the Minnesota Mammalehs group.)
“Especially after Oct. 7, it’s just so comforting to have that community,” Cooper said. “I’ve received tons of wonderful donations from the Mammalehs. I’ve had Mammalehs offer to connect me with people they know in the nonprofit industry, and just their kind words and their encouragement – that really means a lot to me. I’m just really grateful to have that group for this and for life in general.”
As Cooper continues working on and expanding A Book of My Own, she’s also thinking about the kind of books she should be getting and sending to families. Books in languages other than English, books that show the world’s diversity, and a mix of fiction and nonfiction.
“You’ll see books with Jewish characters, you’ll see books with Muslim characters,” Cooper said. “I think books are one way we encourage love over hate. They’re one way we develop empathy. And one way we teach kids that we are all human.
“That is such a big thing for kids to learn – not just right now, but especially right now.”