Distributing 'safe' books to Little Free Libraries, ETHS rising senior Kieran Kuttan hopes to entice residents from screens to pages. Photo montage from Kieran Kuttan

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Kiran Kuttan, a rising senior at Evanston Township High School, is dismayed at the choices he sees many fellow Evanstonians making while they shelter at home. “Most people have switched from reading to watching too much [junk] on their digital platforms,” he says.

Statistics bear out his impression. The first week of the COVID-19 quarantine, The Nielsen Company reported that video gaming was up 75%. The week of April 13, the company found U.S. viewers spent nearly twice as much time streaming as they spent a year ago – a bonanza for the streaming platform Netflix.

But in Kiran’s mind, what is good for Netflix is not necessarily good for its audience. A fan of libraries, he spent last summer at a help desk at the entrance to the children’s wing of the Evanston Public Library. When COVID-19 sent him into isolation at home, he set out to find a “cure” for quarantined couch potatoes – one that would require no laboratories or vaccines or clinical trials.

“My parents have a lot of books,” Kiran says – books they offered to share. The dilemma was how to distribute books at a time when people are warned to distance themselves from others and scientists suggest that the novel coronavirus can live on many surfaces.

Kiran’s solution involves an ingenious twist on a book-sharing system already in place. He had taken note of the Little Free Libraries around town. Individuals and families can purchase a little library or a DIY kit to make one on the Little Free Libraries website. These doll house-sized structures are mounted on posts in front yards, where they are intended to attract passers-by to a changing selection of books free for the taking.

But Kiran went one step beyond delivering books to the 13 Little Free Libraries he located in Evanston. He slipped each book into a Ziploc bag and, in honor of the pandemic he was guarding against spreading, called them “Safe Books.” Kiran estimates he has placed around 50 books in the Little Free Libraries he has located. He says he plans to continue placing about 10 books a week “until school starts again.”

Kiran spoke with Margaret Aldrich, team leader at the Little Free Libraries headquarters. He says she was “thankful” for his work. He says she told him what he is doing “can help bridge [the] gap” in reading that families and children would otherwise face this summer with school and city libraries closed.

Kiran also contacted S.C. Johnson & Son, current producers of the Ziploc plastic storage bags developed and tested by Dow Chemical Co. in 1968. The company had a particularly helpful response to Kiran’s email.

When Teri Sugden, Senior Consumer Representative at S. C. Johnson & Son, answered Kiran’s email, he says he told her “my mom was getting mad [at me] for using up all those expensive Ziplocs in our kitchen.”

Ms. Sugden, Kiran says, “sent me coupons for five free large boxes” of bags. That should be enough to protect classics like “Moby Dick” and “Tom Sawyer,” which are among the titles he has placed so far, as well as whatever books he chooses from among the 500 or so in the family garage and basement.

Meanwhile, taking his own advice, Kiran is currently escaping without leaving home, immersed in the medieval fantasies in the “Brotherband Chronicles” by Australian author John Flanagan.