Author Aims to Make Books Accessible to Young Readers in Rural Areas: 'Reading Is an Adventure and a Skill'

The Appalachian Literacy Initiative gets books into the hands of young readers, teaching children in neighborhoods with limited library access that each page is a world of possibilities.

If you're an avid reader, it's hard to imagine a world without books. Whether it be a fictional fantastical escape or a real-life memoir, books teach us so much about other people, places, and things we don't typically encounter in our everyday lives. However, for many children who either live in remote or underserved areas of the country, books aren't easily accessible.

This is why the Appalachian Literacy Initiative, based in Bristol, Tennessee, was founded. Through monetary donations, the organization buys books at a steep discount from publishers and social justice initiatives. A child enrolled in the program receives four books they get to keep each year. At the end of the school year, their teacher is given a classroom set of 24 books.

"Access to books is a large problem in this area," says Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, an author of 18 children's books and co-founder of the initiative. "If you live in a remote area and it takes you an hour round trip to get to a library of any sort, you're not likely to go there very often."

According to the United States Department of Education, 61 percent of low-income children don't have any books in their homes.

Brubaker Bradley is passionate about reading and always has been. As a child, a good book felt like an adventure, and it still does. This is why she's compelled to help local school kids gain access to those age-appropriate page-turners. They not only provide an escape from a daily routine but also practice with reading to help elevate their literacy skills.

When there are no jobs and you have no transportation and the nearest town is 30 miles away you really are in a hard place. You don't have a way to get resources and we ought to be able to get books into the hands of the kids and get them reading at a proficient level.

"One of the best ways to predict if a kid will graduate from high school is if they can read at a fourth-grade level by the end of fourth grade," she says. "At the beginning of fifth grade, all of the other subjects start to rely on the fact that the child knows how to read. If they can't, they're going to be in trouble when they have to start reading in order to learn history and science."

When the non-profit first started, they focused solely on fourth graders to help bring their reading proficiency up to speed. After a successful start in 2018, the initiative was able to expand enrollment to include fifth graders as well, and now third graders are added to the mix.

"What we're trying to do is get the same group of kids through three different years," she says. "Next year we hope to be in 60 classrooms in each of the three different grades, so a total of 180 classrooms. We want to build on success. We want to be able to say it's not just one book, here's four books, and now here's 12 books."

It's an impressive operation, and their hard work is paying off in spades.

Brubaker Bradley recalls a letter she received from a student enrolled in the program, who mentioned she keeps two of her books at home and two at school. This way she always has something to read. While the initiative's team isn't doing this for the accolades, the excitement generated by their book fairs is a lovely reward for their efforts.

"All we're trying to do is give them books that they have chosen, that they will enjoy, that they can keep, and that will help them learn that reading is something they can do," she says. "It's something that can be fun and it's valuable."

The initiative is also eager to support teachers who are doing the best they can with very limited resources. Ultimately, Brubaker Bradley would like to see the school systems reassess their spending and put more money towards buying books and less on testing. Until then, the Appalachian Literacy Initiative is here to help.

"Reading is just how you get to the story," she says. "And everybody loves stories."

To make a donation to the Appalachian Literacy Initiative, head to https://readappalachian.org/donate/. The site also features enrollment forms for teachers interested in getting their classrooms involved with the project.

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