“There is no freedom to read if you can’t afford to buy books to read,” Laura May said in explaining why Ottawa’s Twice Upon a Time gives books to children in the city’s most at-risk neighbourhoods. I spoke with May, a program volunteer in Canada’s capital city, about why owning a book is key to literacy.
“Statistics in Ottawa are that an average 25% of children don’t have basic book literacy skills—the skills necessary to learn how to read. That results in children who can’t read with fluency, which leads to effects throughout a person’s life. In certain neighbourhoods that [lack of literacy skills] can be as high as 56%. Poverty is everywhere, but there are certain neighbourhoods where socio-economic struggles mean they don’t have books at home,” May said.
“In middle-income neighbourhoods, 13:1 is the ratio of books to child (in age-appropriate literature). But in low-income neighbourhoods that ratio is 1:300,” May read from the statistics in her hand. That’s a single book for every 300 children.
What volunteers like May do with Twice Upon a Time is go to at-risk neighbourhoods where children congregate—especially Boys and Girls clubs and shelters—and they give out books. “Books are not even on [these peoples’] radar,” May said. “Because they are stressed out meeting the basic needs just to get through life. Owning books leads to pride of ownership, and reading over and over, which leads to literacy. A book that they can keep forever helps with that.”
“I’ve been visiting the Boys and Girl’s club since Oct,” May said. “I bring a suitcase filled with books and do story time. Sometimes kids are sitting in my lap by the end of that. They are just so excited. They see me from across the room and come running over asking ‘are you reading a story?!’”
“The children are looking for specific books that they are interested in. I keep saying ‘No, you get to keep them. Remember that’s not a library book, that’s for you to keep.”
Children are proud to report things to May such as “I have six books at home now.”
“It’s this idea that they get to own these things and hopefully they will remember this and keep that love of reading,” May said. “By sharing these books we are giving them the freedom to read and having their parents read to them. If the books aren’t at home they can’t sit together as a family and read together.”
Libraries can’t always fill the need: “families under the stress of paying bills and working two jobs, and getting the bus that doesn’t come, and getting kids and making supper… [for them] getting to the library isn’t easy. There are people who won’t even get a card because they’re afraid of accumulating fines. There are people who don’t have a library in their neighbourhood; they aren’t necessarily accessible by public transit. And you don’t know if you’ll get back to in time to return the book,” May explained.
Literacy skills like navigating a document—not just the language in it—are important in life, making you able to analyze important papers like job applications, warnings, and opposing points of view:
15% don’t understand medicine bottles
27% can’t interpret warnings on MSDS
33% can’t discern opposing points of view in an editorial
Source:“The Importance of Early Childhood Literacy” by Wayne Grady
Adult literacy can be linked back to childhood access to books and having books at home, and it has been linked to economic productivity: every 1% increase in literacy results in a 2.5% increase in GDP.
“Canada is such a rich country. You hear about homelessness and literacy. we think we have to help children [elsewhere] but what we don’t look at is the number in our own backyard. It’s so much easier to shine spotlight when it’s outside our own country and help somewhere else than to take a hard look at our own community and how we can help our own neighbours,” May concluded.
Similar programs exist in other cities, such as The Children's Book Bank which is located in the Regent Park neighbourhood of Toronto, Ontario. You can find Twice Upon a Time on their website and on Facebook and at locations in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.