Part library, part community center, the Little Bookworm Library provides a place where Chinese families can celebrate their heritage while encouraging literacy, and the broader community can learn about Chinese culture.
The newly opened library is the brainchild of Atherton mom LuLu Roberts, who moved to the Midpeninsula from Taiwan in 2008. As a mother of four young children, Roberts said she struggled to find children's books or story times in Mandarin at the Menlo Park public library.
"There was a very small percentage of books for the Asian patron, and programs there seemed to be only in English or Spanish," Roberts said.
Roberts said she was dismayed that she had such a difficult time finding resources, especially since Asians represent a growing segment of the population. In Menlo Park, 15% of the population identifies as Asian, and in neighboring Palo Alto, Asians represent over 33% of the population according to data from the 2020 Census.
After unsuccessfully petitioning the Menlo Park Library to provide more Chinese resources, Roberts decided to create the Joy Culture Foundation, the nonprofit Chinese cultural club that operates the Little Bookworm Library.
"I want to pass down my heritage to my kids," Roberts said. "It is so important for them to recognize who they are."
Roberts said she believes that many second-generation Chinese American children deny the Asian part of their ancestry or "become molded into a stereotype."
"It is hard because their skin color is different, and the culture their parents infuse them with is different," Roberts said.
Many Asian immigrant mothers also struggle, Roberts said. Life can be challenging because they lack English language skills or because they do not drive, she said.
Using seed money from her husband's family, who cofounded the investment company Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts, she established the Joy Culture Foundation with a board of directors that shares her vision.
Roberts said she wanted to establish a cultural space in Menlo Park because of the area's central location on the Peninsula and because she lives within minutes of downtown.
It was not an easy search, and the pandemic caused a delay in her timeline, she said.
Roberts said everything came together during the summer of 2021 after a landlord unexpectedly called to offer her 2,200 square feet of space in a building he owned in downtown Menlo Park.
"I seem to surround myself with supportive people," Roberts laughed. The space at 934 Santa Cruz Ave. includes a private courtyard and dedicated parking.
"It was a perfect fit," she said.
Relying on a small staff, along with the work of many volunteers, the Little Bookworm Library opened in February — just in time for the Lunar New Year celebrations. Roberts pointed out that it was not just the work of interested Asian families that created the library.
"There were students from Menlo Atherton High School who came to build the shelving," she said, noting, "We welcome all races — people who are interested in Chinese culture."
The foundation consists of three facets: play spaces, programs and the library. Roberts lights up when she describes the mommy/baby programs that take place in the colorful, toy-filled section of the center.
"They can come and have quality time here with their babies," said Roberts, adding that it is a chance for bonding to occur between mother and child and other mothers.
Ivy Sun, who lives in Santa Clara, brings her 3-year-old daughter, Summer, to the center nearly every other week to participate in the Mandarin story times and other preschool programs.
"This is a place where I can feel safe. ... The children have fun and make as much noise as they want," Sun said.
Programs offered for school-aged children are usually taught in both English and Mandarin by experienced educators. They include a wide range of classes, from art workshops to calligraphy to cooking to mental math. Two multipurpose rooms are used for classes while parents sit outside in a shaded courtyard and socialize.
"I love it when I see parents out here having their own party," Roberts said.
The library holds contemporary books, many published in Taiwan, that are written specifically for elementary school children. Roberts said that there are books in both traditional and simplified Mandarin, as well as graphic novels for the older kids — and their parents. The goal is to provide the all-important advantage of language skills.
"These children will be biliterate so they can read in Chinese," Roberts said. She pointed out that studies show it takes 13 years for a person to learn enough language skills to use them for a lifetime.
"Language is a tool, but ultimately, it is about the culture and community they get to be within," Roberts said. "First-generation parents were so busy trying to fit in, they lost their heritage and now want to get it back."
Roberts said she believes the parent-child participation aspect really helps that process. Whether it is fostering hand/eye coordination through Play-Doh or solving clues together as part of the Go Game, "the important thing is that this is a place to build community," she said.
The foundation operates on a membership basis, with families paying $50 a year to use the center and borrow books from the lending library. Roberts said there are currently 200 members, all of whom heard about the foundation through word of mouth. Families as far away as San Jose and Hayward have become members.
Jennifer Nguyen said she, her husband and two elementary-age children make the 30-minute drive down the Peninsula from San Francisco to the Little Bookworm Library every weekend.
"Our family is quite Americanized, and we only speak English at home, so we did not have much opportunity to partake in cultural activities prior to the Joy Culture Foundation," Nguyen said.
Nguyen said her entire family uses the library: Her children participate in classes, such as calligraphy, while she and her husband look for books to take home and read together as a family.
"Ultimately, we want to help the community understand who we are," Roberts said. "We are all different, but everyone is included."
The Joy Culture Foundation/Little Bookworm Library is located at 934 Santa Cruz Ave., Menlo Park. For more information, go to thejoyculturefoundation.org.