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Getting to Zero

May 8, 2012

Something powerful happened this month in two schools in Raleigh, NC. There are going to be some numbers in this post, but I will tell you right now that the most important of them all is Zero. Because as of right now, that is how many students at Olds Elementary and Wiley Elementary have fewer than 12 books at home.

For many of us, it is almost impossible to fathom that a child could live in a house that truly has no books for them. But for 67% of low-income children, this is reality. Children who have no books at home perform worse in school. Their literacy rates are low, and it is tremendously difficult for them to catch up. Children with no books at home fare far worse over the summer, losing as much as half of a year’s learning. There is a lot of talk about third grade literacy rates in some states right now, with debates about social promotion or reading interventions in third grade. Some states project the number of prison beds they will need based on fourth grade literacy rates. Third and fourth grade is simply too long to wait to start addressing literacy rates for at-risk children. And access to books, being able to lay your hands on a book all the time, at home and at school, is a critical—and often missing—part of the discussion.

Without books at home to read, how can a child practice? How are books and print a part of their lives outside of school? How can they indulge in the pleasure of sinking into a book and reading it over and over? How can they know the deep gratification of being a book owner, of having a library to call their own?

What might be possible if a school banded together and made sure that every single child in the school had access to books all the time?

At Olds and Wiley, that is what just happened. We worked with a group of amazing volunteers and deeply devoted staff to gather book donations and distribute them to children at the school who did not have books. Each school collected donations of more than 2,000 books. We set up a book store at the school and invited teachers to select 6 books for each child. On different days, each child was brought in to shop at the store and pick another 6 books for themselves—any books they wanted. Each child was also invited to take home additional board books for younger siblings. At the end of the day, each child took home a library of 12 books. Each book was stamped with “From the Library Of,” so that these readers could mark their names and claim their very own books. Since each child gets 12 books, they can select a variety of topics or even pick a book that is above their reading level. Our hope is that these 12 books will help them through the summer months and that at least one book in their new library will spark a love of reading. We also hope that siblings at home will benefit by having books in the house and by seeing a sister or brother reading.

Both schools are setting up a borrowing bookshelf that will be open to all kids all the time, not just on library day. It works on the honor system, and there are no due dates or late fees. It’s open to everyone, and you can’t lose your privileges.

Getting to Zero is an amazing thing to be part of. And we’re just getting started. We’ve helped build home libraries for more than 150 students this month. Next month, we will return to Poe Elementary and distribute books to 145 students. Next year, we plan to be back at the same schools and hope to add other schools to our list.

Books can change lives, and putting books in the hands of kids who need them is our passion and driving mission. If you’d like to help or to do something like this in your town, please contact us at

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Joy permalink
    May 8, 2012 6:11 PM

    A great idea! Lacy does a similiar program with our Book Drive, but not quite that organized and intensive. Way to go!!!!

    • May 20, 2012 8:12 PM

      We’d love to talk with Lacy if they’re interested in expanding their program or if they’d be willing to do a book drive to benefit Books Are Magic and kids in the community.

  2. Joy permalink
    May 8, 2012 6:16 PM

    A great tweak on our great Book Drive? Way to go!

  3. May 11, 2012 3:41 PM

    “Some states project the number of prison beds they will need based on fourth grade literacy rates.”

    Do you have a source on this? It’s an incredibly powerful statistic and I’d love to be able to use it in future to underscore the importance of elementary school reading programs.

  4. Judy Small permalink
    May 16, 2012 11:44 AM

    What an accomplishment! It is great to hear this terrific news. What a difference the combined efforts of people who care can make in children’s lives.

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