First Book, the national nonprofit organization devoted to giving


disadvantaged children the opportunity to read and own their first new books, recently launched two new major literacy projects.

Last month First Book named country music performer Reba McEntire as its first-ever national spokesperson and announced a new literacy initiative called Reba's First Book Club. Through the book club and various other fundraising projects over the summer, First Book plans to distribute more than three million books, reaching at-risk children in 300 communities, in the next year. To help meet that goal, children's publishers, including Disney Publishing, Houghton Mifflin, Lee & Low, Lyrick Studios, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster and Random House, have donated a combined total of 500,000 books for distribution.

Kyle Zimmer, president of First Book, describes membership in the club as similar to that of Oprah's Book Club -- it's open to anyone who would like to participate. Children and families who want to join the book club can obtain a list of recommended, age-appropriate books at Barnes & Noble and B. Dalton stores across the country, or can access, or call the First Book offices (202-393-1222).

The books, which include Freight Train by Donald Crews, Nate the Great by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold and Sounder by William H. Armstrong, were selected with the help of First Book literacy affiliates and members of the Association for Library Service to Children. Additional titles will be selected throughout the year.

Club members can participate in contests and take part in reading activities at special "club houses" in Barnes & Noble stores across the country. In addition, Barnes & Noble will donate 10% of the retail price of any Reba Recommends titles purchased at Barnes & Noble or B. Dalton stores to First Book.

McEntire will further support the club by visiting First Book literacy programs and volunteer organizations nationwide. She appeared on the Today Show in June to unveil plans for the club, and later that day she joined First Book co-founder Tom Gold and the Cat in the Hat on a visit to a refugee camp at Fort Dix, N.J., to distribute 2000 books (donated by Random House, Dr. Seuss's publisher) to the Kosovar children there.

The Book Bank

First Book is also a key partner, together with the Children's Book Council and the National School Supply and Equipment Association, in a new national donation project called The Book Bank. The Book Bank was envisioned more than a year ago as a mechanism to allow publishers and other companies to more efficiently donate large quantities of books and other materials to local programs for children in need. The program has been in the testing phase over the past year and was officially launched on June 24 at a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol that featured appearances by Senators Christopher Dodd, Edward M. Kennedy, Slade Gorton and Patty Murray.

According to Zimmer, The Book Bank already has a commitment from publishers (again including Disney Publishing, Houghton Mifflin, Lee & Low, Lyrick Studios, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster and Random House) for more than one million books to be distributed over the next year. A grant of $50,000 from the Freddie Mac Foundation (a financial organization associated with H.U.D.) will be earmarked predominantly to cover the cost of shipping books from various Book Bank warehousing sites (warehouse space will also be donated by a number of companies) to the organizations aiding children. Shipping company RPS has also joined the effort to help get the books to where they are needed.

First Book's organized outreach and its efforts to bring together companies interested in furthering literacy is sure to encourage more participants as time g s on.