DisruptED TV Magazine
End Book Deserts
By Dr. Molly Ness
One of the end goals of schooling today is for our students to embrace reading as a lifelong pursuit, turning to books to inform, delight, and entertain. This ambitious goal is only possible, however, if children have access to high-quality, inclusive texts. Sadly, too many children today live in book deserts — high-poverty geographic areas that lack reading material. The term ‘book desert’ was coined in 2010 by Unite for Literacy, who point out the lack of book access as an issue of social justice and inequity.
The issue of book deserts has been highlighted in research, most notably by Professor Susan Neuman. In her 2019 exploration of urban areas, she found significant disparities in the availability of books between high-income and low-income neighborhoods, even within the same city. Dr. Neuman — former Assistant Secretary of Education — points out that in a high-poverty area of Washington, DC (with poverty levels above 60%) 833 children would have to share one book. In a 2015 article, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten providing 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.
· As a result, 32.4 million children go without books.
Fortunately, the issue of book deserts is coming to light, as popular press and social media draws attention to the issue. A recent New York Times article showcased literacy activists who bring book access to low-income neighborhoods in a variety of innovative ways. Jet Blue’s Soar With Reading has stocked $3.5 million of books into free vending machines in urban areas. A collaboration between the Laundry Cares Association and Too Small to Fail has transformed laundromats into literacy centers, with children engaging in up to 47 minutes of literacy-based activities. In Charlottesville, Virginia, public school teachers and school librarians have created a biking brigade to deliver books directly into the hands of their students over summer vacation. In Michigan, teachers re-purposed a dilapidated school bus into the Big Rockin’ Book Bus; throughout the summer, they deliver meals and books directly to students. Similar work is popping up across the country in WIC centers and playgrounds.
Overcoming book deserts takes more than just merely placing books in low-income areas. We must create book culture by inviting authors to discuss their craft, creating welcoming spaces to discuss books, and fostering the reading habits of readers of all ages. Furthermore, we must strive to match the right books to the right readers, so that our children have access to relevant and inclusive texts that reflect their lives and their communities.
To showcase these stories, I’ve created the End Book Deserts podcast (available on ITunes and additional major platforms). My hope is that by shining a light on the accessibility of books in our low-income urban and rural areas, we increase our ability to transform book deserts into book oases. As communities across the country learn from grassroots programs like The Conscious Connect and from national projects like Reach Out and Read, my hope is that literacy leaders will replicate their work by bringing it into their neighborhoods. As we strive to eradicate book deserts, get the right book into the hands of the right reader, we increase the likelihood of growing lifelong readers. For more information about End Book Deserts, visit us our home page and email stories about the people and programs in your area who are working to overcome book deserts to firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Molly Ness is an associate professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Johns Hopkins University, and earned her PhD in Reading Education from the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on reading comprehension instruction, the instructional decisions and beliefs of preservice and inservice teachers, and the assessment and diagnosis of struggling readers. A former Teach For America corps member, she is an experienced classroom teacher. She is the author of Lessons to Learn: Voices from the Front Lines of Teach For America (Routledge Falmer, 2004). Her research has been published in national and international peer-reviewed journals including The Reading Teacher, Educational Leadership, Reading Horizons, Journal of Reading Education, Reading Psychology, and Journal of Research in Childhood Education.