On child literacy, Canada needs to do more

By Tom Best, executive director, First Book Canada

When we create voracious young readers, we create more successful and more engaged adults.

I’ve personally watched as Canadian authors like Andrew Larsen, Ashley Spires and Melanie Watt have not only read their work to children but also read the work they wrote as kids. I’ve personally seen those kids’ eyes light up with the new dreams those experiences and those books can deliver to them. It’s not just watching a child fall in love with reading, it’s watching them develop a lifelong love of learning. That can make all the difference in their life. Time and again, statistics have pointed to a correlation between proficient reading skills and voting, graduating high school, and even staying out of prison later in life.[i]

Today is International Literacy Day.

It’s a day to celebrate how far we’ve come as a society to ensure access to what UNESCO classifies as a fundamental human right. But it’s also a day to reflect on the work we still need to do, even in Canada, to bring literacy—and not just literacy but the love of reading—to everyone in our country.

At First Book Canada, we work to put books in the hands of children all over the country who may not have access to them otherwise. What we’ve discovered is that currently, one quarter of all Canadian households don’t have a single book in them. There are a lot of reasons why this is true. Lower-income families often can’t afford books to read, and in rural areas especially, those without access to a vehicle might live too far from libraries to make use of them. Often, when schools face budget cuts, and a principal has to choose between soccer balls and books—a choice I wouldn’t wish upon anyone—libraries are the first to be downsized.

In some more extreme cases, our families face unique Canadian challenges. Our First Nations communities in particular are being left behind because just shipping books can cost more than the price of the books themselves. I saw this firsthand in Schefferville, Quebec, where books are yet another resource they crave but lack.

But we can all help.

We need champions of reading in our school systems and in our communities. We need to work together to get books into the hands of children, and especially books that they want to read and reflect the diverse backgrounds and personal experiences our country cherishes.

Whether that means something as simple as setting up little free libraries (those take-a-book, leave-a-book stations you sometimes see in front yards), or whether it means actively working with the government to put money in the hands of schools to replenish woefully outdated libraries, every little bit helps.

On the other hand, there are always big things happening as well. First Book Canada recently partnered with Kids Can Press and McDonald’s Canada for a program to give kids a choice of a book or a toy in Happy Meals. In just a few months since the launch of the program, McDonald’s has distributed children’s books across the country, exposing kids to some of Canada’s best authors and illustrators. With over two million books distributed to-date, it has been an unprecedented success and has reminded me of what’s possible.

I’ve worked with adults learning to read beyond a basic level. The effort it takes for them to get back on track is painstaking, but when they finally get to the point where they can read what they want, they recognize everything they’ve missed without books. I’ve also raised three kids and helped them learn to read. The transformation is inspiring to watch.

Books have the power to take us places we’ve never been and give us experiences we can’t find anywhere else.

Everyone deserves this opportunity to explore, dream and learn – and that must start when we’re young.

[i] The National Endowment for the Arts. To Read or Not To Read. 2007. (Available at: https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/ToRead.pdf)