Expanding Literacy And Ending Book Deserts

book deserts

As a writer, your work can go well beyond entertainment and help expand literacy around the US and the world. From eliminating book deserts in poor communities to helping adults learn a new language, there are many programs in place whose mission is to enhance literacy rates.

A writer’s livelihood depends on inspiring and nurturing a healthy population of readers, which can be a challenge in a world where video apps, music clips, and flashy eye candy dominate the digital media universe. This issue is on the minds of many authors and organizations, and finding ways to enhance literacy rates has been become an important goal, especially in the US, where 21 percent of adults are functionally illiterate, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. We lag way behind many other countries, including the Republic of Korea, Canada, Japan, the UK, and all the Scandinavian countries.

In a video produced by the Library of Congress, Stephen King speaks out: “Illiteracy remains an enormous problem around the world. 757 million adults around the world cannot read or write a simple sentence and two-thirds of them are women. 61 million elementary school-aged children are not in school and, in the US, 34 percent of children entering kindergarten lack the basic language skills to be ready to learn to read.”

The Center for the Book, operated by the Library of Congress, offers diverse programs for advancing literacy, including the Library of Congress Literacy Awards, which helps fund worthy agencies that are actively promoting literacy.

Eliminating book deserts

Dr. Susan Neuman, a childhood literacy expert, was commissioned by JetBlue to analyze the literacy landscape of Anacostia, a neighborhood in Washington, DC, and she discovered that the problem of book deserts was even more severe than she had found during her landmark study in 2001. Neuman learned that in Anacostia during the summer — when schools were closed — there was an average of one book for every 830 children, compared to one book for every two children in more affluent areas.

After the research revealed the extent of the problem, JetBlue launched an innovative program, Soar with Reading, to get age-appropriate books into the hands of young readers. Book vending machines situated in family-friendly areas, such as community centers and grocery stores, dispense free books on demand to kids, no questions asked and without limits.

In an article for The Atlantic, Neuman says, “Book reading really provides the words the children need to learn… Even a very low-level preschool book like a Dr. Seuss book has more sophisticated vocabulary than oral discourse. So, it’s really about the print gap and not the oral-word gap.”

First Book

Another organization actively working to end book deserts is non-profit called First Book. Their stated mission is to improve education for children in need as a way to fight poverty. To this end, since 1992, First Book has distributed more than 200 million books and educational resources, serving five million children every year.

In an interview with Molly Ness of End Book Deserts, First Book founder Kyle Zimmer gave a description of one of their key programs: “First Book Marketplace offers more than 6,000 titles of free and very, very low-cost books to anyone who is registered in our network that moves about 18 million books a year through our systems into the hands of educators and the lives of kids and into the hands of kids who are waiting.”

First Book also conducts research in rural and low-income communities to find out more about the literacy concerns and needs of the residents. They have established a network of experts in book and reading-related areas, uncovering the most effective methods for engaging parents and using books in the home.

Scholastic book Clubs

James Patterson, in collaboration with Scholastic Book Clubs, has contributed $1.5 million to launch a program, “The United States of Readers,” to provide books to 32,000 children from low-income families. This classroom program is intended to address literacy inequity across the nation, focusing on grades K-to-8.

Editing Guide banner“I’ve been working my entire career to get kids reading because I believe that illiteracy is one of the biggest challenges our country faces,” Patterson says. “And in many cases, kids simply need access to books — and especially books they want to read — to fall in love with reading, characters, and stories. Through my partnership with Scholastic these past seven years, we’ve made some great strides to do that. And I’m particularly excited about this new program as it will bring books to those schools and communities that need them the most, and ones that we haven’t served before.”

For anyone interested in the work being done to improve literacy rates, End Book Deserts has compiled a list of articles and videos that go deeper into the subject.

How you can help enhance literacy

Learn about literacy programs in your community and support programs your local library or other organizations offer. The American Library Association has compiled a list of successful library literacy programs — in large and small community settings — and encourages people to look at these examples of programs and services with a thought to instituting similar programs in their communities.

The practical aspects of literacy are noteworthy too, especially for those migrating to the US and learning the language. Martha Toscano, who handles adult education and coordinates literacy programs at the El Paso Public Library System in Texas, recognizes the essential needs of community members mastering everyday communication.

In an article in the Library Journal. Toscano says, “Our programs are more about making a living in the United States, more life skills oriented. Not so much about conjugating verbs, but being able to talk to their child’s teacher or go to the doctor or fill out a form. They’ll have a form with a line for DOB [date of birth], and they don’t know what that means.”

Children’s books

Children’s books are an enormously important educational stepping stone, giving kids a way to acquire language and communication skills, expand their understanding of the world, and discover the fun and entertainment books and stories can bring.

In an article for The New Yorker, “What Makes a Children’s Book Good?,” author Adam Gidwitz writes, “I aspire to write books that are so exciting that my readers will want to devour every page, and are rich and thoughtful enough that every page will be worth devouring. Authors who aim to write serious and important books for children sometimes forget that if a child isn’t motivated to finish a book, then all that fancy stuff halfway through becomes nothing more than self-serving. Authors who aspire only to write mere entertainment, on the other hand, are missing an opportunity: If you’ve got a kid’s attention, why not put it to good use? More importantly, children want to be challenged, made to think and reconsider; they want to learn and grow and become wiser. Kids will like a book with a great story. But they will only love a book that makes them see the world in a new way.”

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