A stack of books may not seem extraordinary, but it can be life changing. Recent research has indicated that there are tangible benefits for kids who grow up with books. Two global studies of home libraries indicated that books in the home have positive effects on educational attainment and literacy, especially for children from low-income families and as children reach adolescence. A smaller-scale study found that students from low-income families who received free books at the beginning of the summer scored higher on reading assessments, mitigating the effects of the summer slide.
Through a long-running collaboration with the University of Chicago My Very Own Library (MVOL) program, in partnership with Scholastic Books and Making Waves Foundation, students at Making Waves Academy (MWA) receive free books to help create their own home libraries. Before COVID-19, students chose books at several book fairs held throughout the year, adding ten new books to their home libraries each year. The MVOL program also sponsored on-campus events where visiting authors and special guests engaged students in a read-aloud or interactive presentation followed by a Q&A session, a book signing, and—in most cases—a free copy of a book.
For Esteban, an MWA 10th grader, these books have provided “many chances to tap into my imagination.” Ms. Obinyan, a mother of two Wave-Makers in 8th and 10th grades, shared how important the program is for her family, explaining, “It took me forever to read because of dyslexia, so I am really grateful that my boys don’t have trouble reading. I learned to read, and I love to read now. I appreciate that MWA puts such an emphasis on reading and giving out books.”
Adapting to COVID-19
Of course, in-person book fairs and author events have not been possible since the transition to remote learning in March 2020. In response, MVOL has offered tools, links, and other resources to bolster literacy activities at home, including a Virtual Read Aloud video series. Recognizing the importance of building home libraries, the program has also strategized ways to safely distribute books to students. A few weeks ago, MWA received a shipment from Scholastic that included all 10,000 books for the year, and families were invited to pick up ten books at a drive-up distribution event with safety protocols in place. Dr. Evangelia Ward-Jackson, MWA’s senior school director, acknowledges, “Things may have looked different this year, as students lined up in cars for a drive-thru book pick-up event, instead of spending time perusing books in a traditional Scholastic book fair. Still, we are proud to have prioritized getting books into the hands of our students, and we anticipate the day when we can once again gather and celebrate the joy of reading together.”
For many students and parents, these books feel especially important as they face the challenges of the pandemic. “We have so much going on in the world right now,” says Ms. Langford, a 6th-grade parent, “For me, and especially for [my daughter], to get into a book takes her from all that is going on right now in the moment, and she can just use her imagination and get lost in the book. It’s good for an escape from the madness.” Books also provide a much-needed break from the digital world of remote school, as 5th-grade parent Ms. Baker notes, “It is very important for children to have access to books—not just on a laptop, but an actual book—to get their mind away from the screen.” Sebastian, a high school senior, agrees with both sentiments: “Having a lot of books around has helped me because with technology right now, it can get pretty stressful, so reading is a good escape.”
Dr. Ward-Jackson also recognizes the importance of books this year, noting, “Partnering with My Very Own Library to provide our students with books during distance learning has brought a sense of joy and uplift, which supports our social-emotional well-being efforts and provides an outlet for imagination and exploration.”
Literacy, Equity, and Opportunity
Duane Davis, who heads the MVOL program in his role as executive director of K–12 initiatives at the University of Chicago, notes the importance of MWA’s focus on distributing books to middle- and high schoolers. “Child literacy is usually seen as an intervention for birth to age 3—that we need to instill the love of books in younger kids—and there’s an assumption that it is all figured out by high school,” Davis says. “But that’s actually not the case. You still need a space where our pre-teens, our teens, our adolescents that are transitioning to high school—and transitioning to college—can find that same love for books and reading.”
In selecting this year’s set of ten books for each grade level, MVOL worked with teachers to make sure some of the books fit in with themes that teachers wanted to discuss in their classrooms, while always keeping students’ interests in mind. According to Davis, “Our hope is to offer options to spark that fire and get young people and families connected to books that really unlock literacy for young people.” This results in a wide range of genres that can include graphic novels and poetry, which many students appreciate. “I didn’t have a lot of books before, but now I have books from a lot of different genres,” says 8th grader Stefanya. “My favorite one was a mystery book. I had never read mystery books before.”
Davis also notes that questions around equity were at the center of their decisions about which books to provide: “What kinds of texts are available for young people and for families that address the issues that they have? Can you see yourself—but equal to that—can you also see others, and find commonality with them?” For Davis, books also serve as windows into future possibilities, allowing students to see people who look like them living lives that they might not have considered as options. “The vehicle for seeing that, if you don’t have a human that can share it with you, is through a book—through reading a story that planted a seed for what is possible.”
But in addition to all of these important messages, Davis also acknowledges, “Maybe books are escapism for kids, too. Maybe they want to read Harry Potter because they want to go to a magical land where there are wizards and dragons and wands, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Dr. Ward-Jackson is particularly grateful for the MVOL program this year “During a time of heightened social isolation and uncertainty,” she says, “connecting with a good book can make all of the difference.”