On April 22, 2020

Connecting kids and books during Covid-19

By Duncan McDougall, executive director, Children’s Literacy Foundation

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, schools, after-school programs, and most public libraries are closed, and millions of U.S. children are now sheltering at home. A significant portion of these kids, particularly those from low-income homes where books are more likely to be scarce, suddenly find themselves stranded in what educators term a “book desert.”

Tragically, at a time when children need stimulating entertainment the most, they lack an opportunity to be inspired and transported by the power of a great book. Even worse, the dearth of high-quality reading material means many children will return to school this September having fallen far behind in their reading skills, and children from low-income families are likely to lag the most.

But “necessity is the mother of invention,” and many caring people have devised new ways to connect kids to books in this socially distanced world.  I’m the executive director of the Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF), a nonprofit that nurtures a love of reading and writing among low-income kids, at-risk, and rural children throughout New Hampshire and Vermont.  Our work allows us to witness many creative efforts to make books accessible. Here are just a few examples.

Hanging out at the library: As you might expect, the staff at the public library in Springfield, Vermont, are passionate about making books available throughout their community. Unfortunately, the library is closed due to social distancing. Undeterred, every day the librarians now put a few dozen grab bags on their railing, 6 feet apart.  Each bag has two books and a DVD with reading levels marked on the outside of the bag.  To be safe, bags cannot be opened or returned. One by one people walk along the path, excitedly pick one of the bags, and get a fun surprise when they get home.

Feeding body and mind:  To ensure kids still have access to nourishing lunches while schools are closed, many schools are using their kitchens to cook meals, and their buses to distribute the food directly to students’ homes. In Bartlett, New Hampshire, school staff members have been including children’s books with the deliveries of food, thereby feeding young bodies and minds at the same time. Young faces now peek out living room windows waiting to see what treasure the bus will bring them today.

Door to door service:  In many small towns, the public library is the principal source of books for the community, and the local librarian has a personal connection with most of the town’s families and kids. Wardsboro, Vermont is a rural community with 853 residents. The librarian, wearing a mask and gloves, is now depositing bags with new books on the doorsteps of local families so they can still enjoy some reading time together.

From behind bars:  Prisons are one of the dozens of venues where CLiF offers our free programs.  Each year we teach hundreds of inmates how to share books successfully with their children and grandchildren. Shortly after the coronavirus arrived, we worked with prison staff across the “Twin States” to gather requests from inmates about new books they would like to send to their kids. CLiF donated the new books, and last week we mailed some 350 packages with new titles to children who are now more connected to a beloved family member through the power of a book.

In this strange and disturbing time, books can be a safe harbor for kids, and a friend when they’re alone. They can also provide stimulation for young minds, and help children maintain their reading skills so they can be ready when schools reopen. I hope these examples inspire you to safely and creatively do all you can to get books into the hands of the children you love. They need them now, more than ever.

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