Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

First Book Makes Magic Happen For Low-Income Kids

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First Book Canada at The Word On The Street

Do you remember the magic of your first book? It’s possible that you don’t, not because it wasn’t a magical, but because you were probably too young when you received it to remember. You’re lucky. That is not the same story with every child. In fact, 85 percent of the pre-school and after-school programs serving children from low-income families do not have a single book for the children enrolled. In some of the lowest-income neighbourhoods in North America, where any money earned must be used for the bare necessities like food and shelter, there is only one book available for every 300 children. In the case of one teacher, when she asked her students to bring in a book from home, three of her students brought the phone book because it was the only book they had.

These alarming stories and statistics come care of First Book, an international non-profit organization that aims to combat illiteracy rates by providing children from low-income families the opportunity to read and own their first new books. The Canadian branch of the registered charity distributes brand new children’s books from leading Canadian publishers to children from low-income families across the nation. They take donated books and ship them from their Mississauga distribution centre to registered programs across the country, allowing the children enrolled access to reading and owning their first new books.

The organization is providing a critical role in transforming the quality of community and school-based programs nationwide. According to First Book Canada Director Tom Best, “(Last) year alone in Canada we will have distributed a quarter of a million books to children and youth in need.” They are looking to step that number up significantly in 2012. There are many different ways to help. Publishers can donate books (cartons of single title, brand new books only) to First Book’s Mississauga office for redistribution to recipient groups. Authors can donate funds (a small per cent) from the sale of their most recent book. Readers and the general public can volunteer with First Book to help with book distributions, at public events like Word on the Street, or to help with fundraisers and awareness campaigns.

“We know the biggest single barrier most children and youth have to reading is access to books,” says Best. “First Book and First Book Canada are set up specifically to overcome that barrier and with great help from publishers, authors and corporations we are making a real difference.” When asked about why he decided to get involved in the organization (Best was hired as Director last year), Best reflected, “After a 30+ year career in Book Publishing I had decided I wanted a new challenge. I have had a life long interest in literacy, especially for younger readers.” He added, “I can still remember the thrill of being able to read my first book and the enormous pleasure we all take in being able to read it ourselves and then add to our collection of books. Sadly, millions of children in this country don't have that opportunity, but by working with local schools and programs who serve children in need, First Book Canada is able to address this gap, building literacy skills and a life-long love of reading. I couldn’t have a better, more fulfilling job at this point in my career. ”

Another way, and, according to Best, a very important way, for interested parties to become involved is to help First Book register every program in the country. The more programs there are registered, the more donations there are available to be made and the more books that can be distributed to children and potential new readers. Programs to look out for are ones that are working with children from ages 0-18, where 70 percent of the children or youth in that specific program are living below the poverty line. Programs must be able to assure First Book that every child will get to keep the books that are donated and that they go home for the child to call their own. Sample programs are literacy groups, library after school programs, soccer clubs or church groups; any group working with children in Canada. Registration is easy and unless the groups are registered with First Book, they are unable to get books. For more information on how to register, click here.

This year First Book will celebrate their 20th anniversary in the United States. They will have distributed 100 million books across North America either for free or at very low cost. Here’s hoping for another successful 20 years and 100 million more new readers.

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