First Book has made significant strides this summer toward its new goal of dramatically expanding the market for diversity in children’s literature, its president and CEO Kyle Zimmer tells School Library Journal. Through its unprecedented launch this spring of “The Stories for All Project” and the project’s successful, gradual implementation over the past few months, First Book is now poised to lobby publishers and influence the kid lit industry like never before, Zimmer says.
“The point of ‘Stories for All’ is to say to the publishing industry that there really is a strong market out there for books about and by people from every conceivable culture on the planet. There really is, and we represent a big segment of that,” Zimmer says.
“First Book serves the kids and families in the lowest 30 percent of the socioeconomic strata in the U.S. and Canada, and that’s about 45 percent of American kids,” Zimmer notes. “And what that means is that if we really build this market, we actually by volume will dwarf the regular retail market—and that changes everything. Then the publishers have a strong market that they can step into with content that addresses a much broader cultural array of kids. So that’s what this is about.”
The nonprofit group—which has provided more than 100 million new books and resources to schools and programs in under-served communities in the U.S. and Canada since 1992—in March purchased $1 million worth of titles from HarperCollins and Lee & Low Books featuring a diverse array of characters and cultures, the first phase of the project.
A complicated problem
“Part of the problem with the lack of diversity part of it is kids from those cultures don’t get to see themselves,” Zimmer explains. “The other part is that white kids who are growing up with lots of books in more affluent families are getting a very skewed version of the world. We’re doing them a disservice, because they’re stepping out without understanding the full spectrum of what the world looks like, and we are ill-preparing everybody. This market problem is a tragedy on both sides.”
First Book chose the two publishers—one major publisher and one smaller publisher—out of 26 bids, “a stunningly positive response” to the group’s mandate for “a high degree of diversity and a real deal—the lowest prices—to get as many books into kids’ hands as possible,” Zimmer says. “It showed me that the industry desperately wants to reach every kid who is waiting for books and they want to reach them in the most powerful way that they can, with books that are relevant and books that are as low a price point as they can possibly get to. Because they really, really stepped up on this.”
Zimmer adds, “There’s something unique about publishing and book people…[they] deeply love books and reading, and that’s a big deal, because it means that you’ve got people on both sides of the table who fundamentally want the same thing. If you called Detroit and you said to the auto makers, ‘We’re going to spend a half a million dollars and we want solar vehicles’—well, you probably wouldn’t even get a return phone call. But the publishers already so much want to be part of the solution, and I think we tapped a nerve. They were deliriously happy to find a solid opportunity to sell books that they love, that reflect the diversity that they know as well as everyone is part of the American culture. They stepped up, and they stepped up with enormous enthusiasm.”
As a result of that first phase, the group was able to purchase 255,350 culturally diverse books, adding more than 700 titles to the First Book Marketplace available to those serving kids in need.
“We’re delighted,” Zimmer says. “We’ve gotten responses from major partners like Reading is Fundamental—they made a big purchase through First Book because the diversity was so great—and small rural places that have Native American kids, and cultures that hardly ever get to see themselves in books. Suddenly it was available in a way that hit the two big blockages for books for kids. One is price, and the second one is relevancy, and with this we knocked them both out.”
An innovative solution
Indeed, the reaction from small nonprofit groups sourcing from First Book has been very positive.
“I love the books from First Book!” says Susan Jaye-Kaplan, president and co-founder of Link to Libraries, which distributes thousands of new books to needy kids in Western Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, and New York through a variety of innovative programs.
“The Stories for All Project” is helping Link to Libraries meet a desperate need for more diverse stories, Jaye-Kaplan tells SLJ. “We have a melting pot society, especially here,” Jaye-Kaplan says of her community. “We give books in seven languages. We have a lot of Latino and Somali children, and that’s why we like this particular group of books. It’s very important for us that we give books that are about these boys and girls and their families and their experiences, and books that talk to them and not at them. We want very much to give them books that give them reasons to want to read.”
