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Where are 'Healthy Holly' books? Tens of thousands unaccounted for; Baltimore Mayor Pugh, UMMS give no receipts

Tens of thousands of Mayor Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” children’s books have not been accounted for by the institution that paid for them or the mayor, even as public pressure builds amid accusations of “self-dealing” at the University of Maryland Medical System.

From 2011 through 2018, the University of Maryland Medical System had a deal to spend $500,000 for 100,000 copies of Pugh’s self-published book series. The system placed five orders of 20,000 books at $5 each while Pugh sat on the hospital’s board of directors. First reported by The Baltimore Sun, the deal was one of many the hospital network had with members of its board, and they have rattled public trust in the system.

Pugh said she returned $100,000 in the last several days for the last 20,000 books in her series that are still being written. She’s also stepped down from the hospital system’s board.

That would mean 80,000 should have been printed and distributed. In the publishing world, that is an astounding number of books; for example, the first U.S. print run of “Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone” was for 50,000 copies.

The lack of documentation leaves unclear when and how the books were printed and distributed, as well as where such a vast quantity of books is now. The Baltimore Sun has canvassed public and private schools, libraries, booksellers, child care centers and agencies to account for them.

It is not clear where at least an estimated 50,000 copies of the “Healthy Holly” series went.

UMMS didn’t fulfill a request to provide receipts showing the books had been printed or distributed; the mayor did not respond to such a request.

Coverage of University of Maryland Medical Center board deals and Mayor Pugh's 'Healthy Holly' books »

UMMS “didn’t feel the need to inspect the donation of the books,” said spokesman Michael Schwartzberg. “Even though funded by UMMS, the books were printed by a production company and delivered to the Baltimore City Public School System for distribution.”

Pugh said the books were to be distributed to the Baltimore school system and child care centers around the city. She did not provide more of a breakdown of the distribution, and she also has declined to provide documentation showing where and when the books were printed and delivered.

In an interview, Pugh said she believed she sent 21,000 books to Baltimore City Public Schools, which she called the result of an agreement with schools officials. Officials there say they remember just one shipment, sometime between 2011 and 2013. Today, district officials estimate 8,700 are sitting in a warehouse off Pulaski Highway, and they have no other documentation related to the books.

Pugh has published four books in the series. They are each roughly 20-page picture books that aim to share tips for kids on nutrition and exercise. They detail the exploits of young Holly, an African-American girl, and her active family.

UMMS reported in its 2014 tax form, which covers the year ending June 30, 2015, that it awarded a $100,000 grant to Healthy Holly LLC for “general assistance.” The medical center also named Healthy Holly as the recipient of the 2015 grant, and it names the Baltimore public school system as having received the money in 2017.

Archdiocese of Baltimore schools never got any “Healthy Holly” books, according to officials. The 14 Catholic Charities Head Start centers never received any, officials say. And officials with several city Head Start centers run by Dayspring said they knew they hadn’t received any copies in the past several years.

The Maryland Family Network’s communication director, Doug Lent, said it was not involved in the distribution of the mayor’s books in any way. The network represents dozens of child care providers throughout the city. Lent said the organization did not know if the books arrived at any of those child care centers.

Neither the Enoch Pratt Free Library nor the Ivy Bookshop carries any copies of “Healthy Holly.”

Some copies have turned up around town. Russell Wattenberg, the founder of The Book Thing, which gives away previously unwanted books for free, said he’s gotten a “few copies in, but that’s it.” Mark Feiring, the director of The Maryland Book Bank, said he’s gotten “no more than 50 books,” all within the last few months.

Three parents whose children attended Childtime, a child care center in downtown Baltimore, said they remembered their children getting copies of at least one of the books, probably more than five years ago. And some were distributed through the Center for Urban Families, where Pugh has served as a board member in the past and still serves as an emeritus member. At least some were likely handed out by individual city public schools.

The Y Head Start spokeswoman, Sara Milstein, said a staff member recalled some books being donated about six years ago. While the number is unclear, she said there were 300 students in their centers at the time, and so they would not have gotten more than one book for each child.

The books were also recently distributed during an event at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum. During an October 2018 event focused on health, Pugh handed out signed copies of “Healthy Holly: Vegetables Are Not Just Green” to children and families. She read excerpts to those in attendance.

The event was sponsored by Kaiser Permanente. A spokesman said in a statement that “Healthy Holly” was “one of many books that Kaiser Permanente has distributed to families and children throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.” The spokesman did not respond to multiple inquiries about whether the organization had ever purchased the books, how many were distributed and when.

Joseph Jones Jr., president and CEO of the Center for Urban Families, said he recalled some “Healthy Holly” books being shared years ago with the family center’s clients – between 1,100 and 1,500 adults a year, about 70 percent of whom are parents. He couldn’t recall how many but knows it wasn’t a large volume. He remembered some scattered here and there, on small tables in between connected chairs in the center’s lobby. “If it was out of the ordinary, we would have said, ‘We can’t take that large of an order,’ ” he said.

A handful have popped up for sale on Amazon.

The Baltimore Sun possesses one copy each of “Exercising Is Fun!,” “A Healthy Start for Herbie” and “Fruits Come in Colors Like the Rainbow,” which Pugh provided to a reporter several years ago.

School officials are adamant that they remember receiving only one shipment of “Healthy Holly” books, likely sometime between 2011 and 2013. Many more “Healthy Holly” books were purchased by the hospital system since then.

School system officials said they never asked for the books. District CEO Sonja Santelises said it was “probably 2012” when the district received the books. She was serving as the chief academic officer at the time and was asked to review them. It was made clear during the review that the books were a donation, she said, and were never intended to be used as part of a curriculum or for any instructional purpose.

“We had some discussions about the books and decided, sure, we can offer them to schools,” Santelises said.

She recalls officials deciding to target pre-K and kindergarten students; there are roughly 41,500 students in pre-K through fifth grade. Still, there was “no mandate ever for schools to use these,” she said.

Having these books sitting in a warehouse is “not ideal,” Santelises said. She doesn’t know how that came to be and said she didn’t remember the conversations about the particulars of how to distribute the books.

“I didn't get into the weeds about how they went out,” she said.

Some have questioned the educational value of the books.

Melissa Taylor, who runs a popular blog focused on children’s literacy and has served as book editor-at-large for Colorado Parent Magazine, said Pugh’s books are “more pedantic than I generally like — or I think kids like.”

“Kids prefer stories with compelling characters, rich language, emotional appeal, and an entertaining story arc. I don't see those elements in this particular book,” she wrote in an email. She also noticed editing mistakes, which she said are typical of self-published books.

But Jennifer Zwillenberg, a lecturer in literacy education at Loyola University Maryland, said the book does fulfill the need for “more high-quality authentic texts about diverse characters as well as texts written by author and illustrators from diverse backgrounds. Given the ways in which books act as mirrors of our own identities and windows into the world of others, this work is crucial."

Literary agents who work on children’s books describe the sales numbers as eye-popping, especially for a self-published author. Selling that many books, they say, is a huge deal.

One agent wrote in an email that the mayor’s sales are “STAGGERING.” Karen Grencik, an agent for Red Fox Literary in California, said she would give her “right arm to have those kinds of sales numbers.”

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lizbowie

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