Rescued by Books: Fostering Teen Literacy in Low-Income Communities

It was a Young Adult novel that inspired teenaged Jonathan to turn his life around. It motivated him to read, got him excited to learn, and steered him away from dropping out of high school.

The shy 15-year-old got to choose from hundreds of high-quality titles on display, organized by genre, at a literacy outreach event held at his high school in Los Angeles. It was an alternative school for students at risk of dropping out; most were there due to failing grades, behavioral issues, and a history of incarceration or expulsion.

The event was facilitated by the Book Truck, a nonprofit that provides literacy programming and free books to teenagers from low-income families and in foster care. The book, which he chose with a volunteer, was the first Jonathan had owned, the first he read that wasn’t assigned by a teacher — and the first with a plotline in which he could imagine himself. That had never happened before. An avowed non-reader, he swallowed the book in one sitting.

Getting to choose, and read, that perfect-fit-of-a-novel made him feel competent enough to pursue reading and literacy. Days later, Jonathan had a library card. “All of sudden I understood what books were for,” he said.

Today Jonathan is 18 and attending community college. But had he not gotten turned on to reading and boosted his literacy skills, would he have graduated from high school? “Nope,” affirms Jonathan. “I was this close to dropping out.”

Jonathan, who asked that his name be withheld due to security concerns related to his juvenile record, is representative of millions of teens across the United States affected by a literacy crisis that is damaging their future prospects, pushing them towards a cycle of poverty. These teens have little opportunity to get turned on to reading and boost their literacy skills because they are growing up in “book deserts.”

book desert is a low-income neighborhood devoid of bookstores and well-stocked libraries, with limited access to print resources. In high-poverty urban communities, there is only one age-appropriate book for every 300 children, compared to 13 per child in wealthier communities. Local libraries are also often critically under-resourced in terms of collections, budgets, and hoursAnd less than 10 percent of low-income families take advantage of them.

Book deserts often feed a cycle of illiteracy for their residents. Jonathan’s mother is illiterate, so there were no books at home. Not even the Bible. He couldn’t browse in brick-and-mortar bookstores in his neighborhood; they did not exist.

Growing up in a book desert almost invariably leads to a literacy gap among low-income families. The consequences are grave. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that illiteracy is tied to both unemployment and incarcerationGirls aged 16-19 with low literacy skills are 2.5 times as likely to become pregnant.

Jeff Wilhelm, a Boise State University professor who has authored 37 books on literacy and is on the Book Truck’s advisory board, observes, “Literacy is necessary to actualize one’s full potential and overcome various challenges offered by poverty or a non-mainstream background.”

Adolescents growing up in book deserts who are not readers may find just choosing a book can be intimidating. Reluctant readers and nonreaders can reject books due to alienation or a fear of appearing foolish and incompetent.

Yet many efforts to tackle the problems of book deserts for teens have not included giving reluctant readers the skills necessary to get turned on to reading. Book distribution programs alone, while admirable, do not tip the needle in terms of ameliorating cases of low literacy.

But that needle can be tipped. The detrimental effects of book deserts can be reversed if these teens are turned on to reading by connecting them to just the right books, advises Wilhelm.

The Book Truck’s founder and executive director, Elizabeth Dragga, came up with an innovative strategy to do just that. Rather than merely handing out random books to young adults that they may never read, she initiated bringing together volunteers who knew and loved books, such as booksellers and librarians, to help teens find the right ones. She established the Book Truck in 2012 on a shoestring budget, collecting donated premium books and distributing them from the trunk of her car.

Serendipitously, one month later, Dragga bumped into Cornelia Funke, international bestselling author of the Thief Lord and Inkheart trilogy, at a dinner for independent book sellers. Dragga shared her vision for the Book Truck, and Funke offered to provide the nonprofit’s seed funding.

“Teens, especially foster and low-income teens, are simultaneously adrift and confined,” says Funke, a former social worker. “They’re trapped in a tiny box without any perspective.” The Book Truck, she said, provides “windows and doors into their windowless rooms.”

The Book Truck has brought literacy programming to some 10,000 teens across Los Angeles — half of whom are in foster care — and distributed more than 17,000 high-quality, high demand books. Book Truck volunteers, teens themselves, chat with visitors, trying to find the perfect match of a book.

At Jonathan’s high school, Hollywood Media Arts Academy, the Book Truck visits changed the reading culture, reconnecting students to their curiosity and veering them towards their studies. From 2010 to 2015, the retention rate nearly tripled. Says Raúl Flores, dropout coordinator and artistic director of artworxLA, a nonprofit that combats the high school dropout rate through the arts, that partnered with the school, “I’m certain that the Book Truck visits, which began only in 2013, had something to do with it.”

A teen literacy outreach event looks like a cool hangout. Unlike the silence of the library, there are rowdy, chatty young people swarming around carts lined with carefully-curated tomes. But it is actually a forum where adolescents learn skills to decode and navigate the world of books.

The teen-directed programming is informed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory that addresses psychological needs to stimulate intrinsic motivation: competence, relatedness and autonomy.

Notably, the Book Truck’s socially supportive atmosphere makes it hard to feel incompetent. “That’s really important because competence is the linchpin for motivation,” reminds Wilhelm.

Book Truck visitors also discover something that cannot be found in a book desert: a reading community. “Reading, it turns out, is intensely social,” shares Wilhelm.

And visitors enjoy autonomy: they can browse shelves lined with high-demand titles chosen, curated and classified by their peers. Books that reflect their lives and interests, ranging from bestsellers to classics to tomes that tackle difficult topics like gangs and drugs. To facilitate book selection, volumes are shelved together in similar categories, with the most popular ones stacked on top. Bookmarks identify books as “scary,” “sad,” “mystery,” “fantasy,” or “realistic romance.” Their spines are marked with identifying stickers, such as a skull-and-crossbones for dystopian novels and thrillers.

This freedom allows underserved teens to do something that they are often denied: use books to stake out their identities, which is the primary task of adolescence. Think Eric Erikson and his theory of psychosocial development.

“Teens have immediate personal reasons for choosing the books they read to help them navigate their life challenges,” explains Wilhelm.

Most gratifying is mentoring an avowed nonreader to find the perfect book, says Alfredo Alvarado, 21, a Book Truck volunteer. “Usually 20 to 30 percent of the visitors come in saying they don’t read. But once you chat and recommend something, they happily take the books. At the last event, I helped 120 visitors; only three walked out empty-handed.”

Such was the case for Jonathan, who found resonance in Cheryl Rainfield’s Stained, a novel about a heroine who is abducted and rescues herself from violence and abuse.

The healing has gone beyond that one novel. Reading has boosted Jonathan’s confidence and emboldened him to be a lifelong learner. He enthusiastically shares his passion for books, and learning, with his three younger siblings, bringing literacy into their household. “Books patch the holes in my life,” says Jonathan.

But this is about much more than just falling in love with reading, underscores Wilhelm.

“The social cost of not catching these learners is enormous. If we do not help these teens, it will be a tragedy of human potential.”

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