LOS ANGELES — It only takes a moment for Dr. Claudia Cataldo to tell just who she’ll chase down next.
It was late on a sweltering Thursday afternoon when Cataldo — standing beside her two-door Honda Accord literally packed with books — spotted a woman and her daughter cutting through a nearby parking lot.
“Hey! Do you like to read? Do you want some books?” she called out, with the exuberance that only a high school English teacher can muster.
Cataldo waved the two over to her car, a makeshift bookmobile, and they slowed down just a bit, wary, but intrigued. The daughter hesitated, and Cataldo saw her opening to drop the hammer.
“They’re free!” she said, with a smile hidden — but still audible — behind a short stack of face masks.
She had them.
In less than a minute, the young girl had a stack of about six thin elementary-level books — and a "Highlights For Children" magazine dropped into her arms as she walked away.
And so it went on Thursday, as Cataldo held a small pop-up giveaway just across the street from LAUSD’s Santee Education Complex, where she teaches 12th-grade English.
She began her one-woman bookmobile crusade last spring, a few weeks after the pandemic shut down LAUSD schools. To raise student spirits, Santee teachers participated in a “spirit caravan.” When some students who didn’t live along the original route reached out, Cataldo took part in a second “one-car non-caravan” — and thought, why not bring some books along, too?
A call for help on Facebook and among friends left Cataldo stocked with books. She transformed her personal Instagram page to promote her growing bookmobile to folks in need.
Soon, Cataldo developed connections: First one rec center in Boyle Heights, then another. She donated enough books to create a small library at a transitional shelter in Watts, and then built connections with food distributions, South LA neighborhood councils, and local farmers markets. Since July, she’s run free book tables at the Saturday Crenshaw Farmers Market.
Her tables are arranged by reading level: elementary-age, young adult, and adult books, and they’re set up in such a way that she and her volunteer assistants can get books into hands quickly and efficiently. (And for her Advanced Placement Literature students, she’s got a box of books from the AP reading lists.)
“My only requirement is that kids get to choose their own books,” Cataldo said. “Little kids aren’t picky. But by the time they’re in middle school, they have a favorite author.” And if they have a preference — a favorite author, a series, a genre — Cataldo and her volunteers will give away an entire set, no questions asked. She’s even given out entire Harry Potter sets in the past.
As an English teacher, she knows that kids are more likely to read books that they chose themselves, rather than books that are assigned to them. And if people reach out to her requesting books, she’ll do what she can to pick them up, either from donations or from used bookstores.
“I want them to feel like they deserve the best books — that they get what they want, and they deserve to pick their books,” Cataldo said. “I’m really adamant about that.”
Many of the people who visited her afternoon pop-up on Thursday were former students, checking in after a year or more post-graduation.
Johan Rodriguez, a former student, had brought his young nephew — and as the student and teacher caught up, his nephew sat back on a curb, nose deep in a superhero story.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen him reading in a long time,” Rodriguez said. “I’d rather see him expanding his vocabulary, expanding his mind, rather than being on the phone.”
Another former student, Wendy Cruz-Bahena, credited Cataldo with helping push her to study at Dartmouth University.
“She helped give me confidence and revised my work,” Cruz-Bahena said. “She was like yeah, you can be talented, but you have to work hard at it too.”
But Cruz-Bahena was also at the bookmobile to get back into a reading habit. She read constantly growing up, but as she came out of her shell in high school, she put down the books.
“But I’ve been trying to rekindle my love for reading, because it really did help give me a poetic voice, and that’s something I want to communicate with my art,” Cruz-Bahena said.
The pandemic was stifling as well — she found herself feeling inadequate and hopeless stuck inside. “Reading was how I expanded my world before, and I thought I would try it again now,” she said.
Maribel Ramos first encountered Cataldo at another past stop, over at 28th Street and Central Avenue, along with a handful of her nieces and nephews.
“My daughter — she’s 4-years-old — she’s been bugging me and begging me that she wants me to read to her and I needed more books,” Ramos said. On Thursday, months after their first meeting, Ramos tracked her down once again.
“It’s amazing,” Ramos said. “I’ve never seen this before…we’re actually building her her own library.”
Cataldo was already well-known in the community, after more than a decade of teaching at Santee, and Jefferson High School before that. Her students and families love her, and she loves them right back — and few things warm her like the radiance she feels when handing books over to families.
“It’s the unconcealed joy I would see in their faces, especially when I say, don’t take just one,” Cataldo said. “A lot of kids aren’t greedy…I find that poignant. They deserve better. During such a difficult time, I want to do something to bring them a little bit of joy, and some comfort and distraction.”