Fort Collins-based Unite for Literacy strives to eradicate book deserts

Holly Hartman, Director of Publishing at Unite for Literacy, works to put 100 books into every child's home.

Holly Hartman, Director of Publishing at Unite for Literacy, works to put 100 books into every child’s home.

Holly Hartman, Director of Publishing at Unite for Literacy (UFL), believes that it is possible for every child on the planet to have access to more than 100 digital books.

The Fort Collins-based organization is a for-profit company that is working to eradicate book scarcity and get relevant books into the homes of every child in Colorado, the United States, and the world and to give children and their families the opportunity to love reading.

Research has shown that children who have 100 or more books in their home are less likely to struggle with academics and stay in school.

“If you can give children 100 books in their home, you can change the landscape of their literacy life. If you’re a child that lives in a home where there are plenty of books to read, you’re going to start school understanding what a book is, valuing books, knowing how to turn pages, how to hold books, but more than that, you have a chance to learn that books are what they are, the passport to bigger things,” Hartman said.

Literacy rates in Colorado are discouraging. The 2013 Nation’s Report Card from the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that six of 10 Colorado fourth-graders scored below proficiency in reading. Plus, six of 10 Colorado kids live in households with fewer than 100 books.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress asked 4th graders how many books they have in their homes, and how often they read for fun. Those with over 100 books in their home and who read for fun scored proficient in reading, as the following chart illustrates.

“Children who grow up without books are starting at zero. That means they’re already so far behind that the chance of catching up, especially by third and fourth grade, is low. They say you’ve got to be reading proficient by third grade. That’s a steep hill for a little one to climb if they’re coming from a home with no books,” Hartman said.

Unite for Literacy knows getting 100 printed books into the home of every child is not going to happen with the printing, distribution, and storage of traditional publishing. Their solution is to utilize eBooks and mobile technology for families on the go. Parents or children with an Internet connection, such as a tablet or smartphone, can choose any book in UFL’s library without registering or downloading content. And Hartman can guarantee the books will be free forever.

And because they can be accessed digitally, UFL has the opportunity to add cultural diversity to the books’ pages, such as audio narration available in 19 languages. Immigrant and refugee children and their families learning English, especially the growing Somali and Burmese populations in Northern Colorado, can hear books narrated in their native language while reading the words in English.

“It is often the case that with immigrant children, especially refugees, parents may not be literate in their own language, much less English. And they really need that narrated support in order to even have that reading experience with their children. Plus, it’s also an introduction to those children to American culture,” Hartman said.

The language options keep expanding as UFL grows. To select a language, they look at census data of indigenous and immigrant populations to see what would be the best options for children. “Our initial goal is 300 languages, which is the number of languages spoken within the United States. There are 6000 languages across the world, so our vision is that eventually crowdsourcing can actually make it possible for any language to be there, but that’s a ways off,” Hartman said.

So how does UFL spread the word about the library to those children who could benefit from it? Hartman says that’s where the sponsors come in, who pay to have their name beside the book. Underwriting the cost of the book keeps the library free. In return, businesses, organizations, and restaurants can sponsor a book that aligns with their mission and use it as a marketing tool so they can spread the word of the library in the process of publicizing their support for literacy. UFL is also working with libraries, schools, and local and national nonprofit organizations with similar missions. In June, they participated in the Clinton Global Initiative in Denver to connect with national and global sponsors and other organizations.

Even though UFL has an impressive goal of bringing literacy all over the world, they are not without critics who disagree with the digitization of children’s books. The organization doesn’t want to replace printed books, but only be a gateway to reading and literacy. “The reality is that children are increasingly on digital media. We want there to be content out there that is high quality and leads them back to the printed book,” Hartman said.

Hartman believes that everyone in the community can continue the conversation UFL has started in eliminating book scarcity and book deserts. “We see it as a social justice issue. The right to learn to read, we should see it as a fundamental right that everyone has because it’s such a key to personal success in today’s world. You have to be able to read. Moving that conversation out into the larger community and getting it solved is our big vision,” Hartman said.

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