Interview with Books for Kids Executive Director Amanda Hirsh, Innovations in Reading Prize, 2014

Books for Kids LogoBooks for Kids installs libraries and literacy programs in pre-school classrooms across the country, ensuring low-income students have access to literature and experience the benefits of reading. Below is our interview with executive director Amanda Hirsh.

Program Update from Amanda Hirsh from Books for Kids:

Why is reading vital?

Reading invigorates the imagination, expands our knowledge of the world, connects us to information and people, and is the key cornerstone for education. It is vital to encourage reading in young children and provide adequate access to books and libraries so they can grow up with strong literacy skills and love reading. Children who read more achieve more!

Tell us about some accomplishments or successes you've had since winning the prize:

Since winning the Innovations in Reading Prize in May 2014, we have accomplished so much at Books for Kids. In July 2014 we renovated an outdated Books for Kids library that suffered major loss and damages by Hurricane Sandy in Chinatown, NYC. This renovation was made possible through a continued partnership with Homewood Suites by Hilton, adding to their list of six additional libraries throughout the United States. Since this library was finished, programs within the library are flourishing through an additional Literacy Programming Grant from Homewood Suites. Books are being lent each week from the library to children and families and the school receives on-site lending support and weekly StoryTimes from a Books for Kids librarian.

Also in the Summer of 2014, the Mario Batali Foundation sponsored the renovation of five Books for Kids libraries in Brooklyn, NY that will continue to receive meaningful literacy programming from an $880,000+ grant from the United States Department of Education until the end of the 2015 school year. A re-dedication ceremony of these Brooklyn libraries was held at one of the renovated sites in the Cypress Hills neighborhood of Brooklyn and was attended by Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez of the U.S. House of Representatives; Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams; and of course, Mario Batali himself. In November 2014, the Mario Batali Foundation also sponsored the building of a new Books for Kids library in Las Vegas, NV making this the ninth Books for Kids library built through their sponsorship and our first library in the state of Nevada.

In your application you write: “Our libraries go beyond just books on a bookshelf in a room.” What makes your libraries unconventional, and how do those qualities impact students?

We are creating a space where children not only have access to the best books in the market, but where they feel inspired to learn, imagine, and dream.

—Amanda Hirsh

When we build a Books for Kids library, we are not simply placing books on a bookshelf. Our libraries are beautifully decorated with print-rich murals, animals, letters, trees, and child-friendly furniture. We are creating a space where children not only have access to the best books in the market, but where they feel inspired to learn, imagine, and dream. By giving the site programs to go along with the resource, that is when the library truly comes to life.

Why is the library model, of lending books to students, so central to program?

The library model is central to our program for two main reasons. First, each child in a site with a Books for Kids library will have access to bring home a new book each week to read and share with their families, an opportunity they may not otherwise have, since books are often a rare commodity in low-income communities. Also having a new book to bring home each week encourages more reading at home and engages the entire family. Second, the lending program helps build lifelong library habits so that when children grow older, they will feel comfortable with standard library practices and be confident enough to use their local public library to continue to read and learn.

In your program, reading isn’t just about literacy, but also it’s about getting students engaged in a larger world. In your opinion, how do books inspire students to explore?

Books can be the key to many new worlds, places, and opportunities for any child or even adult, but particularly for children that come from low-income communities, since access to travel and new experiences is often limited. Books can take you to faraway lands, can teach you new concepts or about different modes of transportation, or types of food, and can open your eyes to endless possibilities. Once the door to their imagination is open, children are inspired to keep learning and exploring the world.

Once the door to their imagination is open, children are inspired to keep learning and exploring the world.

—Amanda Hirsh

What types of books do you find are most successful in accomplishing your vision?

We select a variety of books for our libraries because no two children have the same interests and backgrounds. It is important to have books about all subjects so that all children are engaged and find reading fun and interesting. We also make sure to have many books that reflect the diverse communities in which we are working. For example, in a preschool that has a large population of native Spanish-speaking children and families, we are sure to include many Spanish language and bilingual books so that they too feel comfortable and can make use of the books in their library.

Your program extends beyond the library; what sorts of reading activities do you share with your parents?

We often give parents a reading guide to go along with a book that their children keep at home for their home libraries. The guides include a summary of the story, and important questions for them to address as they read the book with their children. We also include a fun literacy-extension activity so that reading the book is as much about having fun as it is about learning a new concept or piece of information.

In your application, you write: “In a middle income neighborhood, the ratio of books per child is 13 to 1, whereas in a low-income neighborhood, the ratio is 1 age appropriate book for every 300 children.” Where does this disparity come from, and what is the danger there?

Unfortunately studies have shown this dire statistic that indicates how rare age-appropriate books are in low-income communities. This lack of access to books has very serious long-term consequences for literacy and learning. When preschoolers do not have access to books and do not learn basic literacy skills at this crucial stage, they face the challenge of starting kindergarten behind their more affluent peers, and unfortunately it is rare that they ever catch up. This has a snowball effect that often ends in an alarming number of high school dropouts and incidences of juvenile delinquency.

Can you share a moment or two when you saw your program in action and realized that it was really working?

I will never forget a particular email that we received from a parent in Brooklyn. She wrote us to say that she was so thankful for the books her child received for his home library each month because he otherwise was not getting any new books, and she really loves to read with her son. 

Other moments of success that we often see are during StoryTime, when the children truly engage with the reader and the book, ask questions, and often ask for the book to be read again. We know our program is working when children are excited to read and want to hear more.


Image: Books for KidsNew York, NY

The mission of the Books for Kids Foundation is to promote literacy among all children with a special emphasis on low-income and at-risk preschool children. Books for Kids creates libraries, donates books, and implements literacy programs to develop the critical early foundation and skills young children need to be successful in life. Studies show that emergent literacy in preschoolers must be supported by a print-rich environment. Books for Kids ensures that Department of Education-recommended books are available wherever children spend their day by donating books and establishing libraries in those facilities. We also ensure that each child in our program receives at least one brand new book to take home and share with his or her family.

Books for Kids was created in 1986 by a group of New Yorkers who recognized that children who do not have adequate access to books must surmount enormous disadvantages when entering school. What began as an informal project to collect and distribute 1,000 books to needy children for the holidays quickly took on much greater dimensions when we gave away 2,000 books in the first year and 9,000 in the next. It was clear to our founders that an organization providing access to age-appropriate books for low-income children with little or no resources was desperately needed. Since then, we have built over 75 libraries in fourteen states, serving thousands of low-income families each year all across the country.