“Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself…,” wrote author Roxane Gay. “They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.” It’s true—books have the power to change the way readers see the world and, as such, help create a road map for them to change it.
Unfortunately, if you’re a person of color, someone with disabilities, or an individual living in an underserved community, getting your hands on an array of meaningful books hasn’t always been easy, whether due to lack of access or a lack of options for your reading and learning needs.
Luckily, there are dozens of organizations and even more individuals across the country who are trying to remedy this situation and to make their local and global community a better place through the celebration of books. Read on to see what just a few of these groups are accomplishing—and how you can help support their work.
1. Helping to get books into the hands of kids in underserved communities
Since its founding in 1992, First Book has distributed more than 225 million books and educational resources to programs and schools serving children from low-income communities in all 50 states and provinces in Canada. “When children don’t have the tools they need to learn—namely books—it limits their opportunities in life,” says Ian Kenison, media relations and storytelling manager at First Book. The organization currently provides reading material to an average of five million children every year mainly via classrooms, after-school programs, shelters, health clinics, libraries, and more. They’ve also created the First Book Marketplace, which provides heavily discounted books for purchase by qualifying schools. “Because we regularly work with more than 550,000 educators, we’ve developed leverage in the publishing community,” says Kenison—and as a result, have been able to change it for the better by impacting price, availability, and the development of more diverse and bilingual titles. In fact, thanks to First Book, Simon & Schuster published the first bilingual edition of Eric Carle’s beloved children’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar; the organization had lobbied for the edition after many members complained that buying an English and a Spanish edition for their students was simply too costly. You can support First Book’s mission in variety of ways; check out their “Get Involved” page for more information.
2. Helping those with reading barriers engage in the joy of books
People with disabilities love books as much as the next person, but until relatively recently, gaining access to material that suited their learning style or abilities was difficult or, frankly, nonexistent. Several nonprofit organizations have been working to remedy that situation. Take, for instance, the Columbus, Ohio–based Next Chapter Book Club. For the past 20 years, this community-based organization has made sure youth and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome, autism, and cerebral palsy have a space to share and grow through literature together. “We focus more on ‘reading to learn’ rather than ‘learning to read,’” says Desi Doolin, the organization’s executive director. “So in addition to making sure our members have more literature in their life, our goals are: Do you have a community? Are you making friends? Are you able to socialize better than you were before? And we still see tremendous growth in reading ability and critical thinking.” Clearly they’ve hit the right formula: The nonprofit now boasts 300 affiliate clubs around the world, including in Germany, Australia, and even a few in Rwanda.
Changing the world and providing equitable access to reading and learning for youth and adults with dyslexia, blindness, cerebral palsy, and other reading barriers are two other far-reaching nonprofits, Learning Ally and Bookshare. The former is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year; it was founded originally to provide reading help to servicemen blinded during World War II. Last year two million students were able to read books they would not have been able to otherwise without Learning Ally’s audiobooks (recorded by volunteers) and other resource material. For information on how to volunteer or donate, check out their info page here.
The latter, Bookshare, is an e-book and audiobook library that is the brainchild of the nonprofit, software-for-social-good tech company Benetech. Subscribing to Bookshare (most customers are schools and educational institutions, but individuals can also buy a yearly pass) gets you access to more than 1,170,00 e-books and audiobooks in over 34 different languages—all of which allows individuals with reading barriers to customize their experience to suit their learning style and find virtually any book they need for school, work, or, perhaps best of all, just the joy of reading. To learn how you can support their work, go here.
3. Helping to diversify publishing so kids (and adults) can see their life experience reflected in books
Books can help shape who you become—but what if none of the characters look, act, or experience the world like you do? For too long, people with diverse experiences, including people of color, LGBTQIA, Native American, gender diverse, ethnic and religious minorities, and people with disabilities, haven’t seen themselves reflected in the majority of books published. So in 2014, a group of writers of color set out to change the status quo. What started as a trending hashtag, #weneeddiversebooks, became a national nonprofit that today offers $100,000 in grants to individuals, schools, and organizations working to diversify primarily the children’s book marketplace. Traditionally, “books by writers of color only make up less than 10 percent of all books published in any given year,” says CEO Ellen Oh. “Seeing yourself in the pages of a book is life transforming. It allows people to realize that they do belong in their larger community. But it’s more than just getting their representation: It’s just as important for everyone else to read books by and about people who are marginalized, so that they, too, recognize that these individuals belong and deserve their rightful place in society.” With the recent increase in book bans mainly targeting writers and subjects from these marginalized groups, We Need Diverse Books has their work cut out for them. “It was shocking to see how people could take something as beautiful as making diversity representation for children become something hateful,” says Oh. “The attacks right now are very specific to LGBTQ books, and on books that discuss issues like race—two areas that until the past eight years of our work had historically low representation. So now I like to think we’ve been successful enough to have started this countermovement. But it’s going to be an ongoing battle: We will win some and then lose some, but we will always keep pressing forward.” You can support We Need Diverse Books’s important mission via donation or by volunteering (currently they’re looking for blog volunteers, but their needs change, so best to check in with them).
4. Helping to build literacy at the local, grassroots level
If you know New Orleans food, you know po’ boys—the shrimp-, fried-oyster-, or beef-filled hoagie-like sandwich that’s a signature dish of the city. But get a po’ boy at Melba’s, located at the crossroads of the 7th, 8th, and upper 9th wards, and you can get more than just a great sandwich. There, co-owner Jane Wolfe has created Eat and Read at Melba’s, a community book and literacy project now entering its fifth year. At least three times a month, Wolfe invites local and nationally known authors into the restaurant to meet customers and sign 100 copies of their book that she then gives away to anyone who purchases food or drink at her place (plus to all of the staff).
Wolfe knows a thing or two about the importance of books and reading: As a teenage mom, she didn’t have time to go to college; she and her husband struggled to build a family and a livelihood in their hometown. But once their kids were grown and business successful, she went back to school in her 40s, graduating from Tulane and eventually getting a divinity degree from Harvard. The origin of Eat and Read at Melba’s started there. “I invited a Harvard professor of mine to have a book signing at Melba’s. I bought 100 copies to give away to customers. I had no idea how it would turn out, but people loved it, and as he was signing the books, my professor said to me, ‘This is so needed to get books like this into the hands of everyday people who otherwise wouldn’t know about them,’” says Wolfe. “This area of New Orleans has been deemed a book desert, so after he said that, I knew I had to create a literacy project that could keep this going.” Since she started in 2018, Wolfe has hosted hundreds of authors, including Colson Whitehead, Jesmyn Ward, Melissa Rogers, and the psychiatrist Bruce Perry, and has given away 18,500 books to customers. “I select the books as if I’m teaching a college course—the subject matter includes religion, spirituality, nonfiction, as well as fiction—because my deepest mission is to encourage a person to want to become a lifelong learner.” Want to help support and expand the Eat and Read program at Melba’s? Consider donating here.
By Naomi Barr