Banking on books: How you can help close the literacy gap

In middle-income neighborhoods, the ratio of books per child is 13 to one; in low-income neighborhoods the ratio is one book for every 300 children. The Central Virginia Children’s Book Bank is trying to change that in our area—but they can’t do it without help.

When I registered my son for pre-kindergarten a couple years ago, I had to fill out a form about our family’s literacy habits–how often we read to our child, did we enjoy it, how did our child feel about books, and so on. But the last question hit me right in the gut. It asked something along the lines of “How many books do you have in your home?” In my response I could choose from a few different ranges, the highest of which being “more than 200.” The lowest included the number zero.

Zero. As in none. No books in the home.

As I checked the box next to the “more than 200” option, I felt humbled…and very aware of my privilege.

My husband and I both grew up in middle to upper-middle class homes with books readily available, and we each had people who were able and willing to read to us often. We both went on to graduate from excellent four-year universities. Today we have shelf after shelf of books and a pretty healthy stockpile of options on our iPads.

Our son is growing up in a solidly middle class household. He’s been read to every day since he was born– the bookcase in his room can’t even hold his thumbed-through collection of picture books, story books, and chapter books. And even though he’s only seven years old, he loves to learn.

Why am I making the connection between socioeconomic status, access to books, and success in school? Well, it turns out the three are undeniably intertwined–and too many of our country’s children are starting out so, so many steps behind.

Let’s look at some data…

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According to Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) of the 16 million children living in poverty in the United States, only one in three has books in his or her home. That leaves 10 million children who don’t have books of their own.

Research out of the University of Kansas in 2003 showed that children from low-income families lack early interactions that lead to language development, including being read to and access to books in the home. Data showed that children from low-income families have 30 million (yes, MILLION) fewer words than their more affluent peers.

A 2006 study published in Handbook of Early Literacy Research, Volume 2 found that in middle income neighborhoods the ratio is 13 books per child; in low-income neighborhoods, the ratio is one (age-appropriate) book for every 300 children. That same study found that the most successful way to improve the reading achievement of low-income children is to increase their access to print.

In 2010 a study entitled Family Scholarly Culture and Educational Success: Books and Schooling in 27 Nations stated that the number of books in the home directly predicts reading achievement, and children who grew up with access to their own books reached a higher level of education (around three more years) than those who did not. In fact, a child having books in the home is twice as important as the father’s education level.

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Yes, the statistics are sobering but they also offer some hope–and the Central Virginia Children’s Book Bank gives us chance to put that hope into action.

The Children’s Book Bank exists, as the website says, “to put as many books as possible into the hands and lives of children in need.” The Children’s Museum of Richmond (CMoR) assumed oversight of the Book Bank in January of 2012, and has since given out 100,000 books to kids who wouldn’t otherwise have any (or many) of their own.

The Book Bank donates books directly to kids ages 0 to 13 and to organizations who serve at-risk children throughout Central Virginia. Title I schools, social service agencies, faith-based organizations, under-resourced preschools, and other groups who assist children-in-need qualify for book donations from the Book Bank. The Children’s Museum also often donates books directly to at-risk students who visit the museum on scholarships and grants–or, as CMoR’s Director of Mission Liz Pearce explains it, really any child who visits the museum.

“What you may not know is that all CMoR locations have book nooks and reading areas, and all children are able to take a book home with them each time they visit, regardless of need,” she says. “We want to get as many books in the hands of children as possible.”

Here’s where we come in: in order to get all those books into all those little hands, the Book Bank needs donations, especially since the Book Bank has seen a major uptick in requests over the last year.

The Book Bank is greatly in need of board books, picture books, chapter books, and books in Spanish1. All donated books should be new or like-new, i.e. nothing musty, damaged, or written in. These kids deserve to be proud of the home libraries they’re building.

“Seeing a child’s face light up when you hand them a stack of books that is all theirs–and no one else’s–is beyond words,” says Pearce. “It’s the experience of owning a book that makes all the difference. The freedom to have a book that you can read whenever you want to, over and over or turn down the pages, tuck under your pillow or drop by the side of your bed and pick it up in the morning, is something that far too many children don’t have.”

Let’s keep Pearce’s words in mind as we finish up Christmas shopping over the next couple of days–or next week should we find ourselves struggling to make room for new additions to our kids’ bookshelves. Because we can help with this. It’s too important not to.

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Donations to the Central Virginia Children’s Book Bank can be dropped off at all of the CMoR locations: Central, Short Pump, Chesterfield, and Short Pump. Monetary donations are also welcome; a $10 donation provides four books to children in need. For more information–including tips for organizing your own book drive–visit

  1. They do not accept encyclopedias, school text books, books for adult readers, magazines, DVDs, CDs, or toys. 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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