It’s Not Complicated by Donalyn Miller
I have been blogging, writing, and talking about children’s independent reading lives for over ten years—starting with my first Ask the Mentor column for Education Week Teacher in 2007. I am not the first or the last educator to take on this topic. Scores of literacy leaders, like Daniel Fader, Rudine Sims-Bishop, Stephen Krashen, Teri Lesesne, Alfred Tatum, Richard Allington, Laura Robb, Nancie Atwell, and many more have been fighting for the reading lives of young people their entire careers—long before I came along. The work will continue long after me—led by folks like Pernille Ripp, Cornelius Minor, Kimberly Parker, Sara Ahmed, and Tricia Ebarvia.
Literacy still matters, but the literacy opportunities we provide children have to change. We have to change. The children cannot wait while we figure it out. I know more about the conditions that engage (or fail to engage) children with reading today than I did in 2007. I will continue to evolve in my understanding as I go forward. I don’t have all of the answers, but I am a seeker. Teachers must remain students of our profession for our whole careers. We must hold on to what we “know” as long as it serves kids, and not one minute longer. Our two greatest skills remain kid-watching and reflective practice. Who are my students? What do my students show me they know and need? What have I tried that worked? What have I tried that didn’t? What am I going to do about it?
Here’s one thing I know for certain changes reading for kids.
We (as a society) just don’t care enough.
It’s all about access.
Access to books increases children’s future prospects and has a significant influence on the level of education they will attain, their productivity, their health, and their quality of life. Buy the books and give them to the kids. It’s not complicated. Why are we making this so hard? It’s frustrating. It’s defeating at times. In one of the richest countries on Earth, we cannot provide all of our children with the books they need. Before you protest about how much it will cost, figure out the cost of not doing it and get back to me. We can provide all of the books children need for summer reading for less than $100 a child (Allington and McGill-Franzen, 2013). The cost to Society for failing to graduate students with strong literacy skills and an orientation towards reading cannot be fully quantified. As author Jennifer Nielsen asked in a recent speech, “Do we understand the societal implications of failing to help kids find the magic of reading? Reading fosters empathy for others.”
I know getting books into kids’ hands isn’t flashy or ground breaking. It’s not new. We’ve been talking about it forever. Unfortunately, we have never successfully provided consistent book access to all children. While we scramble to implement one-to-one laptop programs, we never figured out how to get a paperback into every kid’s hand. Ensuring that all of our children have access to books 365 days a year may not get you in the local paper or earn you superintendent of the year, but it is one act that communicates you care about what kids really need to succeed personally and academically.
Who has book access in your community and who doesn’t?
What role does differential book access play in perpetuating systemic, discriminatory educational and social structures?
Who does it benefit to deny meaningful literacy opportunities to some children and not others?
Many of our children live in book deserts without meaningful, consistent access to books at school or home. Children in urban and rural communities—disproportionally Indigenous children and children of color—suffer the worst. They don’t have consistent, quality access to books at school or home, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens every day.
A child from a middle income home may have as many as ten access points in their lives where they can find a NEW book to read, including classroom and school libraries, public libraries, brick and mortar bookstores, Amazon one-click ordering, book fairs and subscription services. Children who do not have these resources may have only one or two places they can find a book to read— usually their school and public libraries. This means that the book access we offer children in school and public library collections must be as varied, relevant, current, and engaging as possible. For many children, this is the only book access in their lives and it has to count.
We also have to consider barriers that prevent all children from access to the books they need and want to read. For many of the children we serve, there are tangible obstacles preventing equitable book access.
Some actions that will increase book access for all children (a starter list):
Determine the factors that might prevent families from using the public library. For many families, access to the public library isn’t “free.” Barriers such as limited services, residency requirements, or location can hinder equitable access. Is your library closed some nights or weekend days? What identification does your library system require to get a library card? What fees and dues are charged? Where is the library located? How hard is it to reach on foot or by public transportation?
