We know reading is important for lifelong success. Countless studies support this claim. We all know the opportunities that are unlocked for a book-nourished mind. But there’s another way to frame this picture, a way that accentuates not the positives of reading but the negatives of not reading—a matter of survival rather than success.
I hate to throw statistics at you (I like to think I’ve made my living by generally trying to engage my readers’ interest, not giving them headaches), but these figures need to get out. So, for starters: kids who can’t read on level by third grade are six times more likely to drop out of high school than their reading peers are. And low-income children of color who are not reading at grade level by third grade? They’re eight times more likely to drop out of high school.
Kids with poor reading skills are at greater risk of dropping out of high school. And high school dropouts are 63% more likely to wind up incarcerated than their peers with four-year college degrees. And so it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that 85% of those who enter the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate.
I’m not trying to shock for shock’s sake, and I’m not saying that all kids who can’t read well are going to wind up in jail. I’m just trying to get across the fact that 6.6 million children are at increased risk of dropping out of high school and are facing preventable difficulties in life because they can’t read well. To me, this is unacceptable.
The United States is among the wealthiest nations in the world. But for some reason, we’re leaving millions not just at a disadvantage but entirely out of our guarantee of life, liberty, and a chance at happiness. We’re not only disappointing these kids by failing to get involved and figure out new ways to get books into their hands. We are setting them up for failure. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I recently had the chance to spend time with former president Bill Clinton. And by “spend time with,” I mean actually engage in a prolonged one-on-one conversation: no reporters, just talk. In the course of the conversation—which ranged from books to family to the current situation in Washington, D.C.—he said one of the most useful things I’ve heard in a long time. He said that when you’re trying to move forward—when you’re trying to advance a cause, whether it’s running the country or a school program or a project at your day job—the key is to judge it only by whether it does more good than harm.
Too many of us overconsider how the action we take might not be perfect, might have some side effects that work against our goal, might even backfire. And you know what happens then? Nothing. No ruffled feathers, no crushed toes, no criticism, and no change.
I think our citizenry’s greatest problem is that we find fault without finding a way forward. If you are with me in my judgment that reading books is not just important but critical to life in the modern world, then please join me in committing to ruffle some feathers. I may be naive to think we can change this problem by ourselves—that with all our very many causes and interests, from jobs to national security to social issues to taxes, we will ever manage to get reading to the top half of our nation’s priorities.
But if we don’t try—and if we don’t continue, even through our successes and failures—nothing will change, and millions of children will grow up with the belief that life is a fruitless struggle. I’ve been trying my best to help, with my indie bookstore grants last year, my school library grants this year, and many donations and projects in between. None of these initiatives, of course, is close to being enough. We need fresh ideas; we need your ideas. And then we need to act on them—even if they’re ideas that aren’t 100% perfect, and even if they have downsides and rough edges.
Please, if you have a notion—however big or small—for getting more kids reading, let Publishers Weekly know by tweeting it with the hashtag #getkidsreading. I know we don’t have a lot of free time; I know we all have immediate things that need our attention. But I’m hard-pressed to think of much that’s more important than this. It’s not just about saving millions of kids, and it’s not just about saving books—I’m fundamentally convinced it’s about democracy’s survival. And I’m fundamentally convinced that you—you, who have spent your life promoting books and reading—are the best person to help ensure we do better here.
Tell me, please, how do we turn more kids into lifelong readers?
James Patterson is the author of the Middle School, I Funny, Treasure Hunters, and Daniel X series. His blockbusters for adults have sold more than 300 million copies worldwide.