Yes, you’ve seen me. I was that kid—the one wobbling out of the library, a mass of black hair barely perceptible behind a crooked tower of borrowed books. From the Spot lift-the-flap books, to, later on, the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, I devoured children’s literature. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood that happened to be situated in a wealthy county—though I didn’t own many texts, I never wanted for reading material. Sadly, that’s not true for many children.
Losing Our Libraries
A March 2015 Washington Post article highlighted the disparity between some school libraries. One elementary school, in an affluent section of DC, houses 28,000 books in its library, while 12 miles away, another elementary school only owns 300 books. Since the District doesn’t budget specific funding for school library collections, schools rely on donations from parents and community members. Nationwide, 20 percent of school libraries lack even part-time certified librarians.
The Literacy Connection
Why worry over a few books? Because many children don't have them: literacy non-profit Reading is Fundamental (RIF) notes that nearly two-thirds of low-income families in the U.S. own no books. And reading benefits children's learning in many ways: A 2010 RIF study analyzed over 11,000 literacy reports and found that “when children have access to books and other print materials, they experience many positive outcomes." Those outcomes include language development, improved reading performance, improved attitude towards reading and learning, and positive performance in subjects other than reading.
What You Can Do — Helping Your Child
Take your child to the public library as often as you can. Explore different county or state libraries to access varied collections.
Read with your child, not just to them. Ask questions as you read (What do you notice . . . ? Why do you think . . . ?), make predictions, point out similar sounds and rhymes, and investigate outside of the book when possible (for example, after reading a text about animals, take a trip to the zoo to learn more and see the creatures in action).
Add diversity. Vary the genre and topics of books you read. Incorporate multiculturalism, fantasy, how-to books, science, autobiographies, poetry, etc.
Start a home library if possible. Find lower-priced books by browsing thrift stores, yard sales, used bookstores, and online book re-sellers.
Find storytime hours at local libraries and bookstores that you can attend with your child.
What You Can Do — Helping Others
If your child’s school already contains a well-stocked library, consider lending a hand to children, programs, or schools with fewer resources. Include your child in these efforts so that they learn civic responsibility and the importance of assisting others.
Donate books your children have outgrown. Check with schools, libraries, nationwide charities like the Salvation Army, and other local charities who are likely to welcome these donations.
Volunteer. Look up local programs where you can read weekly or monthly to underserved children, or participate in occasional events.
Organize a book swap with your child’s neighbors, friends, or classmates, and their families. www.readingrockets.org/article/book-swap-kids
Start a book drive for a school in need. Several websites offer tips:
Create a community book exchange. In 2009, Todd Bol built a waterproof box, filled it with books, and posted it outside of his house with the sign “Free Book Exchange.” These pint-size libraries have sprouted in communities in over 28 states and six countries. Share reading materials while getting to know neighbors. http://littlefreelibrary.org/builders/.
Help fund classrooms. Consider donating to a site like Donorschoose.org. This crowdsourcing site lists specific needs in specific schools (e.g. ABC elementary in Baltimore, MD is trying to raise $XX to buy 50 Dr. Seuss books for their Kindergarten classes). Search by keyword, subject, or location, and donate any amount you’d like.
As an adult I'm still frequenting the library, devouring the literature and resources offered. No one can predict what habits and interests will stick with a child. But if you never offer up the opportunities, the odds will always remain at zero.
Mabel Yu is an assistant editor at NAEYC.