Re-evaluate your school and community library fine programs. Last year, the New York Public Library system discovered that blocking check out privileges for patrons who owed $15 or more in fines prevented 20% of NYC children who had library cards from checking out any books. President of the New York Public Library, Anthony W. Marx, knows that poor children lose their book access more often under such policies, “No one is suggesting that people — including children — should not be held responsible for bringing books back. People talk about the moral hazard. But there’s also a moral hazard in teaching poor kids that they will lose privileges to read, and that kids who can afford fines will not.” As a result of these findings, the New York Public Library system announced a fine forgiveness reset for all children under the age of 18 who owed library fines.
Advocate for librarians. Access to librarians increases children’s test scores, closes the achievement gap, and improves writing skills (Lance, 2012). If your librarian is also a technology support specialist or course instructor, they need clerical help to focus more time on reading advisory and less time on paperwork. School Library Journal recently provided these suggestions for fighting library cuts and advocating for librarians. Find more information supporting the effectiveness of school librarians by accessing Scholastic’s School Libraries Work! research brief.
Develop summer reading programs that increase access and book ownership. The best school-based summer reading programs that exist put books into the hands of children before they leave for the summer. Book donation initiatives and long-term checkouts from school and classroom libraries guarantee that all children have access to books for summer reading. According to Allington and McGill-Franzen’s research, “…providing self-selected books for summer reading produced as much or more reading growth as attending summer school! For the poorest children the effect of our summer book distribution was twice as large as attending summer school (2013).” Don’t assume that subscribing all students to online databases and computer-based reading programs provides every child access to texts over the summer. Not all children have wi-fi or access to a computer or device at home.
Get rid of reading incentive programs that demotivate children from reading long term or develop internal motivation to read. The research is ubiquitous—incentivizing reading has long-term negative effects on fostering children’s internal motivation to read. I recommend reading and discussing No More Reading for Junk: Best Practices for Motivating Readers by Barbara A. Marinak and Linda Gambrell (Heinemann, 2016) and Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards for more information about the negative consequences of reading incentive programs. Furthermore, summer reading programs that demand children log pages and minutes do little to motivate readers and don’t provide any evidence that reading with comprehension really took place.
Purchase and donate new books whenever possible. Every child should own at least a few new books. When children’s book access is limited to other people’s cast-offs, it is unlikely they are receiving current, nourishing, quality reading material. Book ownership is a powerful factor in the development of positive reading identities. Additionally, when we buy new books, we support the artists who write and illustrate for young people. Blog posts, reviews, and tweets are great, but book sales ensure artists can keep making art. If you read a book in ARC (advanced reading copy) format and you like it enough to recommend it, buy the final book. Review copies are marketing tools to build advance buzz and interest in the book. If we want more books written by authors we love, we need to buy their books. This is particularly important for authors and illustrators from historically underrepresented groups, who have already overcome discriminatory obstacles to become published in the first place and may not get a second chance if sales aren’t good enough.
Provide young people access and encouragement to read any text they want in any format they can. There’s abundant research on the benefits and appeal of audiobooks, e-books, graphic novels, serial fiction, picture books, poetry, or any format you can imagine. As a teacher who taught students with a wide range of reading experiences, abilities, interests, and development, I celebrate any format that fosters reading engagement and reading growth. It’s not a competition or hierarchy. The best books for kids are the books they can and will read.
Dedicate your time and resources toward literacy initiatives that put books in kids’ hands—especially kids from underserved communities. Here are a few literacy organizations and initiatives that I recommend. This is by no means a comprehensive list. Please add the organizations you support in the comments, so we can all learn about them and support them, too.
National Centers for Families Learning
Evaluate whose voices are missing in your school and classroom libraries. I see article after article bemoaning the poor reading performance of boys and children of color and listing perceived deficits in children and their families as the root cause. What books are young people reading in school? Do all children have the opportunity to see themselves and their families reflected in books? Whose “canon” is valued? Children deserve positive, affirming portrayals of all of their experiences—not just stories of oppression and suffering that perpetuate stereotypes. Lee and Low has a created a list of steps to creating a diverse book collection—a vital evaluation and development process.