She adds, “This particular collection of books, the minute I saw it I knew it was something I had to have because it’s talking to every child that we’re involved with. It is so relevant to who we are here, and the books are beautiful, and the graphics are breathtaking. They are so engaging and so gorgeous.”
Those sentiments are shared by Julia Rogers of the Children’s Literacy Foundation, a non-profit that serves low-income and rural children in Vermont and New Hampshire. “’The Stories for All Project’ is allowing us to purchase books that speak directly to many of our families,” she tells SLJ. “I’m thrilled to be able to bring more multicultural titles to our events—especially ones that serve the growing refugee population in northern Vermont and southern New Hampshire. Children will react to a book differently when they identify with the main characters. It’s wonderful to see a child connect with a story on a deeper level. That’s exactly the kind of relationship we’re trying to build between children and books.”
Adds Amanda Wilkinson, senior program director at the YMCA of Greater Charlotte (NC), “We are excited about the initiative to get books that represent a greater diversity into our kids’ hands….Our goal is to get kids reading on grade level, and we need lots of books to accomplish this.”
Her group’s Y Readers program, a collaboration with three local school districts, serves K–3 students reading below grade level both after school and during a six-week summer camp. This past summer, the program served 492 students, of which 27 percent were English language learners, 41 percent were African American, and 42 percent were Latino.
“I think it is important that students are immersed in books and resources that represent who they are,” Wilkinson says. “It is powerful when a student reads books with characters that look like them or when the characters have similar experiences. We support the diversity initiative and would love to see even more books suitable for K–3 students in the collection.”
So what’s next for First Book? In June, the group unveiled at the Clinton Global Initiative America the planned next phase of the project, a “Commitment to Action” that includes outreach to 30,000 new schools and programs, special collections of diverse and multicultural titles, matching grants for educators, and an influential council of authors to help inspire new books and stories.
“This is a jump for us. We were thrilled to make that commitment and we take it very seriously,” Zimmer says. She also notes that the commitment is actually just the tip of the iceberg.
Advocacy in action
Though First Book hasn’t traditionally taken on an advocacy role, “what we’re realizing as we grow—we represent 65,000 classrooms and programs and we’re growing by more than 2,000 classrooms and programs a month—is we’re gaining this huge momentum,” Zimmer says.
“We can actually step into a role that will bridge the gap between the audience of kids that we represent and the traditional publishing audience that is out there that walks into bookstores. When we were smaller, we were not at the point where we swung a big enough stick and understood our own market as well as we do now. But we are in a much stronger position. We’ve almost doubled in size in just two years, and we’ve built in very strong feedback loops, so we’re talking to our constituents almost all the time, so that we can say to them ‘What do you want? What do you need?’”
However, Zimmer is quick to point out that the large numbers of programs that First Book serves is actually only about 4 percent of the population eligible to sign up for First Book’s free resources.
“All of those heroic librarians who are trying with resources that have been cut out from underneath them to meet the needs of the students that are coming in to their schools—tell them to sign up with us, because that will make it happen faster,” Zimmer says.
“This is about growing that network so they are talking to us and we know what they need—what languages, what cultures, age levels. That is critical. So help us spread the word: if you are a teacher or you are a librarian and you are working in a Title I or a Title I-eligible school or you have a special program that does outreach work with kids who are in need, sign up. Tell us what you need. Because I promise you, we will stand on our heads to make it happen.”
In the meantime, First Book will continue to push kid lit publishers to diversify their offerings. “There will be some creative, innovative strategies to say to the publishers ‘You know what? Go find some new authors. We know they’re out there,’” Zimmer says. “There are a lot of brilliant people from a lot of places all over the world, and they want to tell their stories, and we’re going to be…sending out the word to really inspire a whole group of new authors to start telling their wonderful stories.”
Zimmer also hints at some additional exciting developments coming down the pike, the details of which First Book is keeping under wraps for the moment. “There will be another announcement late this month,” she teases. “It’s an exciting move for us, and you’ll understand why it’s important to diversity.”