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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The treasure box

The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a nationwide partnership of foundations, nonprofits, states, and communities, starts with a striking premise: “Reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high school graduation and career success.” But there’s a huge gap in that proficiency, between children of low-income families and the rest of our kids.

“An alarming number of  children — about 67 percent nationwide and more than 80 percent of those from low-income families — are not proficient readers by the end of third grade,” writes Ralph Smith, senior vice president at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and managing director of the campaign. “This has significant and long-term consequences not only for each of those children but for their communities, and for our nation as a whole. If left unchecked, this problem will undermine efforts to end intergenerational poverty, close the achievement gap, and reduce high school dropout rates.  Far fewer of the next generation will be prepared to succeed in a global economy, participate in higher education, or enter military and civilian service.

“The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading was launched to reverse this potentially catastrophic trend,” he adds, “by supporting common-sense solutions at the federal, state, and local levels.”

I’m in Boulder, Colorado today, working on an article about a local effort to close that gap, in this case among Latino children in Boulder County. Led by the Community Foundation Serving Boulder County, the project aims to engage in active, firsthand ways with Latino parents, helping them build the skills and the confidence they need to involve their kids early on with books and reading. Often, I’m learning, there is a feeling among Latino parents, whose families tend to lower on the income scale than others in Boulder County, that books and reading are meant for other kids, but not for theirs.

Yet on Saturday at a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Longmont, a Boulder County town with a large Latino population, I sat for a while at the local library’s booth. On the grass before the table, a box of picture books and early readers, all of them in both English and Spanish, had been set out. Kids and families could take some books for free.

It was something just to watch how families with young children approached this box. Both parents and kids would come up uncertain; in Spanish, parents would ask if their kids could really have a book. The kids saw the box and lit up — but they too weren't sure if these books could be for them. Assured that they could indeed take some, they would reach in, open up books, and gather an armload with amazed and wondrous expression, as if they were extracting a treasure.

For primary schoolers, the magic in books is not fading at all. At a time when people wonder if other forms of reading are not maybe taking over, it’s an eye-opening moment to watch a child, whose parents may not likely be Amazon customers, realize they can have this book — or this armload of books. The magic is not just in the child’s face, but in what this moment reveals: that it’s not a question of interest, it’s more about a sense of permission.

Families of privilege assume they have that permission, that books are always for them. But children’s books are for all children. Learning to love them when you’re little can open up the whole world.

To find out more about the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, visit To learn about the School Readiness Initiative of the Boulder Community Foundation, visit

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