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The Future of Education

Missing Out: Why US Children Need to See Themselves in Books

love of reading-age appropriate books-diverse representation-room to read
love of reading-age appropriate books-diverse representation-room to read

To develop foundational literacy skills and a love of reading, children need access to a diverse collection of engaging and age-appropriate books.   


Christabel Pinto

Senior Director, Global Literacy Program, Room to Read

It is difficult to accept the fact that only 35% of fourth graders in the United States read at or above a proficient level. Despite its vast wealth, the United States is one of the most unequal countries in the world. A history of systemic and systematic racial and economic oppressions means that learning opportunities are not equitably distributed. 

How can we make functional literacy — the ability to participate in society through foundational reading and writing skills — a reality for every child in the country? Increasing access to a diverse collection of high-quality books is a place to start. With access to engaging books, children are inspired with a desire to read, and their reading levels are much more likely to improve when books are present in the home. The need for books is exceptionally strong in high-poverty neighborhoods, where age-appropriate books are scarce — some having only one book for every 830 children, according to NYU researchers. 

Representation matters

Beyond having access to books, diverse representation within children’s book collections matters. Children are motivated to read when their own experiences are validated by being reflected from the pages of a book. This was apparent during the distribution of Room to Read’s collection of books to elementary school children in California, when Black children excitedly gravitated towards books with Black characters on the cover.  

The United States suffers from a significant lack of high-quality, authentic children’s books that represent people from underserved communities. For instance, there are 10 times more books published that feature animals and objects as a primary character than there are that feature disabled children as a primary character. This poses a problem: When children never see themselves represented in a book, they can feel that reading is part of an exclusive club to which they do not belong. Books are windows to the world, and book collections that do not represent the wide diversity of humanity depict a skewed view of the world.  

To support children with the motivation to read, and to provide an enabling environment for them to develop their literacy skills, we must ensure that all children, regardless of their family’s income, have access to a diverse collection of children’s books. The collection should contain both fiction and nonfiction books that delight, inform, inspire, and engage readers, and it should represent the perspectives and experiences of people from diverse communities. 

Since children are first introduced to books by adults who can serve as reading role models, caregivers and educators should be trained in how to best support children to develop both literacy skills and a love of reading. Adults can act as gatekeepers to children’s literature and should know that, not surprisingly, children who can choose what they read and have informal environments in which to enjoy reading tend to be more motivated readers.

Ultimately, a good book that will help a child develop their literacy skills is one that they want to read. A diverse book collection increases the chances that every child will find books that interest them, bringing them a step closer to becoming proficient readers and lifelong learners. 

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