June 23, 2012 by jilltatara
Readers find magic in books. Whether it’s Merlin casting spells, or Hermione acing tests at Hogwarts, magic can be found in the chapters, in the pages, in the words of countless books. When I was little I thought books themselves had magical powers. There were those that could make me giggle and those that scared me and gave me nightmares. There were those that, in reading them, made me feel like I was getting a hug.
Well, as it turns out, books really do have magical powers. In a recent article by Justin Minkel entitled The Home-Library Effect: Transforming At-Risk Readers, he describes the incredible progress made by his class (the vast majority of whom were living in poverty) when given forty books over the course of 2nd and 3rd grade. The children compiled a home library that not only affected their academic life, but their home life as well. It also reverberated through the lives of their families.
There is an educational gap between upper and middle class students and students from lower income families. Part of this educational gap is what is known as the book gap. In a study conducted in 2001 by Susan Neuman and Donna Celano, they found a middle class ratio of thirteen books for every one child. In poverty-stricken areas, the ratio is one book for every three hundred children.
In trying to close this gap it is surprising the huge effect that even a few books in the home can have on children’s lives. In a study by Richard Allington, children in lower income families that were given twelve books to take home over the summer showed the same progress as if they had attended summer school, and for the poorest children in the study, the impact showed twice the progress of summer school.
Even before I had kids of my own, I had a collection of children’s books. My kids have been lucky in that, from infancy, they have been wading in a deep pond of books. Many times there were so many books scattered around you couldn’t see the floor. We were ankle deep in Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, Mo Willems and Syd Hoff.
First the books were used as chew toys or as projectiles to throw. Then the kids learned the mechanics of turning pages, just like they saw mommy and daddy doing. Then they started to realize those blobs of ink meant something. It was a fascinating process to watch.
I don’t know how many times my husband has grumbled “We have GOT to get rid of some of these books.” I’ve always told him, “It’s worth it. It’s worth the trouble of picking up books every night. You’ll see.” I had complete faith in the power of those books to somehow enhance the lives of my children. And the more books the merrier.
After reading Justin Minkel’s article, I was curious to know how many books we had in our house. I had never in more than a decade of collecting children’s books, actually counted how many we own. And I hesitate to say it even now because my husband will grumble even louder, “See? We’ve got to get rid of some books!” And, seeing as how there are four of us living in a one bedroom apartment, he does have a point in terms of space. In much less than one thousand square feet we have two adults, two kids, and eight hundred and twenty children’s books. When finding out that number, my first hoarder thought was, “We should get a hundred and eighty more and make it an even thou.”
The large home library does seem to have had a great impact on my kids so far. They both learned to read at four and they both have a deep love of books. And I didn’t even need to put that much effort into it. Aside from singing the alphabet song to them when they were very small, and reading to them when they asked, the only real work I put in was picking up hordes of books night after night after night. They learned to read as if by osmosis. Or by magic.
From the two studies I mentioned and my own experiment, it seems clear that impoverished kids could benefit from having more books in the home. How can that happen? It would be great if, just to get the book-loving ball started, more preschools would take field trips to the library and get every child set up with a library card before they even learn to read. They should also encourage families to take their kids to the library often for a literary refill. School libraries and neighborhood public libraries are incredibly important. And any program that compiles home libraries and gets them into the homes of children living in poverty should be supported. We should be giving them books and giving them choices, encouraging them to pick their favorites. I remember well the thrill of those days that the R.I.F. truck parking outside our school and we could go in and pick any book we wanted. Any book we wanted! For free! To keep! It was wonderful.
We could all play a part in this. If you have children’s books that you want to get rid of, or if you know of a local library that is getting rid of children’s books, find a local charity and donate them. If they are in good shape, please don’t throw them away, because you could be throwing away a chance for a child to have their lives changed by such a simple thing as a home library.
Teach a kid to read and he’ll read for a lifetime. Give a kid a bunch of books, and he’ll love to read for a lifetime. See? It’s magic.