A Teen-Run Book Charity and the Friendship It Built

“To know that there were people in my school doing things that I had dreamed about doing was really crazy to me.”

An illustration of two girls sitting on top of a giant stack of books.
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two high schoolers who run a youth-literacy organization. After Sabine Wood read a newspaper article about Andrea Liao’s Book the Future project, which arranges book drives for local organizations in need, she reached out and found not only a new cause, but also a new best friend. In this interview, they discuss what reading brings to their lives and how the motivations for volunteering as a young person can become mixed with the desire to stand out on college applications.

The Friends:

Andrea Liao, 17, a junior at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Washington, and the founder of Book the Future
Sabine Wood, 15, a sophomore at Interlake High School who helps run Book the Future

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julie Beck: Andrea, you started Book the Future before you met Sabine. Tell me the origin story.

Andrea Liao: I've always loved to read. I grew up going to the library several times a week. But I came to realize that not all kids had the same access that I did, and as a result, a lot of kids didn't really understand the power of reading. So I founded Book the Future in my freshman year to increase accessibility to books and to support local families in the area.

Sabine Wood and Andrea Liao collecting books for their African Library Project.
Sabine Wood (left) and Andrea Liao (right) collecting books for their African Library Project. (Courtesy of Andrea Liao)

I reached out to several local organizations who I thought might be in need of books, such as the Seattle Children's Hospital, schools for kids with special needs, and refugee shelters. Luckily, they were really excited to get books.

Beck: How did you two meet?

Sabine Wood: My parents read this local newspaper, the Bellevue Reporter. They found an article that was published in it [about Book the Future]. Around this time, I had just finished trying to create a similar project with one of my friends. We both had an excess of books and we wanted to donate them. But when we talked to more people, we realized you have to be an official organization, you have to have a lot of different forms of verification. It just felt like such a big project. I was really conflicted about how to go about making any sort of difference.

When I read the article, I thought, This is really interesting. And she goes to my school. To know that there were people in my school doing things that I had dreamed about doing was really crazy to me. At first I was intimidated to reach out, but I found her on Instagram and sent her a message.

Beck: So you were first drawn to the work that Andrea was doing. After you met her, what drew you to Andrea herself? And Andrea, what drew you to Sabine?

Sabine: Andrea was so energetic about the work she was doing. At our school, there are a lot of people who end up feeling less passionate about whatever work they're doing because they're just doing it for a college application, or because someone else told them to. I was really excited because this wasn't one of those projects. I could tell that Andrea is the kind of person who puts energy into things not just because she has to do them, but because she wants to do them well. Also, it was really fun to meet someone else who was interested in reading, and who has read similar things.

Beck: Were there certain books that you bonded over?

Andrea: Harry Potter, obviously, and also a lot of young-adult fantasy novels, like The Infernal Devices.

Sabine: I like to read contemporary fiction, but I also really like young-adult literature, so Andrea and I were able to bond over that.

Andrea: When I appeared in the local newspaper, a lot of people at our school reached out to me, but I wasn't as keen on partnering with them, because I could tell that they weren't so much passionate about literacy as they were about doing something. When Sabine reached out, I was really excited because she first introduced herself by talking about her passion for books and for literacy.

Sabine: Growing up, I moved houses maybe twice a year; I've moved around 14 times. It was hard initially to make friends. It was easier for me to read because you can take books with you anywhere. And if you're ever just sitting by yourself, if you have a book, it makes everything easier.

A screenshot of Sabine's first email to Andrea.
Sabine’s first email to Andrea. (Courtesy of Andrea Liao).

I experienced really different cultures. Here in Washington, people expect that they're going to try to get into a really nice college. But I also went to a public school in Dallas where people didn't expect to put a lot of effort into school. I realized that [some people there] weren't able to express their emotions, because they had never seen someone else express their emotions in a healthy way. Reading books helped me see how people could healthily express their emotions; people who didn't have access to books from a young age [might not] have that. Even just reading a fiction novel where the characters act that way, it really makes a big difference in how you act later on in life.

Beck: You’re now co-leaders of the organization. How has Book the Future changed or expanded since Sabine joined?

Andrea: In 2018, the book drives were much smaller scale, at most 200 books per drive, but now I've been able to expand them. The biggest project we did, and the first project Sabine and I worked on together, was the African Library Project. We collected 1,000 books for a primary school in Ghana.

In addition to book drives, I was also able to have more initiatives, like writing workshops and a digital magazine. We’re also going to be starting a bookstagram. Sabine can explain, because she's really good at [Instagram].

Sabine Wood posing for an Instagram post with a book.
Sabine will be in charge of Book the Future’s Instagram account, posting photos to encourage others to read. (Courtesy of Andrea Liao)

Sabine: When I made an Instagram account for the first time, I discovered that there is an entire world of people who dedicate their profile to posting photographs of books. There are a lot of people online who share what they're reading and it influences what other people choose to read. So I said, "Wait, what if we made a bookstagram account for Book the Future?" We could talk about what kinds of books are helpful for what ages, what books [to start with] in a certain genre, and start getting people more interested in literacy from a teenage perspective.

Andrea: That’s going to be launching in January 2020, to celebrate our third anniversary.

Beck: Do you see each other much at school, or do you mostly hang out outside of that?

Sabine: We’re in different grades, so we have different classes. But this year we have orchestra together, so we get to see each other then.

Andrea: Normally when we see each other at school, we talk about Book the Future, honestly, and books. We obviously talk about school and we give each other advice, but I just really appreciate having someone to talk to about books, because a lot of my friends talk about how they don't have time to read anymore. It’s really awesome to have someone to freak out about new books with.

Beck: Following up on something Sabine mentioned earlier, do you feel like the motivations for doing volunteer work in high school can be a little complicated or muddled? You may want to serve your community, but you’re also trying to have extracurriculars to look good on college applications.

Andrea Liao sorting books for a book drive.
Andrea sorting donated books for a book drive. (Courtesy of Andrea Liao)

Andrea: A lot of my peers give off the vibe that they’re doing extracurriculars because their parents want them to, or because it'll make them look better. I feel really sorry that they have to do that, because it's really not worth it unless you're passionate.

Sometimes when school gets too stressful, I'll turn to Book the Future. I'll work on the website design or think about the bookstagram or reach out to different organizations for future book drives, and it's really cathartic.

Sabine: The pressure at our school is to do the most that you can do, instead of the best quality that you can do. I think people just want to have it done and then say that it's done. That’s why it was really important for me to find a project and not just, "Oh, I'm going to go do this one weekend and this other weekend, and then sooner or later I'll have 200 volunteer hours and that will be great for my college application." It’s a lot better mind-set to say, "Maybe I'm not going to get as many hours out of this, but I'm going to be doing more quality work, and I'm going to actually care about what I'm doing."

If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.