Based in Washington, D.C., First Book has put books into the hands of children in need by making free and affordably priced titles available to educators since its founding in 1992. At its center, the organization has built a powerful website where educators can access books and other products for youth, adding ways to make the online experience a community where participants can share comments and ratings on books. In January it launched the OMG Book Awards, a $4.7 million initiative partnering with organizations in 33 states.
The problem, says First Book president, CEO, and cofounder Kyle Zimmer, is that all that activity is not enough. “We have 415,000 members, and we are growing at about 1,000 a week,” she notes. “That is a number that we are simultaneously proud of and devastated by. We’re proud that we’ve gotten to the point where people know us and trust us and come to us. We’re devastated because the volume is not going down and all that tells about the chasm of need and what’s going on economically in the country; we’re living in it and seeing the evidence of it every day.”
From its inception, the organization has positioned itself to publishers as more than just a handout, offering them an opportunity to develop a reading audience among socioeconomically disadvantaged readers from a young age, and the website’s First Book Network has created a notable point for reaching them, with more 175 million books distributed. Zimmer says that to meet the need First Book is seeing, that number has to grow tenfold, and to do it, the organization is pursuing two strategic initiatives intended to use its network to remove barriers to education and resources for students in need.
Two years ago, the organization launched First Book Research and Insights, which grew out of their use of data generated by the website. “Our research capacity is really important because it can be our divining rod,” Zimmer says. “It tells us where to go with our organization. But it’s also important to the field. So we began investing significantly in developing our capacities to survey, focus group, do virtual tours, do mapping, and to do lots of different data analysis.”
First Book Research and Insights combines data on educator needs generated by the First Book Network, with outside data on issues including housing and maternal health. The initiative then uses that data to produce reports on major issues facing students nationwide, including stress and anxiety, diversity and inclusion, and social and emotional learning.
Zimmer says that the initiative is essential for understanding the lives of First Book’s readers and how to better advocate on their behalf. “It allows us to really bring an aggregated voice to people who have never had an aggregated voice,” she adds, “much as we have brought aggregated strength to the buying power of educators to publishers and other kinds of resources.”
While generating new data, Zimmer worried that the wealth of current research related to childhood poverty and literacy was also being underused, creating a knowledge gap between academics and education professionals. “In our field, the cycle between the people who are presenting deeply researched strategies on critical issue areas and practitioners represented by our network is about 15 years,” Zimmer says. “So we lose a generation between each turn. If we don’t tighten that cycle between thought leadership doing the deep-dive research and the people we represent, we can’t make progress.”
In January, First Book launched the First Book Accelerator to help academics rapidly transform their work into accessible tip sheets, webinars, and PSAs that are made available to educators for free. The organization then pairs those materials with curated companion lists of related books for educators to use with their students, following up with them regularly to modify and refine the materials. As a result, Zimmer says, “that cycle turns into 15 weeks instead of 15 years.”
If the work sounds ambitious, Zimmer says it’s because it has to be: “We want more books in more settings for more kids, but the more we can do to integrate that into the powerful strategies that are being rolled out—the needs that we hear about through the research—the more we can make those books relevant to the stresses teachers are seeing and the academic rigor they are trying to bring into the lives of kids; that’s where the power really is. We are building these fundamental pillars underneath the network so that we can really bring great strength to those efforts.”