Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

I think books need some cheerleading these days as gift options for kids. They aren’t (usually) shiny, they don’t (hopefully) make noise and they require some work to enjoy. Nevertheless, books are homerun gift picks because they position literacy as something to be treasured.

We recently attended a toddler birthday party where the parents distributed books as party favors instead of the usual candy/toy mix. My three-year-old daughter Zora has pretend-read “Curious George’s Birthday Surprise” every day since. She narrates the pictures and drags her finger along the text as if reading. Something about getting a wrapped book tied with a balloon captured her attention. She’s not yet reading, but the groundwork for it has been laid in her literacy-rich home and reinforced at school and among friends. She’s well on her way. Every child should be so lucky.

The notion that books are special and worthy of celebration is particularly important for young children because of reading’s transformative power. I’ve always loved to read, but taking a class on reading instruction this fall gave me a new appreciation for the habit’s deep and lasting impact on every life.

Children who learn to read early and well are the most likely to continue reading enthusiastically over time. They accumulate significantly more exposure to written words and build larger vocabularies than less skilled readers. Moreover, they receive cognitive boosts as a result of their high volume of reading. Reading literally makes them smarter–giving them additional advantages over struggling readers.

Meanwhile, poor readers get exposed to less text than better readers, and the little text they do encounter will often be too difficult. Over time, they get frustrated, practice reading less, and experience educational challenges that are near-impossible to surmount. Low literacy exacts a lifelong toll–worse jobs, worse housing, worse food and worse health care. And these consequences aren’t just experienced by individuals. Our entire community suffers when we allow the marginalization and neglect of any among us.

The gap between the reading haves and have nots grows exponentially through years of differential reading practice, making a nearly unbridgeable divide. So it’s crucial that we all–parents, teachers and community members– engender a real love of reading, to bolster kids’ capacity for achievement. I’m reminded of my mom who says, “I read myself out of poverty long before I worked my way out of it.” She did, and so can many others if we make early literacy and high-quality reading instruction a community priority.

During my tenure as Richmond Christmas Mother, I donated 1,000 books to local children via the Christmas Parade, schools and neighborhood Little Free Libraries. I did this because of my personal belief that reading skill is the foundation for educational and economic opportunity.

Many wonderful supporters embraced my efforts and matched them with extraordinary generosity of their own.

Thank you to the following folks for supporting my efforts to foster communities of kids who love a good read:

  • The Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, which provided gorgeous books and posters, featuring diverse characters.
  • Gigi Amateau and Meg Medina, outstanding authors and reading advocates, who are the first folks I look to for book recommendations. Check out their Girls of Summer List of “amazing books for amazing girls.”
  • Stephey Baker, Kim Clark, Kristin Dukes, Carla Jackson, Carol Anne Lajoie, Jazz Miles, Otesa Miles, and Margaret Payne who spent hours helping me gift wrap and bow tie hundreds of books for Chimborazo Elementary School students.
  • Floyd G. Boothe, Jr., an 88-year-old author, who donated 600 copies of his book “A Special Snowman,” which I gave to children at FRIENDS Association for Children, Southside Child Development Center and Family Lifeline’s Children’s Health Involving Parents Program.
  • Bruce Coffey, director of programs at Read to Them, who shared book picks and explained the vital role that reading aloud plays in bolstering kids’ positive attitudes toward books.
  • Wayne Dementi and Betty Lewis Ellet who sent copies of their book “ABC’s from the James River, with Love,” asking me to find good homes for the volumes.
  • Juanita Giles, director of the Virginia Children’s Book Festival, who supported my campaign and distributed 300 books of her own from a float in the Farmville Christmas parade.
  • MerryMakers, Inc., which donated 96 The Snowy Day dolls to accompany the book (see photo above).
  • Sabot at Stony Point, a school located in the former home of Richmond’s very first Christmas Mother Anne Gavin Traylor Larus, which launched a book drive at bbgb bookstore in Carytown that delivered 50 gorgeous new children’s books to early childhood education classrooms at the YWCA of Richmond.
  • Jill Stefanovich and Jenesse Evertson of bbgb who guided book selections with heart and wit, and facilitated large orders on short deadlines.
  • Susan Thacker-Gwaltney who taught me that literacy development is incredibly complex and undeniably worthy of greater community investment. Her Foundations of Reading Instruction course expertly bridges theory and practice.

Photo: Richmond Christmas Mother Maya Smart handing out “The Snowy Day” books and dolls at the Richmond Christmas Parade. Courtesy of P. Kevin Morley Richmond Times-Dispatch.