Meeting the Literacy Needs of Children

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On Wednesday, June 6, the ABC Children’s Group at ABA hosted its first ever Children’s Institute at BookExpo America. “Meeting the Literacy Needs in Your Community,” one of the day’s education breakout sessions, focused on how booksellers can begin to assess the literacy needs of children in their communities, as well as efforts already underway to meet those needs, to arrive at a plan that helps ensure books and reading programs reach the children who need them most.  

The panel was moderated by Dara La Porte, co-founder of An Open Book Foundation. LaPorte ran the children’s department at Washington, D.C.’s Politics and Prose for 12 years prior to starting the non-profit literacy foundation to bring authors and illustrators into schools where at least 50 percent of the students receive a free or reduced lunch.

Panelists were Jennifer Frances, founder of Bess the Book Bus;  Meghan Goel, children’s book buyer at BookPeople in Austin, Texas;  Carol Rasco, president and CEO of Reading is Fundamental (RIF);  Ellen Richmond, owner of Children’s Book Cellar in Waterville, Maine; and Hillary Roselund, associate director of national programs for Jumpstart.

Rasco introduced session attendees to Reading Is Fundamental, which recently celebrated its 45th anniversary, and explained that the nation’s largest literacy initiative works with and helps children to “hang on” until they have their “ah-ha moment” with reading. Rasco, who has been with RIF since 2001, expressed her excitement about RIF’s current PSA, Book People Unite, which brings together people who share a love of reading with the goal of helping get books in the hands of children in need.

She also detailed one of RIF’s new projects: creating multicultural, themed book collections that are calibrated for the new Common Core Standards and have online activity sheets.  This year’s multicultural collection was launched on February 8, and next year’s theme will be “STEAM,” a collection that will emphasize the importance of promoting the arts along with the traditional “STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curriculum. Rasco encouraged booksellers to rally around these collections in any way possible.  Children are not coming into schools able to succeed, she said, and “it’s the full community’s concern.”

Recalling fondly her own childhood experiences with RIF, Jennifer Frances said she founded Bess the Book Bus, a mobile literacy outreach for underserved communities nationwide, to provide children with “access to books” and keep the excitement of reading alive.

Frances, who has a successful partnership with Inkwood Booksin Tampa, Florida, said that booksellers can often provide answers to questions that nonprofits have about local distribution, such as, “Which schools need these books?”  Bookstores can also provide much-needed event space to non-profits, who will run events in return. 

Frances also told booksellers that advance reader’s copies “are priceless” to her nonprofit; it’s not often that the children she serves get new books, let alone books that other kids don’t have access to.  Many nonprofits would be willing to pick up unneeded ARCs from bookstores who are overrun, she said.

Hillary Roselund introduced Jumpstart’s mission to “work toward the day that every child in America enters school prepared to succeed.”  Jumpstart was founded in 1993 and is approaching its 20 year anniversary.

One of its particularly successful partnerships, she said, is with Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which helped the nonprofit surmount the challenge of both acquiring books and distributing literacy information. Porter Square hosted a month-long book drive for Jumpstart, and in return, Jumpstart sent a group of their college-age volunteers, called Corps Members, to Porter Square to host a reading event that drew customers to the store. 

Ellen Richmond, owner of Children’s Book Cellar, got her first bookselling job in 1978 and has never looked back, she said. Richmond purchased her current store in 2002 and has been sharing her love of books and reading with young customers ever since. Children’s Book Cellar works closely with local schools to provide literacy support, and Richmond has developed her own in-store activities and programs that are very often “inspired by a book” that she wants to share.

Meghan Goel, who has been the children’s buyer at BookPeople for the past six years, noted the store has a long history in Austin, Texas, and the 40-year-old business sticks true to its mission of creating a “community bound by books.”  

By bringing local or touring authors to Austin schools, BookPeople reaches a wide range of children, Goel said. The store has a dedicated staff member who gives literary talks to local students during the school year. These talks are not tied to book sales and exist only to get kids excited about new books and reading.

BookPeople also has a Giving Tree Program that is now in its third year. In addition to a children’s holiday giving program, the store features giving trees at different times of the year aimed at specific literacy efforts. Goel emphasized the need to look for a “bite-sized way to approach” each project in order to avoid becoming overwhelmed.  And she asks herself, “How can we build this one step further?”

For booksellers interested in beginning literacy projects, the panelists agreed that forging partnerships can be crucial. Partnerships keep costs low and split the labor. However, they stressed it is important to be clear about each organization’s goals when partnerships are starting to form. Rasco recommended putting all agreements in writing to hammer out the details.  

Partnering with schools is also a logical way for stores to reach readers. La Porte suggested, “Use your customer base to connect with schools,” start with a parent, a teacher, or a librarian to eliminate the need for cold calls.  Goel quipped that “once you get ‘in’ with one librarian, the word spreads incredibly quickly,” as librarians network closely.  Student volunteers can also help with project labor, fundraising, and disseminating information.

Richmond noted that many high schools require volunteerism as a graduation requirement, and Rasco warned against forgetting about sororities and fraternities at local colleges, who are motivated and have programs in place to raise money.

As for practical advice, Frances offered, “Don’t be afraid to hear the word ‘no.’”

Roselund encouraged literacy advocates to put their project’s goals into “tangible, concrete” terms to increase customer and volunteer engagement and understanding.

Richmond supported the idea of taking “small steps.”  She said, “Find something that works, and add a little at a time.”

But at the very beginning, it is most important to “start talking ideas,” Rasco emphasized.  Share your ideas with like-minded people, and you never know what may come of them.