I am just getting started, but this post is already 1800 words long, and I have said enough for now. I know that many of you are working every day to increase children’s meaningful, consistent book access. What ideas and resources do you have to share? What obstacles and issues do we need to add to the conversation? Please leave your suggestions in the comments. I look forward to learning from all of you.
Donalyn Miller has taught fourth, fifth, and sixth grade English and Social Studies in Northeast Texas. She is the author of two books about encouraging students to read, The Book Whisperer(Jossey-Bass, 2009) and Reading in the Wild (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Donalyn co-hosts the monthly Twitter chat, #titletalk (with Nerdy Book Club co-founder, Colby Sharp). Donalyn launched the annual Twitter summer and holiday reading initiative, #bookaday. You can find her on Twitter at @donalynbooks or under a pile of books somewhere, happily reading.
Developing classroom libraries with generous, low-maintenance lending is one of the easiest access points for students. Grab and go. Bring it back when finished. Keep it simple and friendly.
This is why when I taught, I worked hard to have a large and diverse library in my classroom. It is one reason why I started a NICU book protect a few years ago for the hospital where my daughter works as a NICU RN. We give each NICU baby a packet of 5 new and gently used (like new) books that they can take home, but also so their parents can read to their babies while they are growing in the NICU. I include a half page bulleted handout about the importance of reading to your children from birth. The parents love it. I buy many books for this project, and people also donate books for us. I started the project to honor a set of twins I lost.
I love hearing from the parents who receive these books. Any books donated that are either not new enough or are not age appropriate are donated to local teachers to build their classroom libraries. The teachers love getting books just as much as the parents of the babies.
I love this idea!
Hi Donalyn, its a bit complicated for us in this part of Nigeria where we have no grants and are trying to get books into the hands of children free and at least once per week.
I am the Chief Reading Coach at Readlandng.
My name is Temiloluwa and its my heart desire that every child has a new book in their hands at least every week especially in the poor communities in my country. In my own area, We run a free library service to these children for free and Go to schools around us to encourage them to inculcate a good reading habit.. If we had access to more books, we will reach out to more children. Thank you for all you do.
A few more to consider:
We collect paperbacks all year long and send them home with students after all the library books are due. As long as there are books, students are allowed to take as many as they want. Funny how librarians are expected to deal so little with books when it is such an important thing.
Thank you for writing this! So important!
Dona Lynn—may I share this on my blog? It goes so perfectly with an announcement I’m making tomorrow about the Appalachian Literacy Intiative, a new non-profit that I’m starting (first board meeting tomorrow!) to get new books into disadvantaged students’ hands. I’ll share with attribution, of course.
Thanks! I needed this today. (As I add 5 new books to our collection).
When I called my local library to ask if they could put out a selection of verse novels for students in their YA section during April, she said she could do one better. She said they don’t get many local teens visiting the library so why not bring the library to us. Two days later, she brought close to 100 different verse novels TO OUR SCHOOL. It is April 23, and each student has already read 2 verse novels; they are book-talking, trading, even writing their own verse. LIBRARIANS! Thank you for this post!
First Book is a wonderful program that gets books into kids’ hands. https://firstbook.org/
Thank you for the support of authors, too, Donalyn – we want to see more kids reading, too. We all started out that way, after all.
If there’s more authors can do to help with access, I’d be happy to chat about it. 🙂
Please consider Multicultural Children’s Book Day https://multiculturalchildrensbookday.com/
We have donated over 3000 diversity books to teachers, parents and librarians to date. We also have FREE Classroom Kindness Kit & Classroom Empathy Kit (covering immigration and refugee experience).
Thank you, Donalyn. Such an important post!
