As nonprofit literacy organization First Book approached a momentous milestone – the occasion of its 100 millionth brand-new book donated to a child from a low-income family – a big question surfaced: which book should it be? Staffers decided to go the democratic route and encouraged the public to weigh in on the First Book Web site to vote for one of 10 children’s titles to receive the honor. More than 14,000 votes were cast, and the winner was Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, published by Random House.
This classic faced some tough competition. Other contenders for the 100 millionth book designation, gleaned from the list of the most popular titles First Book has distributed to its network of 40,000 local schools and community programs across the U.S. and Canada over its 20 years in operation, were A Wrinkle in Time; Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type; Diary of a Wimpy Kid; Eating the Alphabet; Guess How Much I Love You; Martin’s Big Words; The Snowy Day; To Kill a Mockingbird; and Where the Wild Things Are.
“We were cheering,” says Kyle Zimmer, co-founder and president of First Book, of the polling results. “Of course we would have been delighted to have any of our publishers win. But Random House has been front and center in supporting us for a long time, and of course everyone knows how wonderful Dr. Seuss is, and what an important part of American culture his books are.”
First published in 1960, Green Eggs and Ham has sold approximately 15 million copies in North America. “We are over the moon that this book was selected,” says Barbara Marcus, president and publisher of Random House Children’s Books. “Random House has been a longstanding partner with First Book, and we’re continuously wowed by the tremendous work that they do to put books into the hands of deserving children. We look forward to continuing to work with them and celebrating their next milestone.”
First Book staffers announced the winner of the poll on November 15 at Martha’s Table in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit community organization dedicated to meeting the needs of homeless and low-income children. After the announcement, Zimmer presented four-year-old Chase-Kennedy Williams with the 100 millionth book and read Green Eggs and Ham aloud to the girl and her classmates, all of whom received a copy to take home.
A Look Back – and Ahead
Martha’s Table was a fitting locale for the celebration, as it was there that Zimmer first conceived of launching what became First Book some 25 years ago. Then a lawyer in Washington, Zimmer was volunteering as a tutor at the organization. “At the time, Martha’s Table did not have the resources that they have now, and had almost no books to share with children,” recalls Zimmer. “Some 50 or 60 kids from a struggling area of D.C. would come in to the center in the afternoons, and it hit me over and over again how much more powerful the hours they spent at Martha’s Table would be if we had books and other resources. It occurred to me that there were so many organizations and schools all over the country that were equally worthy and equally in need.”
Spurred to action, Zimmer founded First Book in 1992 with two friends, Liz Arky (who also worked as a volunteer tutor) and Peter Gold, both of whom are still members of First Book’s board of directors. “They say that reaching out and volunteering changes you as much as it does the kids you help,” says Zimmer of her time spent at Martha’s Table. “I’m pretty much a poster child for that statement. I left my legal career and have never looked back.”
Zimmer realizes that First Book, which is currently commemorating its 20th anniversary as well as its 100 millionth book donation, has much work ahead. “We’re thrilled to hit 20 years and 100 million books,” she says, “but you don’t celebrate for very long when you realize that the kids in the lowest 30 percent of the socioeconomic pyramid do not have books in their lives, will not be able to buy books in the future, and will not become readers.”
She adds that publishers’ current business models “are really restrictive as to how their companies can reach these young readers. Publishers are dedicated to kids, to high-quality books, and to the same future we are, but traditionally have not had access to the institutions that First Book is reaching with any consistency. We must figure out a way to hold hands and make that access possible within the confines of their business. That is First Book’s mission.”
December is a busy time for First Book, which has launched a social-media initiative with HMH Children’s Books to give away up to 25,000 new copies (donated by the publisher) of The Polar Express to children in need. “During this season, we’re trying to reach a lot of children,” Zimmer says. “We know that kids have a chunk of free time over the holidays, and we’re working with schools and other groups to make sure they have books to read during school vacation. Given the economic times, people are tuned into the fact that more schools and families are struggling, and we really appreciate publishers who offer an influx of donations at this time of year. We all need to lend a hand.”