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How You Can Help #EndBookDeserts

By Molly Ness
 | Nov 04, 2020

Young children readingWith the start of the academic year well under way in the United States, schools and classrooms look very different from how they looked and operated before COVID-19. Rather than wait at school bus stops, many students begin their day by logging into their virtual classrooms. The students who are in schools—socially distanced, masked, and seated behind plexiglass shields—no longer peruse the shelves of their school and classroom libraries. In many cases, classroom libraries have been temporarily removed, and public libraries are either shuttered or available by appointment only. For nearly all of our students in today’s COVID-19 pandemic, book access remains severely restricted or largely digital. (Ed: For more information, watch ILA’s free digital event Book Access in the Post-COVID Era featuring Molly Ness, Susan B. Neuman, Allister Chang, and Karlos Marshall.)

Though today’s challenges are new and unique, book access has been an ongoing issue for too many children for too long. The central tenet in the ILA’s Children’s Rights to Read declares both that children have the basic human right to read and that children have the right to access texts in print and digital formats. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, these rights were jeopardized by the presence of book deserts, defined in ILA’s Literacy Glossary as “underresourced or underserved areas and homes with little access to written materials.”ILA_LiteracyGlossaryBookDeserts_Twitter_1024x512

In fact, 32 million children lack book access in their homes, schools, and communities. 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. This absence of books makes reading an unlikely habit.

Championing book accessibility

Across the United States, teachers, librarians, school leaders, and nonprofits have gone to great lengths to get books into the hands of young readers particularly during this pandemic. Organizations such as Chicago-based Bernie’s Book Bank and the Maryland Book Bank have included book donations for families who visit food banks. BookHarvest in North Carolina has established “Grab and Go” book pickups at a rapid response center. Using direct mailing, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and Texas-based BookSpring have expanded their geographic outreach in gifting books to children from birth to age 5.

In other efforts, school districts have compiled story kits to be mailed home, including books and read-aloud guides for parents (see MGM Reads through the Montgomery Education Foundation as an example). Celebrities, sports figures, and popular children’s book authors have used Facebook Live, Instagram Live, and YouTube to provide engaging read-alouds. And social media depicts images of masked and gloved teachers who deliver books to students’ homes—going above and beyond their classroom responsibilities. Many teachers spent the late summer months creating bitmoji classroom libraries to provide students with the power of choice. Other teachers have devised online forms to track students’ text selections and deliver them directly to students’ homes as exemplified in literacy coach Christina Nosek’s blog.

Going above and beyond

We all play a role in the collective work to increase book access; these trying times are bringing out creative solutions. Here are just a few ideas on how to flood students with books, as we muddle our way through a school year unlike any other:

  • Take advantage of virtual resources. In the early months of COVID-19, authors, publishers, and educational tech companies were generous in waiving copyright (this EdSurge article provides more information on fair use) and granting free access to books (Texas Woman’s University provides a comprehensive list of free children’s books); many organizations have extended these efforts through December 2020. Many of us are in need of digital texts for bilingual readers; Unite For Literacy has greatly expanded their free digital library in response to the pandemic, as have ReadConmigo and the International Children’s Digital Library.

  • Do not overlook the need for print books. As useful as digital resources are, our students need to read from actual print books. As Professor Maryanne Wolf writes, “We must ensure that there are always books next to our children’s digital devices.” At every possible opportunity, we must send books home with students—every night, on weekends, and school breaks. Let us learn from the speed of which the world shut down in March 2020; if we had known that mid-March was the last time we’d see our students, we likely would have loaded the contents of our classroom libraries into their backpacks.

    The American Library Association has provided useful recommendations for safe book handling; teachers and librarians can set up boxes to quarantine books for the recommended 24–48 hours. Empty shelves can be replenished by programs such as First Book, Book Depot, and Donors Choose. In schools that have moved to digital-only instruction, we must work with community partners to get books into the hands of readers. As we place book boxes in the hyperlocal community meeting places where our families frequent—laundromats, WIC centers, food and diaper banks, Girls and Boys clubs, YMCAs, churches, hair salons, and neighborhood Little Free Libraries—we transform book deserts into literacy oases.

  • Foster book culture in hybrid and digital learning. Providing our students with access to books is the first crucial element in creating lifelong readers. The next vital step is to foster book culture. To create book culture, teachers must showcase their reading practices, talk about their reading choices, and facilitate spaces and conversations that highlight the joy and importance of reading. We create book culture in our classrooms when we display the covers of the books we are reading, when we invite authors to discuss their craft, when we excitedly book talk new releases and important reads, and when we create welcoming spaces that invite students to read and discuss books. We foster lifelong reading when we grant students choice of what to read, build rich classroom libraries with diverse and engaging texts, and create authentic ways for students to respond to the books they’ve selected. During COVID-19, my fourth-grade daughter video chats with her cousins each day for a kid-only virtual book club. When we eventually return to our classrooms, teachers might start a chapter of ProjectLit, which provides high-quality, student-selected books worthy of discussion. To end book deserts, we must envelope our students in communities and conversations where reading is a constant presence.

As much as we long to return to the comfort and safety of our prepandemic lives, we must be tireless and innovative in addressing book access so that we actualize the tenets in ILA’s Children’s Right to Read. When literacy advocates come together—across both book deserts and book floods—all children increase the likelihood of becoming lifelong readers.

For more information on the people and programs who address book access, visit www.endbookdeserts.com

Molly Ness is an associate professor at Fordham University, and the creator of the End Book Deserts podcast. More information is available at www.endbookdeserts.com; follow Molly on Twitter: @drmollyness.

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