Amen! I will share this and reshare this and even share it again. 🙂
The Author Experience is a new non-profit working in New York and New Jersey that supports books owner by organizing author visits and providing students with a bag full of books and a writer’s notebook. check out the website https://theauthorexperience.org/
The Author Experience supports book ownership – not “books owner.” Clearly, I need more coffee.
Thank you for this wonderful, important post. I will refer back to it again and again! I wanted to share an idea for addressing the issue of access that you discussed. Food pantries can potentially be excellent places in which to set up a book distribution program to reach children in need of books. Many children who visit food pantries do not have their own books at home. After seeing a successful book distribution being done in a food pantry that my own children’s school was supporting, I decided to try it myself with another food pantry. It was incredible to see how kids embraced this program–the books would fly off the book cart every time I brought in books. I tried to have a mix of everything from board books to YA to serve as many kids as possible. While I intended for the kids who visited the food pantry with their families to take the books, which they did, it turned out that grandparents and aunts/uncles also took the books to the children in their families who were in need of reading material. One day a man approached me and said he’d been taking some home to his grandchildren, and he could see how much the books were helping with the kids’ reading skills. In less than 2 years, over 6,000 books were distributed at this food pantry. I’d encourage anyone who is interested in addressing the book access problem to consider an idea like this–it is surprisingly simple to do, and so worthwhile!
I would love to learn more about how you set up a food pantry library. I currently volunteer at a local food pantry and think this would be a wonderful thing to set up. Please tell me how to get in contact with you.
Reblogged this on Rosanne L. Kurstedt's and commented:
This post from Donalyn Miller is at the heart of what The Author Experience promotes.
Donalyn, thank you for saying it, and saying it so well, as always. You make a huge difference.
Another helpful link, for families with kids from six months to eight years old who have Jewishness as part of their lives, PJ Library sends out over 200,000 Jewish children’s books a month for free, all over the world. From picture books to kids’ cooking books to folk tales. They also have chapter books through the PJ Our Way program, for kids 9-11. https://pjlibrary.org/about-pj-library
We just launched a new nonprofit in Arlington, VA–Read Early And Daily (R.E.A.D.). Our cornerstone program is R.E.A.D. My Stories which mails new, quality, culturally relevant books every month to children birth to age 5 living in poverty. R.E.A.D. My Stories is very similar in concept to Imagination Library; however, we have made five commitments we believe make our program unique.
1) We are committed to family choice.
2) We are committed to offering culturally relevant and diverse books.
3) We are committed to offering bilingual and/or Spanish books.
4) We are committed to helping families go beyond reading the book.
5) We are committed to educating families about the importance of reading.
Learn more at http://www.readearlyanddaily.org
Thank you for the opportunity to share.
Also, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library (http://imaginationlibrary.com)
Great article and many suggestions about things we can do. Is anyone in power listening? Please. Kids, particularly less advantaged ones, need help with getting books of their own to read and cherish. Help!
So true, Donalyn! And there are a lot of great organizations out there trying to help get books into kids’ hands, like First Book, and another I just did a school visit for, An Open Book Foundation. It was such an honor and privilege to have participated, and I had such a great time with the kids!! 🙂 Thanks for all of your hard work and dedication!
It’s substantive posts like these that inspire the best in all of us to do what we can to put more books into kids’ hands and hearts. Thank you, Donalyn, for the inspiration and for the concrete steps to take. I’m in and plan to do what I can to get more good books into kids’ hands. I know how much books meant to me growing up with very little, and it breaks my heart to think of book deserts for young people today.
Great article, Donalyn! I just finished an online class about poverty and have recently read articles about students in poverty and their often inability to have access to books, whether it be in their home, school, or public library. Makes me sad. Thanks for all you do for our students and teachers! I look forward to seeing you at the Scholastic Reading Summit Conference in Denver in June!
Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is another great resource!
As a former teacher, school librarian, parent, and now blogger trying to increase parents’ awareness of the importance of reading, I thank you for this article. You passion is unmistakable, and I absolutely love what you are doing to spread this message worldwide. If we all work together, we can make a difference in the lives of our children.
