Roughly a year after its launch, the Diverse Books for All Coalition—a consortium of more than 40 nonprofits and member organizations founded by First Book—has taken major steps toward its mission of providing communities in need with increased access to diverse children’s books. On September 19, at the Global Clinton Initiative 2023 meeting held in New York City, the coalition presented its Commitment to Action, stating that it will use its collective market power to purchase and distribute 600,000 “new, high-quality, affordable children’s books by and about diverse races, cultures, identities, and abilities” over the next 18 months.

The coalition has already begun the process of getting the first 130,000 books of the pledged total out to kids. For this initial phase, the coalition worked with four publishers—Abrams, Barefoot Books, Candlewick, and Penguin Random House—to select a collection of 18 bilingual and paperback titles to be distributed to the children served by its member organizations across the country. Each organization will order the books they want from the collection and will use their own already-established distribution models to provide those books to their constituents. Among the books in the collection are Cerca/Close by Juan Felipe Herrera, illustrated by Blanca Gómez (Candlewick); Dumpling Day by Meera Sriram, illustrated by Inés De Antuñano (Barefoot); Just Ask!/¡Solo pregunta!: Sé diferente, sé valiente, sé tú by Sonia Sotomayor, illustrated by Rafael López (Philomel); and Soul Food Sunday by Winsome Bingham, illustrated by C.G. Esperanza (Abrams).

“We’re doing this work with the incredible sense of urgency,” said Ernestine Benedict, chief communications officer of coalition member organization Zero to Three. “We’ve all seen many articles about the reading crisis in this country showing that reading test scores in this nation are plummeting.” She also noted reports indicating that children’s reading for pleasure is at a historic low. “So, the coalition’s effort is not just something fun to do,” Benedict said. “It is critical. The other piece of this is that our nation’s hue has changed. The majority of youth in this country are children of color and they deserve to see and read books that reflect who they are, affirm who they are in their families and their community. And there’s a surge in activity to take those books away, take that access away. That too really layers on to the urgency through which the Diverse Books for All Coalition is moving with this work.”

Real Results

Also revealed at the CGI meeting last month were the findings of a six-month intervention study from First Book Research & Insights (the research arm of First Book), looking at the importance of diverse classroom libraries from the educator perspective and with respect to student outcomes. “We identified 450 classrooms, we infused those classrooms with high-quality, diverse books, and then we stepped back and watched what happened over the six months,” Kyle Zimmer, president and CEO of First Book, explained. “The results are extraordinary,” she said. “The kids collectively read for four more hours per week in those classrooms, on average, and their reading scores jumped up 3% over expected national averages.”

The study, according to Benedict, “puts not a period, but multiple explanation points on why what we’re doing is so critical, and not to neglect what happens in the early years. Because if we get it right then, it has a compound positive effect on those results. We want to be able to do that study again knowing that children in the early stages got these books, and see that those percentage points are even higher.”

A second pillar of the coalition’s Commitment to Action, Zimmer said, is to “develop and launch a unified, data-infused narrative supporting and advocating for the importance of diverse books in the hands of kids. And the third pillar is that we committed to reaching out to institutions representing parents and caregivers, because we recognize that kids need diverse books in 360-degree surround sound. We want the parents and caregivers to have a seat at the table and to work together with us on resources to elevate their knowledge of great diverse books and their advocacy for those books in their homes and in their schools and libraries.”

To date, the Diverse Books for All Coalition’s initiative has been largely funded by a $1 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Zimmer said, “Those funds will last a few more months and we are hot on the trail of funders. We desperately need money to keep this effort going.” To that end, she cited some of the reasons that set the coalition apart. “Nobody’s ever tried to pull 40-plus organizations together to promote diverse books or take on the other components of our commitment,” she said. “And it’s an unprecedented time. If you look at African American, Latino, and Native American kids in the fourth grade, 80% of them are not reading proficiently. We’re putting this coalition together just when we have the data in hand and exactly when kids are struggling to gain these skills and teachers are working hard to engage their kids in reading—it is sort of a perfect storm. And we know that with the right funds, we can really blow the doors off.”