Published on March 31, 2021 in Thriving Children
Darrionna York strolls carefully around the room at Detroit’s Mason Academy where the Scholastic Book Fair was recently held, brushing her hand across the colorful book covers.
The third-grader’s teacher, Jolanda Hodges, tells the class they can choose one more book, and Darionna wants to make sure her pick is the perfect addition to her newly curated home library. Prior to the book fair, she had just a single book of her own at home – one about a princess. The 8-year-old says emphatically, “I don’t like princesses. I never read it because it didn’t look interesting.”
She picks up “Earth! My first 4.54 Billion Years” and smiles. “This one. Science is my best subject.”
United Way for Southeastern Michigan understands that building literacy is an important part of creating communities where children can thrive. That is why we teamed up with Scholastic Book Fairs, a division of Scholastic, to create the My Home Library program, which will provide thousands of free books to students each year.
The program, which was piloted last year in Pontiac, is expanding to include six additional Pontiac schools and six schools in Detroit. Students will take home five new, grade-level appropriate books of their choice each semester. Participating schools also receive Scholastic dollars to help purchase books, supplies and equipment to establish classroom libraries and literacy spaces.
While textbooks and other required in-school reading tools help students meet grade-level literacy goals, a love of learning often takes root in home libraries.
A growing body of research shows that immersing children in book-oriented environments will benefit their educational achievement and their occupational standing later in life.
Yet for many low-income households that struggle to make ends meet, a home library is an unaffordable luxury.
“Our goal with the My Home Library program is to remove the financial barrier and close the ‘book gap’ within the home,” said Vanita Sanders, Senior Director of K-12 Education and Digital Inclusion at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “The book gap and the literacy gap are interdependent. By providing books we can positively impact literacy in underserved communities.”
Juanita, who is an English Language Arts Master Teacher, was thrilled when she learned her students would receive books to build their own libraries at home. She set out to make the book fair an inspired event complete with decorations, snacks and activities for the students to increase their excitement around reading.
“My third graders are at a pivotal point in their education,” Juanita said. “The more we can get them excited about reading – it’s going to increase literacy, increase test scores and help develop self-sufficiency.”
Books for the My Home Library program are chosen in close collaboration with teachers and district leaders.
“The goal is to create equity in access to books and expose kids to books that excite them to want to read,” said Lynne Lavota, Strategic Partnerships Manager at Scholastic Book Fairs. “Mirrors and windows in books help children see themselves and introduces them to new places and ideas.”
The books that line racks and tables at the fairs are brimming with diverse characters and experiences – from the 482-page “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky,” which is based on African folktales, to early reader books like “All Are Welcome Here,” which tells the tale of a culturally diverse school district.
“When a child has a connection to a book it’s like a connection to a friend,” Lynne said. “It can last a lifetime.”
With access to a home library, children can read a book they love again and again to build a deeper connection to the characters. They also have access to exciting, new books that encourage them to use their imaginations.
“The Sloth Life: Dream On!” — a funny and whimsical book about a sloth who loves to sleep — quickly became a class favorite.
Lazayah Miles, 8, found the furry creature relatable. “He slept through everything,” she said. “I thought that was funny. Sometimes I sleep through stuff too. I was almost late for school and I thought about that sloth.”
When Jolanda asked her students whether they had read the books they received, she was excited by their responses.
“They weren’t giving one-word answers or responding ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” she said. “They were actually retelling the stories. I could tell they had been paying attention once they got home. That’s what we want.”
Vanita agrees, saying “that is where the magic happens.”
“When students have a connection to what they’re reading, that’s where we start to create master readers and those readers become leaders.”
Pontiac educators have shared that the My Home Library program is helping improve grade-level reading by building capacity in homes, schools and neighborhoods.
In addition to books, parents receive vital information to help them engage their children in the literacy process and create a culture of reading at home.
“It’s one thing to hand a child a book. It’s another thing to believe in them enough to come back again and again to support their growth over time,” Lynne said. “That’s why the foundation-building work United Way is doing is so valuable. It’s working in the community and working with parents and building respect and trust over time.”