Yes! This!! In my Title 1 Elementary Library we do everything we can do give our kids ACCESS to books. We have vibrant, diverse, and generally awesome school library and classroom libraries, a Little Free Library in front of the school, and lots of e-book resources.
Each year we also host 2 book fairs (profits of which are used to buy giveaway books), 2 book giveaways through BookSpring, a book gift-away for the holidays in which students get 2 books- one to keep and one to gift to a friend or sibling, an Earth Day book swap, and a huge book giveaway (5 books per student, 10 books for 1st & 2nd graders) right before summer.
In total, our students receive between 9-15 free books every year to build their home libraries. We very purposefully host book fairs & giveaways before breaks to ensure our kids have books to read while they’re out of school. Check out this pilot we were a part of with BookSpring which shows that after giving students 8 books for the summer, “over 75% of our participating children stayed the same or gained in reading over the summer months. This stands in remarkable contrast to the national benchmark in which 80% of children lost progress in their reading skills over the summer.” https://www.bookspring.org/2017/06/new-reading-program-shows-promising-results/
As you say, “It’s all about access”!
Love this post and will share it with all who will listen…I imagine a world where children have access to books as easily as they have access to oxygen…..imagine what kind of world we would leave then…
Reblogged this on Living Small in a Big World and commented:
Literacy matters – to you and yours and to the world. We need to make sure that the next generation is literate, and able to easily move through the information rich future….and then we will see social change….
I also reblogged, and tweeted you, but – maybe this is a better forum.
I’m a “concerned parent” (hate the smugness of that term, but don’t we all grow to care about our kids’ classmates?) with two kids in K & 1 in a very economically-diverse school. There are challenges across the board – We live in a higher-COL area; there’s a profound lack of legitimate jobs in our area; most enrichment activities take place during working hours, etc.
I didn’t outline all the assumptions but what would you recommend for a PTA to proceed with supporting (teachers? librarian?) in getting books and library access to some of these (likely unidentified) under-served students?
I’m in a district with 50% free lunch, and several PTAs flat-out give books to every kid in the school. Some schools do one-book programs and give the same paperback to each kid. One school had Mac Barnett visit, and rather than pay him, they bought each kid a copy of The Terrible Two Get Worse. It was a nice bump to his sales figures and benefited him in the long run anyways. If you do the Scholastic Book Fair, you can buy multiple copies of new releases as giveaways and let teachers raffle them as prizes in their classes.
Lisa absolutely love the idea of buying the books and raffling them off to students. Thanks for the great idea!
I volunteer at two locations in our small town: the elementary school and the food pantry. I love working with K-5 kids, helping them learn to write and to read, and hoping that I’m making a difference. I also help clients find food items at our local emergency food pantry… but was recently awakened to the fact that there is a sign in the waiting room which offers free books to the kids who are there. I thought the kids’ toys and bookshelves were for use while the children wait for their parents to get emergency food relief, but noticed the sign which says “take any books you want.” What a wonderful opportunity to encourage reading. I don’t know how many clients take advantage of the reading material as well as the food, but I’m appreciative of the other (mostly retired) volunteers who thought of doubling-down on providing for the needs of the people and their children
You said it beautifully, Donalyn. Could I post this (giving you credit and link to this original) on my author website? (www.lynnlovegreen.com)
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WOW! Thanks for the galvanizing post!! I agree with everything you laid out in this blog post. WE MUST DO MORE!! WE CAN DO MORE!! For the past several years, I have volunteered as a reader for the Dallas / UMC Project Transformation Summer Reading program. Project Transformation pairs suburban volunteers with city churches in the Dallas area to provide a summer outreach program for children and teens. One aspect of the program is reading one on one with children EACH day of the program. Volunteers partner read or have children read to them depending on the age of the child. Each year, I gather as many new or gently used diverse books to bring to the children/teens in the program. Please check out the Project Transformation link https://projecttransformation.org for more information on this organization.