About thirty years ago, a linguistic anthropologist researched children’s literary experiences at home in three communities. In her famous article, “What No Bedtime Story Means,” Dr. S.B. Heath wrote about her findings. She reported that children who have books in their home and use them regularly have better literacy in school. Even if a child had books in the house, they had to be used…it was insufficient to have a beautiful book if it was treasured so much to the extent that it was left on the shelf as a display piece.
When I taught in So. L.A. nearly a decade ago, my students (mostly working class and Latino) often had no books of their own. Many didn’t visit the library unless on a school visit, although there was one in the neighborhood. Many parents, cash-strapped and not functionally literate themselves, chose to spend what little money they had on DVDs and video games. Others had a few books. These had often been received as gifts, and remained on the shelf so as not to be ruined (just as in Dr. Heath’s study). Alternatively, my students had books, but these were often t.v. tie-ins of questionable literary merit. And some of my students had parents who wanted to read, but were each working two jobs to make ends meet. These folks were simply too busy and too exhausted to read a bedtime story. Thus, my students often had very few literary experiences before they reached school.
Contrast this with the average Ashkenazy Jew in America: books cover the walls (content and language varies by religiosity); many books are so well used they have actually been “loved to death” and are in tatters; libraries are regularly visited; newborns are given copies of Baby Faces, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, and Blue Hat, Green Hat as gifts long before they can actually hold the books in their own tiny hands.
And people wonder why we are the people of the book?
In steps the wonderful organization, First Book. First Book has partnered with General Mills to distribute free books in Cheerios boxes at selected times of year. Plain Cheerios is a WIC friendly food, so putting them in that particular brand helps them reach their target audience, kids whose families may not be able to afford books, and who may not access public libraries. While these books are printed cheaply, they are high-quality literature. The authors have either won First Book’s annual writing competition for new writers or are established writers themselves…and the illustrations are fabulous.
Here’s a link to this wonderful organization. http://www.firstbook.org/