Giving needy children the gift of reading

THE GIFT OF READING is a priceless treasure most of ustake for granted.

As children, wegrew up in homes with books. Our parents read to us, and we watched as they read newspapers and books for their own enjoyment. Later, as parents ourselves, we passed along the love of books to our children. And so the literary cycle continues.

But for many poor families, children's books rank low on any list of priorities. When it's a choice between buying a copy of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" or feeding hungry children, milk and eggs rightly win out. One study of reading literacy claims that 60 percent of low-income families have no children's books in their homes. Other research reports that 80 percent of preschool and after-school programs serving low-income children have no books.

The consequences of this early literary deprivation can be long-lasting. "You can't teach a kid to play the piano without a piano, and you can't teach a child to love books and be a reader without books," says Kyle Zimmer, president of First Book (www.firstbook.org), a national nonprofit group that gives new books to needy children.

Six years ago, Ms. Zimmer left her law practice in Washington to head First Book. Last year alone, children in 700 communities received a total of 7 million books. Some are purchased by First Book; others are donated by publishers.

This month, children's books are even showing up in cereal boxes. Five million boxes of Cheerios contain specially sized paperback versions of five popular children's books published by Simon and Schuster.

In addition to this cereal-box literary campaign - called "Spoonfuls of Stories" - General Mills has given First Book $500,000 to help get new books to low-income children.

Why new books? Because poor children often don't have many new possessions they can call their own. First Book also supplies bookplates, where children can write their names.

Season's Readings, a month-long children's book drive by Verizon, invites company employeesto donate achildren's book, and to pledge to read to a child in December.

In March, Starbucks will hold its sixth All Books for Children Book Drive. It encourages workersand customers to bring books to Starbucks locations. Since 1997, it has collected more than a million and a half volumes.

On a smaller, more local scale, consider the holiday program called Book Angels at Bookwinkle's Children's Books in Mendocino, Calif. It gives new books to children from 2 months to 17 years old who might otherwise go bookless this Christmas. Local schools and service groups such as Big Brothers and Big Sisters provide names of children in need, along with their ages and interests. Customers give money or buy a book for a specific child. Volunteers and store employees gift-wrap the books. Next week teachers will distribute them to 550 children.

"It makes us feel we're doing something for people less fortunate," says Kate Olson, a staff member who coordinates the program. Early in the season she sent letters to publishers, asking if they could donate books.

Efforts like these, small and large, bring rewards. According to Zimmer, several studies show that the single factor most closely related to acquiring reading skills is the presence of books in the home.

What a treat, to snuggle close to a parent at bedtime and hear those lilting words that begin "Goodnight Moon": "In the great green room there was a telephone and a red balloon...." Or to listen again and again to the beloved tale of Mr. and Mrs. Mallard in "Make Way for Ducklings."

After the plastic, battery-operated Christmas toys break or lose their appeal, books will still stand on the shelf, ready to transport another generation of young readers to other worlds, giving them a sense of the wonder of words and pictures on paper. Is there a better gift?

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