Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit First Book, dedicated to providing books and other resources to classrooms and programs serving children in need, has teamed with 26 additional nonprofits nationwide to form the Diverse Books for All Coalition, an initiative to address the urgent need for increased access to diverse children’s books.
As organizer of this new effort, First Book has received a $1 million, 18-month grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to support the endeavor. Other founding members of the coalition include American Academy of Pediatrics-CA3, Reach Out and Read, Reading Is Fundamental, Too Small to Fail, and We Need Diverse Books.
“We’ve been working on these issues for 30 years now,” Kyle Zimmer, president, CEO, and cofounder of First Book said about how the idea for the coalition took shape. “But we’re not the only one. There’s a wonderful field of institutions that have been focused on diversity of children’s books for decades. And, although there’s been progress, it’s not fast enough. All of us are recognizing that we are stronger together and that it’s important to the field for us to recognize these common, shared parts of our mission, and to lock arms and really make it happen.”
Zimmer and her coalition partners come to this undertaking with a renewed sense of urgency largely spurred by witnessing the effects of the learning disruptions and trauma experienced by kids and families during the pandemic. “I think all of us are watching the press reporting on low reading and math scores, and ACT scores, and, we’re coming out of the pandemic, which has just been brutal to educational systems and in the lives of kids,” Zimmer said. “The social sector as a whole has never been brilliant about collaboration. And it’s not a mystery as to why: we’re all struggling in an environment of scarcity. But we all recognized that the problems are getting bigger, and that if we aren’t successful together, the results will be catastrophic.”
Diverse Books for All members believe that literacy is at the heart of those larger looming issues. “Instilling a love of reading affects not just the individual kid, but our economy. It also plays a pivotal role in all these discussions and worryings at the national level about democracy. Because democracy, the First Amendment, voting, all of these things that you hear concerns about, for good reason, they are all about the skill of reading. If you’re not informed, if you can’t share your ideas, if you can’t vote in an informed way—being able to do these things is all very fundamental to who we are as a country, and we’ve lost ground. This is more urgent than any of us would ever have dreamed in decades.”
The coalition had its first kickoff meeting via video conference call on May 5, during which members began to map out an overarching goal of doubling the number of affordable, quality children’s books by and about diverse cultures and races over the next five years. An initial action plan emphasizes three priorities and includes the formation of three subcommittees or working groups to tackle them.
“One working group is focused on collective purchasing,” Zimmer said. “A second working group will focus on the development of a unified narrative and message that underscores consistently the value and benefits of diverse and inclusive representation and books and authors. And the third working group is designed to elevate the voice of parents and caregivers, as well as educators, in this discussion—what do they need? What do they want?” she added.
Zimmer noted that the three working groups are co-chaired by other nonprofits in the coalition and that there are leadership roles spread across the full spectrum of the 27 founding organizations. She said, “In a lot of cases, we’ve worked with some of these groups. And in other cases, we have been just huge admirers of each other’s organizations and accomplishments, and this is a great opportunity for us to learn the dance steps of working together. So, First Book is the backbone, but by design, this is very much a shared enterprise.”
A move to increase the supply of and demand for diverse children’s books will certainly involve publishers, with whom the 27 coalition members have traditionally partnered in their various literacy initiatives over the years. “This collective benefits publishers because, in an unprecedented way, they can have an authentic conversation with the major institutions that are rolling out books to children in need across the United States,” Zimmer said. “They can learn from those in the field about the needs of classrooms and parents.”
Also, from a publisher’s perspective, the Diverse Books for All Coalition’s efforts include purchasing books. “It doesn’t mean we’re all going to purchase from one venue or one institution,” she explained. “It means we will collectively figure out what gives us the greatest market leverage and what the biggest needs in the field are. We will also be thinking about what our unified market strength looks like. We know publishers are under the gun, they’re running businesses. So, how do we as a market unit elevate this importance as a market share?” Zimmer believes that through ongoing discussions—sometimes directly with publishers and sometimes through the working group that’s developing unified messaging—“publishers will hear loud and clear what the priorities of this set of institutions really are.”
In August, the coalition got an inaugural boost from the “Thriving Children” grant awarded to First Book by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, funding set to run through January 31, 2024. “We’re thrilled to have the Kellogg Foundation as a partner, because it’s such a leader in racial equity and inclusion,” Zimmer said. “This [money] will get us a long way down the early runway. We will be seeking funds to provide additional firepower to what we’re building, but the breakout of the grant really reflects very consistently the coalition’s three priorities.”
On the whole, the Diverse Books for All initiative is “good for everybody at the table,” in Zimmer’s view. “We all recognize that there’s no single organization that can move the needle by itself. Collective strength in the social sector is the only path forward toward real solutions.”
She concedes that organizing a large group of large institutions takes time. “We’re getting to know each other,” she said. “But I have never heard the enthusiasm and felt the sort of transparent reaching from one organization to the next quite this strongly before. You can feel the vibration of partnership through the meetings that we’re having. I’m really excited about where we’re all headed together. I feel like we are on a rocket.”