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Room to Read Investigates Scarcity of Books and Lack of Book Diversity for Children in the U.S.

August 30, 2021

Children's Literacy

Although the U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, learning opportunity is not equally distributed. In fact, 1 in 4 children in America grow up without learning how to read.

To better understand where and how Room to Read can best apply its unique literacy expertise in the U.S. and help children gain the foundational literacy skills they need for lifelong success, we commissioned a research and feasibility study with support from our corporate partner Tatcha. The study, titled “MISSING OUT: Education Inequality for U.S. Children Deepened by Book Deserts and Lack of Diverse Representation in Children's Literature,” underscores that learning inequities are deepened for children from underserved communities who have limited access to books, particularly books that feature diverse voices and experiences.

Key Findings

 

Although having books in the home is one of the most important factors influencing a child’s success in early education, children in the poorest communities do not have access to books and cannot develop proficient literacy skills. The need is widespread - more than 60 percent of low-income families have no books at all in their homes for children. The organization Unite for Literacy refers to the scarcity of books in the home as “book deserts.” Book deserts are not spread evenly across the United States, but are greater in poor counties and for Black and Latinx families. Nationally,only 35 percent of public-school students are proficient or above proficient in grade 4 reading and there are significantly lower levels of reading proficiency and advanced literacy amongst Black, Latinx, and Native Americans relative to other groups.

 

Study findings confirm that diversity in children’s books is seriously lacking in the U.S. Over 83 percent of children’s books are about white characters, animals or things. Between 2018-2019, 44 percent of children’s books were about white characters alone and 80.4 percent of books were by white authors and/or illustrators.  According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, progress to increase racial diversity in literature is slow – children's books written by authors of color increased from 2019 to 2020 by just 3 percent, to a total of 26.8 percent.

 

The study identified a need for Room to Read to focus on childhood literacy across regions in the U.S. where Black, Latinx, Native and white Americans are living in poverty and in rural environments, both of which create extreme barriers to learning. Children in foster care as well as immigrant and refugee populations also face increased vulnerabilities. Contributors to inequities in the U.S. education system include systemic racism which has resulted in school segregation, as well as disparities in school funding and resource allocation based on geographic location and local income and wealth levels.

 

Taking Action

Based on findings from the study, we at Room to Read look forward to using our expertise as a noncommercial global publisher of diverse children’s books to address the education inequities that exist for children in the U.S.

With global experience in publishing books that tell the stories of underrepresented communities and are written/illustrated by members of these communities, Room to Read plans to focus on reaching the underserved populations identified in the study. We will increase access to high-quality reading materials at great scale by:

  • Publishing and distributing specialized books in the U.S. with characters, themes and stories relevant to the lives of children in marginalized communities that authentically reflect their identities and cultures
  • Utilizing our global collection of over 1,800 original children’s books and over 1,400 adaptations in 43 languages
  • Partnering with local organizations focused on family engagement and literacy development outside of schools in disadvantaged communities

We’re honored to do our part in ensuring that children in the U.S. have access to books and feel empowered when they see their identifies, experiences and lives represented within the stories they read.

Learn more about our U.S. literacy initiative and read full research fundings here.