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kids need to read
a progressive nonprofit inspiring imagination
by tracey l. kelley (@TraceyLKelley)

The next time you pick up a book to read, hold on to that feeling of anticipation for a moment.

Then imagine what it would be like to not experience that sensation. Close your eyes to the characters who speak to you, make you cry, force you to think. Try to forget the story that leaves you with a "book hangover" the next day because you stayed up much too late into the night to finish it. Ignore the destinations you've visited, cultures you've explored, theories you've tested.

With one click, you know you can order any book you want. Children should also have such easy access to books. Unfortunately, some don't.

The charitable organization Kids Need to Read (KNTR) opens up a world of endless possibilities to children through literacy. Founded by author PJ Haarsma, actor Nathan Fillion, and executive director Denise Gary, KNTR provides children with books through school and community programs. In this extensive interview, Gary details why the demand is so great, how the program works, and the many ways we can help.

Economic Difficulties Trickle Down

Intrepid Media (IM): What percentage of schools suffers from library budget cuts? Is this an ongoing problem?

Denise Gary (DG): I do not have a figure for this, but I feel safe in stating that the majority of school libraries have not escaped library budget cuts. When KNTR started in 2007, we focused on schools located in very poor areas of the U.S. After the economic crash in 2008, we received requests for books from schools all over the country.

The problem is not going away any time soon, as school budgets are not improving. It is unconscionable that districts consider books, librarians, and reading specialists among the most dispensable of items in a school program. They are passively telling students that literacy is unimportant. Nothing could be more critical to their success in school and in life!

IM: How have school libraries changed over the years?

DG: I believe most public and private schools have libraries, although the ones I have seen are a shadow of the libraries we enjoyed when I was a student in the 60s and 70s. We had walls of books in our school libraries and I didn’t fully appreciate what a privilege it was.

The schools I walk into now have paltry libraries in comparison. My heart always sinks at the sight. I know there must be older schools with wonderful collections, but one has to wonder how many have a wealth of contemporary books to spark a real interest in reading among their students. We have unfortunately encountered many charter schools without libraries. They don’t receive enough funding for libraries when they charter, so they have to raise the money themselves for books, shelving, chairs, and inventory software. But I have witnessed pure dedication from parents and teachers to provide this vital need to their students. It is very exciting to see this level of dedication to literacy.

Assessing Literacy

IM: What is the literacy rate of children in the U.S. compared to other industrialized nations?

DG: Literacy statistics vary, depending upon how each study measures illiteracy, ages studied, and various other factors. However, no matter which study you read, the news is always grim and never significantly improves.

According to a United Nations study, the literacy ranking of the United States was 49% out of 156 United Nations countries. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports the average reading score of our nation's high school seniors in 2009 was four points lower than the score for the first reading assessment in 1992. The 2011 assessment releases November 1st. The College Board reported that scores on the critical reading portion of the SAT college entrance exam for 2011 fell three points to their lowest level on record. Officials blame this on the fact that more students are taking the exam, but the falling scores are still unacceptable.

IM: How does the lack of free, accessible books impact literacy?

DG: How can children connect their lives to all of the incredible gifts of knowledge that books supply without access to them? How can they use books as a support system if they do not have them? How can children understand that reading will enrich their lives beyond measure if they are not surrounded by books? We can never convince children and adolescents that reading is important by telling them it is important. We must demonstrate that it is important by surrounding them with a culture of reading in their everyday lives.

The Mission of KNTR

IM: What does KNTR do to help?

DG: We provide shipments of appealing books, periodicals, and other literacy-related resources and activities for children and adolescents. Our partners include schools, public libraries, and various specialty programs serving children with low-level reading skills.

We are unique from other national literacy organizations in that we serve children of all ages. Most only serve the very young, so we have really developed a niche with older kids who have fallen through the cracks or who have lost interest in reading.

We have recently partnered with Arizona State University (ASU) to develop an exciting, innovative curriculum for middle school students aimed at increasing literacy scores and decreasing dropout rates. It’s called Reading Revolution and is currently being conducted and researched as a pilot program at ASU Preparatory Academy in Phoenix. We are really throwing ourselves into this project, because it could have a significant impact on literacy rates if widely implemented.

IM: How does the process work, and how long does the program last?

DG: An organization must request books through our online application. We select most of our recipients during the summer and send each organization a large shipment of books in the fall. The exception is public libraries, which we prefer to help with their summer reading programs.

We choose books specifically for each beneficiary, making sure that each donation fits the needs and interests of their student body. The organizations receive a list of literacy-related activities, and asked to use the KNTR books in conjunction with at least one of those activities. We also request they complete a survey evaluating the effectiveness of our program.

Once the organizations have completed these steps, we send a second shipment of books. The entire process usually lasts through most of the year. Occasionally, we continue to supply books annually to programs in dire need that clearly put our books to excellent use, but this is difficult due to the overwhelming need for our books.

