What is a Book Desert?
As a former classroom teacher and university professor, I am an enthusiastic advocate for early childhood literacy and for ending the literacy crisis in America. In order for children to become lifelong readers, they must have ample access to books in their homes, schools, and communities. Surprisingly, this is not yet the reality in the United States; too many children today live in ‘book deserts’, geographic areas where books are scarce.
Access to books is a necessity in a child’s development, not only as lifelong readers, but as engaged, productive members of society. When young readers own diverse, reflective texts, we increase the likelihood that these children will embrace lifelong reading. But it will take a village to make this happen.
Impact on Reading Development
A robust body of research shows profound disparity in the availability of books between high-income and low-income neighborhoods; in a high-poverty area of Washington, DC (with poverty levels above 60%) there is one book per 833 children (Neuman & Moland, 2019). In a 2015 article, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten provided these staggering statistics:
Forty-five percent of our nation’s children live in neighborhoods that lack public libraries and stores that sell books, or in homes where books are not present.
Two-thirds of schools in our nation’s lowest-income neighborhoods can’t afford to purchase books at retail prices.
The Coalition For Literacy Equity
As the co-founder of The Coalition for Literacy Equity (CLE), and the creator of the End Book Deserts podcast, I’ve intentionally created a national coalition of nonprofits, book distribution programs, literacy projects, book publishers, librarians, and university professors to promote a culture of literacy and ensure that all children have access to books. We aim to foster positive reading cultures in homes, schools, and communities. Through programming, advocacy, research, and collaboration, we promote lifelong literacy for enjoyment, engagement, and empowerment. With 32 million American children lacking access to books, book distribution and donation is a linchpin of our work to harness the collective energy of our advocacy and to address our nation's literacy crisis through research, policy, and best practices.
Promoting Equity and Access Through School Librarians
One way to promote more equity and access in our schools is through school librarians. There are 2.5M students enrolled in schools without a library. Students attending schools in high-income neighborhoods had access to eight times as many books in their classrooms as did students attending schools comprised of students from low-income and black communities. Access to books in school and public libraries was a significant predictor of 2007 fourth grade NAEP reading scores.
It is no wonder that students are better readers and writers in schools that value well-trained school librarians. Access to books increases children’s emergent literacy skills, the frequency of shared book experiences with parents / caregivers, and reading fluency in later years. Nearly three decades of research shows positive correlations between high-quality library programs and student achievement (Gretes, 2013; Lance & Kachel, 2018; Scholastic, 2016).
School Libraries as an Issue of Social Justice
Equitable access to school libraries and librarians is an issue of social justice, as schools in the poorest and most racially diverse communities have the least access to library services (Lance & Kachel, 2018; Pribesh, Gavigan, & Dickinson, 2011).
My 2022 brief from the International Literacy Association, "Clarifying the Role of School Librarians,” argues that school librarians are more than mere keepers of books – they serve as powerful literacy partners with teachers through collaborative instructional planning and resource curation (Crary, 2019). Librarians promote, develop, and foster culturally relevant and responsive environments. They curate collections that represent the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the student population and for students with various learning needs. They stock various texts and genres, such as manga, graphic novels, and novels or picture books addressing current social issues. Furthermore, they facilitate the use of school-wide technology and provide tech support.
10 Ways to End Book Deserts
How do we help school leaders, librarians, families, and coalitions like the American Consortium for Education Equity and The Coalition for Literacy Equity change the odds for children who lack access to books?
1. Increase local, state, and federal funding for book distribution programs. Book distribution programs are a relatively low-cost intervention that positively impact children’s literacy development, increase children’s reading interest, and yield higher literacy scores for young children.
2. Encourage family participation in book distribution programs. Families involved in book donation programs increase reading-related behaviors and improve the frequency of language-rich interactions between parent and child.
3. Establish book distribution programs in high-traffic community areas like urban laundromats, WIC centers, community centers, churches, barbershops, and salons.
4. Provide funding to distribute books through mobile libraries, direct mail, and digital access. In the COVID pandemic, many book distribution programs shifted their delivery to direct mail. Participation in these programs – including the Imagination Library founded by Dolly Parton – has been linked to children’s increased reading motivation and interest, improved early literacy skills (including letter knowledge and phonological awareness), and increased frequency of family reading.
5. Partner. When programs come together and spearhead efforts, parents / caregivers receive multiple messages about the importance of literacy. A collaboration between Imagination Library and Reach Out and Read, a national book distribution program that relies upon pediatricians and primary care providers, yielded increases in family engagement, children’s language outcomes, and kindergarten readiness scores.
6. Build literacy programs to include multiple contact points with caregivers and increased duration. Because changes to family literacy behaviors increased with extended participation, programs should consider how they engage participants over time. Additionally, book distribution programs must listen to and adhere to caregivers’ perspectives and intentionally target families who wish to receive books, while being cognizant of the unintended messages and pressure that parents might feel.
7. Evaluate the kinds of books distributed with these important considerations: (a) increased number of narrative books and of books in various languages, (b) concerted inclusion of books depicting characters of various race and ethnicities, (c) student-choice of books, as less than half of book distribution programs included student self-selection, and (d) more distribution of shorter, concept books to support parents/caregivers with limited time and reading skills.
8. Investigate community-based literacy needs so that efforts can better focus on creating reading cultures within neighborhoods.
9. Create a well-coordinated database for national book distribution programs to increase targeted approaches. A 2020 article from Susan Neuman tracking book distribution efforts in one city revealed overlapping efforts and that books did not always end up in the hands of those who needed them the most.
10. Establish a national coalition of literacy projects and book donation programs. As book distribution programs bring together literacy advocates spanning education, public health, for-profit industries, and nonprofits, there must be concerted efforts to coordinate, collaborate, and communicate across programs to maximize and systematize reach, operate with intentionality and effectiveness, share best practices, and contribute meaningful research.
Many children come to school unprepared; too many students experience book deserts all their lives. A lack of books deprives children of important literacy skills, including vocabulary acquisition and content knowledge, as well as the socioemotional benefits of shared read alouds.
By highlighting the work of innovative organizations and grassroots efforts, we can raise awareness about the implications of limited literacy resources on children’s reading development in our schools and country. Through advocacy, fundraising, and author outreach, we can strive to eradicate book deserts, get the right books into the hands of the right readers, and promote lifelong reading for all children. Join us!
About Dr. Molly Ness
Molly Ness is a former classroom teacher, a reading researcher, and the Vice President of Academic Content for Learning Ally, a national nonprofit working with schools across the country to solve the literacy crisis for diverse and marginalized students. Dr. Ness holds a doctorate in reading education from the University of Virginia, and spent 16 years as an associate professor at Fordham University. With four books and numerous peer-reviewed articles, her research focuses on reading comprehension, teachers’ instructional decisions, and dyslexia. In 2019, she founded the End Book Deserts podcast to bring attention to the issue of book access and equity. She serves on the Board of Directors for the International Literacy Association and on the elementary advisory panel for Penguin Random House.