Charlotte Wendelken, 9, a third grade student at Laddie A....

Charlotte Wendelken, 9, a third grade student at Laddie A. Decker Sound Beach School in Miller Place, places a token into a book vending machine Thursday. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Charlotte Wendelken walked to the vending machine at Laddie A. Decker Sound Beach School in Miller Place, slipped a gold token into the slot, punched a couple of buttons and collected her purchase.

It wasn't candy or a soft drink that the 9-year-old took from the machine, but something much more valuable: a book.

"Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus," by Dusti Bowling, to be precise.

Charlotte told Newsday she has been collecting new books from the machine since last fall — rewards for committing random acts of kindness.

"At the beginning of the year, I gave pins to the whole class to show them I wanted to be their friend," Charlotte said, recalling how she earned her first gold coin. She used it to buy "Escape from Mr. Lemoncello's Library," by Chris Grabenstein.

"I was thankful," Charlotte said.

She and her classmates have been devouring new books since October, when Miller Place school officials installed vending machines at Laddie A. Decker and two other district schools, Andrew Muller Primary School and North Country Road Middle School.

Students earn points from performing good deeds, such as taking it upon themselves to clean lunchroom tables or bringing homework assignments to classmates whose illnesses caused them to miss school. Students then use the points to collect tokens.

Superintendent Seth Lipshie said the machines encourage children to read and reward them for helping their classmates. He said the program has been a success, noting that the machine at the Muller school, which serves children in kindergarten through second grade, had to be restocked soon after it was installed.

"It's really about kindness," Lipshie said. "We want kids to act in the best way possible."

Miller Place Parent-Teacher Organization members purchased the machines last year after some publishers canceled book fairs during the COVID-19 pandemic. They went online to find alternatives because the cancellations left many students, especially those with lower family incomes, unable to acquire new books, PTO president Dawn McCarthy told Newsday.

“We Googled our lives away and found an option that it didn’t matter if you had any money," she said.

They found that Buffalo-based Global Vending Group, which manufactures snack and coffee machines, also makes book vending machines. The company has sold 5,000 machines since the program started in 2018, field manager Ken Banaszak told Newsday.

“The whole idea is to get books into children’s hands,” he said. “We saw a need in local schools here and we created a program to get kids excited about reading.” 

McCarthy said the PTO raised $20,820 to buy the machines. The PTO also buys the books, which are selected by school librarians.

The machines at the Muller and Decker elementary schools each hold several dozen books, McCarthy said. The middle school machine holds about 300, she said.

McCarthy said the machines instill good habits in students and nurture a lifelong love of literature.

“I’m old-fashioned. I think books are important,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s important that they are there and they earned it through their hard work.”

Most vending machine books at Laddie A. Decker Sound Beach School are graphic novels popular among young readers. Some examples:

"Shelby's Story: A Puppy Tale," by W. Bruce Cameron. A rescue dog becomes a movie star. 

"El Deafo," by Cece Bell. A hearing-impaired child discovers her hearing aid gives her super powers. 

"Magic Tree House," by Mary Pope Osbourne. Series in which siblings find that a tree house takes them back in time for incredible adventures.

"Ranger in Time," by Kate Messner. Series in which a golden retriever visits historical events such as earthquakes and D-Day.


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