Today I got a phone call from Sadaka (the middle Invisible Girl), who told me she had taken her teacher’s cell phone and hid in the janitor’s closet of her school so she could call me.
First, she got business out of the way. “My birthday’s coming up,” she said. “Can you please bring me a diary and cake?” she asked.
I laughed. “Of course,” I said. (I was planning to visit them next week anyway.) “I’ll definitely bring you a diary. They even make ones with locks on them so your sisters can’t read it.”
“That would be awesome!” she said. “And books. Bring me books, because I like to read but I can only get two books at a time from the library at school.”
We chatted for almost half an hour. She told me how she and her sisters and her mom were doing, what she liked and didn’t like about New York, and what she missed about Portland and Seattle.
“I don’t have any friends here,” she said, her voice dropping. “But I have you, and that’s all that matters,” she said, her voice strengthening. “You’re my number one friend.”
“You’re my number one friend, too,” I told her. “I love you so much, and I pray for you every day. And guess what else?”
“What?” she asked.
“REALLY!!!???” she asked.
“Really,” I said. “What do you think you want to be when you grow up?”
“I don’t know exactly,” she said. “But I tell you this: When I grow up I’m going to surprise the world.”
I laughed. “I bet you will!” I said.
I told her she reminded me of myself when I was her age. I wrote in journals and read whenever I got the chance.
But I realized as I was talking to her that the difference between Sadaka and me was simply a matter of access. She’s every bit as intelligent as I was at her age (For instance, I told her my cell phone number four years ago when I first met them in Portland, and she’s remembered it since then so she can call me whenever she finds a phone), and yet she can only read two books a week.
But I grew up with bookshelves in our living room that were nearly overflowing with encyclopedias, novels, non-fiction, poetry and children’s books. My dad read us a chapter of the Chronicles of Narnia every night before we fell asleep, and my parents regularly took us to the Lancaster County library, where there was an entire floor devoted to children’s literature.
This past week I spoke with Mizgon Darby, a friend I made in grad school at Columbia, where we both studied journalism. She’s since gone on to be part of an organization called Bring Me A Book, which provides books to low income kids.
This past year, Bring Me A Book got a grant that enabled them to conduct a pilot study where 96 children from low income homes in the Bay Area were each given a tablet pre-loaded with ebooks and other educational materials.
In the beginning, Mizgon said, the team was skeptical, assuming that because these children got to take the tablets home with them, a lot of the tablets would somehow go missing. But at the end of the year, every single tablet was returned, and together the 96 children had read well over 3,000 books.
The statistics were astonishing to me. Mizgon told me that 61% low income families have fewer than 10 books in the home — and 33% have fewer than 5 books in the home. Also, their parents rarely read aloud to them, which means that by the time children from low income homes turn 4, they’ve each heard 30 million less words than kids from higher income homes.
Mizgon also told me that if children don’t have adequate reading proficiency by the time they hit 3rd grade, they’re 4 times more likely to drop out of high school (and, by the way, ⅔ of children in the U.S. are below 3rd grade reading proficiency.)
So when Sadaka told me today that she likes to read and that when she grows up she’s going to surprise the world, my only advice to her was this: KEEP READING.
But here’s the thing. There are tons of kids like Sadaka who are intelligent and eager and motivated to read — and all they need is someone to give them access to as many books as they can read.
Want to get involved?
Mizgon’s agency is one of the TOP TEN FINALISTS in a contest with the Google Bay Area Impact Challenge. If they get the most votes, they’ll get a huge grant that will allow them to give e-readers to thousands of kids. If 96 kids could read more than 3,000 books in a year, can you imagine how many books tens of thousands of kids could read!?
The deadline for votes is June 2nd, so please go vote for Bring Me A Book HERE, and spread the word to families and friends who’d be willing to vote for them as well. And then do whatever you can in your community to put books in the hands of kids who need them most.
In the words of Dr. Seuss,
The more that you read,
the more things you will know.
The more that you learn,
the more places you’ll go.