imagine, for a moment, that you are 9 years old. You are searching for your next book to read. Your family can't afford to purchase a new book; even if they could, there are no bookstores in your community. You think of heading to the library, but the nearest one is now two bus connections away. Even your school library has been decimated, as school budgets have been slashed. Your simple quest for reading material has become not only a complicated challenge but also a reminder of the inequity you face.
Unfortunately, this hypothetical scenario is a reality for too many children. In fact, 32 million children today in the United States alone lack book access in their homes, schools, and communities. These young readers live in book deserts--high-poverty geographic areas that lack reading material.
Professor and researcher Susan Neuman, a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, points out that in the high-poverty neighborhood of Anacostia in Washington, DC, 830 children would have to share one book. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wrote a 2015 article, "Reading: A Lifelong Love," in the organization's magazine, American Educator, which provided these staggering statistics:
* Forty-five percent of children in the U.S. live in neighborhoods that lack public libraries and stores
that sell books or in homes where books are not present.
* Two thirds of schools in the U.S.'s lowest income neighborhoods can't afford to purchase books at retail prices.
* As a result, 32.4 million children go without books.
Book deserts exist nationwide in both urban and rural areas, though the geography and lack of public transportation present particular challenges in rural communities. For too many children, the lack of books makes reading an unlikely habit.
As teachers, we are well aware of the powerful presence that books have in children's reading development. A 2010 article by M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora, and Donald J. Treiman in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility--"Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success: Books and Schooling in 27 Nations"--revealed that children who grow up in homes with many books get three more years of schooling than children from bookless homes, independent of their parents' education, occupation, and class.
On the flip side, the absence of books--as in book deserts--has significant negative repercussions. As Neuman and colleagues explain, book deserts constrain young children's opportunities to start school ready to learn. Without books, children miss out on chances to acquire vocabulary, content knowledge, and a myriad of literacy skills. Furthermore, without books, children miss out on the vast socioemotional benefits that come from adult-child reading interaction.
The effort to end book deserts
Fortunately, there are efforts to address book deserts in innovative and engaging ways. JetBlue's Soar With Reading has stocked $3.5 million worth of books into free vending machines in urban areas. A collaboration between the LaundryCares Foundation and Too Small to Fail has transformed laundromats into literacy centers. Several major cities have book banks: Bernie's Book Bank in Chicago, the Maryland Book Bank in Baltimore, and the Children's Book Project in San Francisco are noteworthy examples.
There are also creative grassroots organizations and individuals who work to get books into the hands of children: mobile book buses, biking brigades of teachers over summer vacation, even school leaders who use social media to read aloud to students each night. When it comes to book access, these literacy advocates prove that where there's a will, there's a way.
A look inside The Conscious Connect
Taking an asset-based approach to establish a grassroots literary ecosystem is the foundation of The Conscious Connect, which was launched in 2016 by recent college graduates (and coauthors) Karlos L. Marshall and Moses B. Mbeseha. Our enduring work to reimagine and redevelop underused spaces for the purpose of education--so that ZIP codes do not define the success of children, youth, and families--has revealed the remarkable effort needed ti #endbookdeserts.
Our advocacy has been matched with tremendous support from the greater community to provide the necessary high-quality books so children across our region have equitable access. Our mission is to ensure all children are provided with the same uninhibited access to books, without fear or recrimination; we eliminate children's worries about finding libraries, parental anxiety about the cost of books, or the need for transportation to find books. Our books are placed widely throughout the community: in churches, day cares, elementary schools, community centers, markets, residential homes, barbershops, beauty salons, physician's offices, laundromats, parks, community gardens, and more.
Most important, we believe, as a foundational ethos, that books should mirror the experiences of the children reading them. Over 30% of the books we've distributed are culturally relevant--triple the national average of published books. With greater access to resources in the past year, more than 85% of our books have been culturally relevant.
To establish one of the preeminent literary oases in the U.S., we've relied heavily on our greater community. Local booksellers have accounted for a third of our output. We've operated on a collective impact strategy for five years. We assemble hundreds of local volunteers to give in service no more than three hours of their time, on average. We've given a platform to passionate teenagers who have built many of the free little libraries that have distributed tens of thousands of free books to many of their peers who use them daily. Our organization regularly welcomes college students, who engage by running book drives or provide expertise through coursework. We've tapped into our local foundations, libraries, residential care facilities, churches, universities, local organizations, businesses, government, schools, and many other forms of financial and in-kind services.
Mainly, we've received in-kind services and one-time donations. But the greatest victory through our collective work is understanding that all of our children have the fundamental and universal right to read.
How are you working to #endbookdeserts?
We all play a collective role in the work to increase book access. We must be the vocal advocates who spread awareness around the issue, as too many people are simply unaware of the presence and impact of book deserts.
In your community, perhaps you might inspire local businesses, churches, and organizations to begin book collections or drives. You might donate money to larger networks like Dolly Parton's Imagination Library or Reach Out and Read (which provides books to pediatricians to give out during healthy child checkups). You might even rally your public library to eliminate late fees, which penalize economically compromised patrons. Major areas such as Chicago, Phoenix, and Dallas have done this, with support from the Urban Libraries Council. Or simply volunteer your time at a local book bank, sorting and moving books.
As a classroom teacher, you might send books from your classroom and/ or school library home with your students over weekends and school breaks. Knowing that students might not have books at home, we need to be generous with the resources that we do have. Don't be afraid that some books might not make their way back to classroom shelves. Literacy guru Donalyn Miller says, "I'd rather lose a book than lose a reader."
Most important, classroom teachers can spread book culture. Overcoming book deserts takes more than just placing books in low-income areas. Create book culture by inviting authors to discuss their craft, develop welcoming spaces to discuss books, and constantly talk to and with students about what you are reading to showcase your reading identity. You might foster the reading habits of readers of all ages with cross-community virtual book clubs. In an effort to promote a love of reading, Project LIT Community provides high-quality, student-selected books worthy of discussion.
Ultimately, all of us must champion children's literacy rights and be vocal advocates for the importance of book access. As we shine the light on the accessibility of books in our low-income urban and rural areas, we increase our ability to transform book deserts into book oases. When teachers come together--across both book deserts and book floods--we advance the International Literacy Association's Children's Rights to Read decree and increase the likelihood of all children becoming lifelong readers.
Molly Ness, an ILA member since 2003, is an author and teacher educator. She is the founder of the End Book Deserts podcast. For more information, visit endbookdeserts.com. She is on social media at @drmollyness and @endbookdeserts.
Karlos L. Marshall, an ILA 2019 30 Under 30 honoree, right, and Moses B. Mbeseha, far right, are the founders of The Conscious Connect. For more information, visit theconsciousconnect.org or follow them on Twitter @KarlosLMarshall and @TheConscious_.
Caption: A child reads a book from one of the barbershop literacy stations set up by The Conscious Connect