The following is a guest blog post written by our partner Reach Out and Read of Greater New York
Dr. Faye Kokotos, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Montefiore, recently described well-child visits during COVID-19 as an anxiety-ridden experience: “The waiting room is eerily quiet; the children are whisked into an examination room quickly. All the staff are wearing face masks.” In spite of this acknowledgment of the challenges and uncertainties of the present day, she described the one clear source of joy that has remained:
At Reach Out and Read of Greater New York, we partner with health care providers like Dr. Kokotos to put books and literacy resources in the hands of children and their caregivers. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we’ve been hard at work hosting bilingual virtual read alouds and 26 parent support workshops, helping address the risky decline in pediatric vaccination rates, as well as collaborating closely with our 233 pediatric partner sites to ensure no interruptions to a consistent stream of books for families most in need (highlighting the health heroes along the way!).
Much like nonprofits across the world, “pivot” has been the word of the year. Beyond shifting to virtual mission delivery, we moved out of our administrative office space, opting for a fully remote operation which allows us to cut expenses and drive every penny towards our community. As we made each of these critical decisions to prioritize our mission, we received some good news: a $65,000 matching grant from First Book.
This support made all the difference in our ability to deliver 100,000 books to children since COVID-19 spread into greater New York. Beyond the direct benefits of this support, what we really value in the partnership with First Book is our shared commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Representation in the media we consume has a tremendous impact on the way we view ourselves, one another, and ultimately the way we view the world. As early as 3 to 6 months of age, babies begin to notice race. Between the ages of 3 and 5, young children begin to apply stereotypes and express bias. It is for these reasons, and so many more, that we are committed to ensuring that the books we provide are not only free and age-appropriate, but are culturally relevant and showcase a diversity of identities and perspectives.
Seeing people who look, act, and experience life like you do in the media makes you feel included in society, defines your self view, and helps you explore what you consider possible to achieve. It also defines the way people outside yourself – especially those in positions of power or privilege – view you, including the assumptions they make about you and the hurdles you may have to overcome or the help you may get along the way.
The data shows a long standing lack of diversity in children’s literature. Though improving in recent years, there’s still a significant gap between the authors and illustrators behind them, and the children who are reading them: 37% of the US population is a person of color, but only 7% of the children’s book authors in 2017 identified as Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color.
We like to say that when children learn to read, their own stories begin. Without books that reflect the lived experience of Black lives, Indigenous experiences, LGBTQI, gender expression, and other facets of identity, we would not be able to truly fulfill our mission and give young children a foundation for success. We want to see change, and we know families do, too. According to the 6th Edition Scholastic Kids & Family Reading Report, 47% of parents want books featuring people of color, and even Netflix is getting on board.
Just like every other industry – demand will inform supply. First Book’s support allows us to balance the need for cost-effective decisions and the importance of representation, ensuring that we get as many books into the hands of families as we can, while simultaneously ensuring that the selection includes authors of color, quality books that spark critical conversations, and illustrations that celebrate a range of identities. All in all, we’re able to offer a safe space in our books for children to see themselves in the books they read.
As Dr. Rufine Sims Bishop – children’s literature and recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award once said:
“Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”
The stories we tell today shape the future we’ll have tomorrow. Reach Out and Read of Greater New York is proud to stand alongside First Book in shaping a better future together. We know the action we take today creates the world we all inhabit tomorrow, and hope you’ll join us.