Reading Revolution, on the other hand, is designed to extend throughout the school year over a two-year period, and possibly a three-year period in the future.

The KNTR Book List

IM: Tell us more about the book list and what these selections accomplish.

DG: Our book list has developed over time in response to the specific requests we receive. While its categories may seem unusual to the general public, they are magic to the educators who are working to inspire kids of particular demographics to take an interest in reading.

I received a letter not too long ago from someone lecturing us about our categories. The thought that crossed my mind was how badly his preposterous whining would go over with the teachers who have been so grateful to receive books containing stories to which their students could finally relate.

For example, if a school tells us that their students are 99% African American, and the library has nothing to read featuring black characters and heroes, we are going to provide plenty of books featuring black characters and heroes. Or, if we are providing books to teenagers in a dropout recovery program, we are going to send a lot of stories about kids in tough situations. Our categories were created not for highbrow intellectuals; they were created for real kids with real lives and real challenges to face.

But there is a much larger responsibility that we realized early on: the belief that our books should also provide positive support to kids living under oppressive conditions. Many times, children living in hardship often turn a deaf ear to the advice of adults. Books can sometimes reach these children if they find a kinship with a character or a storyline. Books can show kids another path to choose. This is especially important because we serve middle school and high school students who are often facing difficult challenges. Our list is still under development, but we receive high praise from our beneficiaries, so we know we are on the right track.

Stories of Success

IM: Please provide us some of your favorite success stories of the KNTR program.

DG: By far, my favorite story involves a middle school special education class filled with kids determined not to read. Their school did not provide books on their reading level other than a few extremely babyish books, which the kids would not be caught dead holding. They were stuck out in a portable, not allowed to use the new computers granted to the school, and provided photocopies rather than new workbooks.

Several of the students actually told the teacher that the school did not care about them. We were determined to turn this class around and worked with their teacher to provide low-level, high-interest books appropriate for their ages. It was a huge success. There was a frenzy over the books and the kids quickly formed reading groups to discuss the books in depth. One of the girls who had been the most adamant that reading was boring proclaimed herself the book distribution officer.

Perhaps best of all, the kids took pride in the fact that an organization considered them worthy of receiving new -- not secondhand -- materials.

KNTR Moves Forward

IM: What are your goals for the program?

DG: Of course, we want to make sure all children and adolescents have access to quality books, but our long-term goal is to increase literacy rates and decrease dropout rates throughout the U.S. We believe low literacy rates and high dropout rates are often related, and our country is not making any real gains in improving these issues. Reading Revolution is being developed to address these concerns.

IM: Tell us more about the KNTR Peace Packages.

DG: KNTR Peace Packages is another project developed to use our books not only to encourage literacy but to inspire social responsibility. Youth violence is a growing problem, perpetrated on and by children and adolescents.

We created the packages to reinforce or supplement school violence prevention programs. The books encourage peaceful conflict resolution and demonstrate that many of the world’s greatest leaders have been peacemakers. We send these packages of books to every program we serve. We also offer folks a chance to donate an entire package to a recipient of their choice or to build up a package through monthly donations.

All funds donated toward KNTR Peace Packages are spent entirely on the cost of the books. I really love this program! I feel as though the concept of respect and compassion for our fellow man is a dying ideal.

IM: Any final thoughts you'd like to share?

DG: I would like to urge folks to create a culture of reading around the children in their lives. Read to young children, provide incentives to read throughout childhood and adolescence, and read some of the same books as your teenagers so you can have meaningful discussions about what they are reading. Communication is so important, and by reading and discussing books with your children from an early age, you will help prepare them for life success and develop a healthy intellectual bond together.

How You Can Help

*Everyone: Your donation to KNTR provides new books to children. How cool is that? Snag some merch while you're at it.

*Children and young adult authors: If you have new books you'd like to donate to KNTR, learn how.

*Bloggers: Promote KNTR with a banner.


Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou

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russ carr
10.27.11 @ 5:46p

The book (!) I am currently reading (!) is Anthony Esolen's 10 Ways to Destroy Your Child's Imagination, an ascerbicly witty reverse-psychological treatise on preparing your child for the mundanity of modern society (while actually encouraging all the things a child SHOULD be doing - playing with abandon, asking questions, questioning answers, experimenting with batteries and wires and frogs, and yes, of course, reading.

First Lady Michelle Obama has made a point of addressing the critical needs of children (and families in general) to eat better, and one of the areas she has mentioned are so-called "food deserts," where access to fresh produce and healthy foods is limited or none.

russ carr
10.27.11 @ 5:50p

(continued) While good nutrition helps a child's body develop, literacy - and the pleasure of reading - helps a child's mind develop. It's exceedingly commendable that KNTR is trying to combat these "literacy deserts," by connecting these underserved communities' children with the books that their minds are so eager to devour - as the case of the middle school special education class that Denise shared proves. Bravo!

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