by: Elizabeth Minkel
It’s hardly surprising that literacy rates are low in the poorest American communities, but pinpointing the root of the problem is a trickier prospect. In Monday’s “Fixes” column at the Times’s Opinionator blog, David Bornstein tackled the question by championing First Book, an organization that distributes brand-new children’s books, sometimes for free, sometimes at deeply discounted rates, to nonprofits around the country. A huge number of families can’t afford daily necessities, and Bornstein argues that books aren’t “luxuries, like silk scarves,” but rather an integral part of a child’s development. He concedes that simply handing books to children won’t solve the education crisis in low-income communities, but, after all, books in the hands of children can’t hurt the situation, either.
First Book organized the first national book bank in 1999. Over the past decade, they’ve distributed eighty-five million books to under-served schools and community programs. In 2008, the First Book Marketplace pulled in publishers, buying swaths of children’s books at deeply discounted rates. What the publishers lose in profits they make up for in security: “Because the organization could aggregate sales across its network, it could make bulk purchases and remove the publishers’ biggest risk: returns.” Bornstein is pretty enthusiastic about the program: “The First Book Marketplace is trying to do for publishing what micro-finance did for banking: crack open a vast potential market that is under-served at significant social cost. The organization’s goal is to democratize book access, but along the way, it may end up reinvigorating the book business.”
His readers, though, are a little more ambivalent. First Book secures discounts for its customers—three dollars for a paperback instead of ten dollars—but it still works within the established corporate structure of the publishing industry; many would like to see this side-stepped completely. But then there are the broader social issues at work: placing a book, used or new, in a child’s hands is not necessarily the start of a life of reading, no matter what the cost. “Get real,” wrote one man from Chicago. “Children's books at rummage sales are often $0.10 apiece. That's where we get most of ours. I suspect that the real problem is uneducated parents simply not taking the initiative to spend the time and (minimal) money required on this. Libraries are free and ubiquitous too.” Bornstein does highlight the disparities between libraries in poorer and richer communities, but the commenter has a fair point. But for every child who doesn’t read and won’t, there’s a child who doesn’t read and would like to. Even if First Book can’t solve the systemic problems, there’s nothing wrong with getting books in the hands of the kids who will treasure them.
from: New Yorker