Who Will Support Child Book Readers?

THESE are good times for the publishers of children's books. The respected trade magazine ``Publishers Weekly'' forecasts more than a billion dollars in sales for 1991, a doubling since 1985. The industry hit a gusher when it tapped a reservoir of savvy middle-class baby-boom parents. Many of these parents, the most-educated generation in the history of the world, are predisposed to lavish books on their children. Match this inclination with a spate of concern about poor-quality schools, and the response has been millions of children's books sold. Upscale bookstores, especially in shopping malls in affluent suburbs, have transformed their children's sections into mini-learning centers.

And the market for children's books will continue to grow. The United States Department of Education projects rising K-8 enrollments through 1997 (from 33.5 to 35.1 million students). The numbers will level off, not decline, through the end of the decade.

BUT these are not good times for either the local library or the public-school library. These ``reading'' institutions, hallmarks of learning and democracy, now routinely go hat-in-hand for money when tax levies are voted on. An economic recession has slashed book budgets at both state and local levels. The result: fewer books purchased and fewer hours that libraries are open to the public.

Chester E. Finn Jr., in his just-released book, ``We Must Take Charge: Our Schools and Our Future'' (Free Press), zeros in on the public/private responsibility to educate the young. He writes: ``Education is not just our personal possession.... After generations of argument among economists as to whether it is a `public' or `private' good, the only acceptable answer is that it is both. Individuals benefit in myriad ways from acquiring an education. But the larger society has a bona fide interest in it, too. Educating the next generation is how any nation secures its future.''

Does anyone doubt the role of reading books in securing this future? US Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander has nothing but praise for Mr. Finn's book. But troubling evidence suggests the American public is not paying much attention to getting books into the hands of children who need them most, those whose parents are too poor to buy books in the first place.

Given our current 180-day academic year and an average school day of six hours, children devote a mere 9 percent of their lives to ``formal'' schooling. Reading outside of class time - to state the obvious - becomes imperative. It is doubly so for those children whose parents and grandparents (the private sector, if one applies Finn's education role to books) do not buy books.

North Carolina's experience shows the dimensions of the challenge to get good books into the hands of the neediest children. Per pupil expenditure on school libraries is $5.50. With the cost of new children's books in the $12-to-$15 range, it doesn't take a calculator to compute the shortfall; nor will public library shelves fill up with new books even when the recession is over if the prices of children's books continue to rise faster than inflation, as they have for the last three years.

There is much comfort in the knowledge that librarians scour new book lists for both quality and curriculum usefulness in the books they buy. But there is cause for great concern in contemplating the educational cost of parents who do not put books in their children's hands or the society that does not stock the shelves of libraries and keep their doors open.

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