I’ve written before about my early relationship with libraries and books. Both of my parents were public school teachers, but there wasn’t a tradition of buying books in my family. My father grew up in the Caribbean and developed an early dislike for reading after being forced to read by a grandmother who despised idleness. My mother grew up in a family that had little money and a lot of kids—with nine children to provide for, her parents ensured that everyone had a bible, but there wasn’t room in the family budget for novels or picture books. I recall having only one or two brand new books as a child, and in my “meet the author” presentations, I always tell students how much I valued the library card I received when I was about five years old.
Without the local public library and the library at my school, I wouldn’t have had many books in my life. As a teenager, things changed somewhat because my mother registered for a university course in British literature; when she had to withdraw from the course after suffering a stroke, I gained access to the books she relegated to a shelf in the basement. I discovered and fell in love with the novels of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and George Eliot. I went on to study British literature in college and later completed my dissertation on African American women writers at NYU. I also became an author myself, and I know that I wouldn’t be the person I am today if I hadn’t been encouraged to read as a child.
I can easily imagine how thrilled I would have been if an organization like Behind the Book had come into my school when I eight, given me a book to call my own, and introduced me to the author and the illustrator. That would have been a life-altering experience for me; I grew up in Canada and didn’t meet (or even see) a black author until I came to NYC in my early twenties. And I know that without those free books, many of those children wouldn’t have any books in their home. Studies show that having books in the home improves a child’s performance in school:
Even a relatively small number of books can make a difference: A child whose family has 25 books will, on average, complete two more years of school than a child whose family is sadly book-less.
Having books in the home matters, but so does making reading a priority. Another study indicates that “leisure reading” also impacts a student’s success: “There are, in fact, solid correlations between how much reading teens do on their own and how well they perform in school.” Unfortunately, that same study shows that black and Latino teens spend less of their leisure time curled up with a book.
We don’t give away free gaming consoles in order to get kids hooked on video games. We don’t give away expensive sneakers or designer gear, yet many households in low-income neighborhoods still have these items. So why do we give away books?
Perhaps the answer to that question is this: even one book can change a child’s life. And book buying—like leisure reading—is a habit that takes time to develop. I’d like to see more parents buying more books for their kids—and for themselves. I’d like to see children begging their parents to buy the latest novel by their favorite author. I’d like adults everywhere to take the Birthday Party Pledge and commit to buying a book as a gift for every child in their life for one year. In the meantime, I’ll continue to support Behind the Book because I know that their mission “to excite children and young adults about reading” is the first step in creating future readers, writers, and book owners.