There is something about listening to public radio that I really love. Very often they have chosen surprising or interesting topics and best of all they give time to the presenter or interviewer to really unpack the subject. While I am certainly aware of the liberal bias in most secular media and even more so on PBS, I also recognize that they are often tackling subjects that no one else is. Recently, I listened to an interview on Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane that brought me to tears as I heard a story about children and books.
She was interviewing education researchers, Donna Celano and Susan Neuman about their newly-published book, Giving Our Children A Fighting Chance, in which they studied two Philadelphia neighborhoods — one in Chestnut Hill and the other in North Philadelphia — and found that children living in poverty have significantly less access to materials like books, magazines and computers that help them learn to read. They made the case that it is this early disadvantage that follows children through the years and has serious implications for their economic prosperity and social mobility contributing to a cycle of poverty.
What was so interesting about this interview was their focus on the public library as the locus of their research. While there are libraries in both North Philly and Chestnut Hill and both have lots of kids in them, there were some stark differences as well. One of the main differences they pointed out was the interaction of parents and other adults with the books and the children. In Chestnut Hill, parents were frequently reading to and with the younger children and in many cases helping them to select books that were age appropriate and also challenging the kids to read harder books. In North Philly, no one was reading to or with the kids and in most cases they were left to fend for themselves. In addition to this clear difference, there was a stark contrast in the number of books being checked out to be taken home. Many more books, on average, were being checked out by patrons in Chestnut Hill than in North Philly.
As they continued the interview and discussed the importance of books and reading in the early educational process, they also took calls and discussed these issues with the public. One caller made the point that even libraries were being made less available to impoverished neighborhoods as budget cuts in the cities took hold. They went on to claim that there were now no public libraries in the city of Camden (queue the tears from me). Ironically, a few days later, Marty’s team on Radio Times, corrected this claim with information that there were still two libraries open in Camden – as if that is so much better.
While pondering this story, I could not help but reflect on my own childhood which was filled with books, reading and the wonder of learning. Our home was packed with the Hardy Boy’s mysteries, Sugar Creek Gang books, Little House on the Prairie series and of course the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. While we may not have had a lot of things as missionary kids, we always had books. This legacy of reading is something that my parents passed on to me and is one that I treasure to this day. I cannot imagine how impoverished my world would have been without them.
This contrast of two neighborhoods just a few miles apart on Germantown Avenue was so startling and yet only a reflection of a wider global challenge. When I went to Liberia last year, I discovered an entire country desperate for good quality reading materials after years of devastating war. This was true for both adults and children. How could parents even conceive of reading to their children if they did not have books themselves and might not have been able to read because schools were closed during their formative learning years? What a travesty. This is also a devastating problem in parts of the world where religious and cultural intolerance prevents girls from going to school at all and reading is considered a great luxury.
As I considered what to do about this problem that seems so overwhelming, it seemed like one of the solutions was right in front of me. I could donate children’s books myself and work to encourage our organization to do the same. Interestingly, CLC has already done some great work in providing children’s libraries in Sierra Leone. That, however, did not feel like a sufficient response. Then it hit me. Maybe I could find some kids to read to and pass on this passion for reading that was instilled in me. So, look out – the reading time in your local CLC bookstore in Philly may be brought to you at times this summer by a short, balding white guy who cries too easily while listening to public radio.