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Web Letter

Katha Pollitt's article "Stimulating Reading" hit home. Her premise that shrinking budgets, curtailed library hours and hard-hit classrooms where teachers have few or no resources is familiar to us here at First Book. The shocking fact is that in middle-income homes there is an average of thirteen books per child, but in low-income neighborhoods the ratio is one book for every 300 children. This lack of access to books, the most basic of tools for reading and education, is horrifying in a nation with a TV in nearly every home and a cell phone in every pocket.

According to Jeff McQuillan in his book The Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions, "The only behavioral measure that correlates significantly with reading scores is the number of books in the home. An analysis of a national data set of nearly 100,000 United States school children found that access to printed materials--and not poverty--is the "critical variable affecting reading acquisition." How about that. It's simple. If kids have books, they stand a much better chance of becoming readers.

The good news is that there is a system in place to deliver these much-needed books. First Book is a nonprofit with the goal of providing access to books for millions of children living in low-income situations. At a time when library shelves stand empty, and there is no budget to procure books; at a time when cuts to health and human services have never been more of a disservice to this voiceless population of poor children; at a time when 80 percent of preschools and after-school programs serving disadvantaged children have no books for the children they look after, the good news is that the problem is fixable. And First Book stands ready to deliver on the promise to end illiteracy.

We've already delivered more than 65 million books--8 million last year alone. Our nonprofit uses a self-sustaining at-scale, hybrid solution to meet the staggering need. We've designed the First Book Marketplace: a model aggregating disenfranchised programs for the first time ever, and offering them books at the lowest cost possible. For programs serving children in low-income households, books are for the first time affordable, rather than a luxury. The First Book Marketplace offers books for all ages, and as long as the program serves a majority of children in need, they are eligible. With current capacity at 6-8 million books a year, we look forward to delivering more than 20 million annually within the next three years.

One teacher said: "We bring books to children in need in shelters and those waiting for a permanent home. These children do not have the comforts of a mom and dad to put them to sleep at night or to read them a bedside story. We can provide a beautiful book for them to read at night hoping to give them sweeter dreams and hope for the future."

First Book delivers on that promise of hope now, providing free and low-cost books to programs serving children in need. If we can muster support for this successful delivery system, we can reach capacity of 20M books annually within three years. To find out how to volunteer, register to receive books, or support First Book, visit www.firstbook.org.

Joan Sahlgren

Washington, DC

Feb 2 2009 - 10:04am

Web Letter

While book-loving parents can always use help, plus those parents who are illiterate and don't like to admit it, one other problem seldom mentioned is literate parents who just don't like reading to their kids--or often, to themselves, and who therefore don't buy books. Children of such parents can't be blamed for not becoming readers. (And yes, families like that existed long before TV and video games, so let's not kid ourselves. ) Therefore, the heavy lifting, as one newspaper said, often lies in reaching out to such parents. Doing so will at least make them more likely to buy books for their kids at Goodwill or to get the free books at the local recycling center.

Kira Barnum

Somerville, MA

Feb 1 2009 - 4:55pm

Web Letter

This is a lovely column that brought tears to my eyes. I am fortunate to have a home full of books, and a 6-year-old who devours them. How sad to imagine that the joy and pleasure she derives from reading is now thought to be the province only of those who can afford to buy books for themselves and their children. How sad to think about children with no books.

Jeanne Marie Lanza

Paris, France

Jan 27 2009 - 4:30pm

Web Letter

I'd just like to expand the point a bit. The troubles of newspapers and opinion journals are partly technological, and partly economic in origin, but is it not clear that they are goods affected with a public interest, that we treat as purely "private" enterprise at our republic's peril? As a former journalist, I understand the reaction to suggestions of public support, or other revisions to their political economy, but other nations with robust political debate are not so reflexive in their approach.The problems with treating journals as purely private properties are well dissected in a 2007 volume by C. Edwin Baker, Media Concentration and Democracy; The Nation would do well to commission him to write a series of briefing essays.

Stanley Paul Wiggins

Bethesda, MD

Jan 22 2009 - 11:11pm

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