When it comes to your children, the books in your house matter more than your education or income
A study recently published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility found that just having books around the house (the more, the better) is correlated with how many years of schooling a child will complete. The study (authored by M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikorac and Donald J. Treimand) looked at samples from 27 nations, and according to its abstract, found that growing up in a household with 500 or more books is “as great an advantage as having university-educated rather than unschooled parents, and twice the advantage of having a professional rather than an unskilled father.” Children with as few as 25 books in the family household completed on average two more years of schooling than children raised in homes without any books.
According to USA Today, another study, to be published later this year in the journal Reading Psychology, found that simply giving low-income children 12 books (of their own choosing) on the first day of summer vacation “may be as effective as summer school” in preventing “summer slide” — the degree to which lower-income students slip behind their more affluent peers academically every year. An experimental, federally funded program based on this research will be expanded to eight states this summer, aiming to give away 1.5 million books to disadvantaged kids.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the USA Today article comes at the very end, where one Chicago schoolteacher tells the reporter that the importance of getting books into the house “seems so simple, but parents see it differently.” They’re as “excited” as their kids are when the books come in the door. It’s not that the parents are hostile or even indifferent to books. Most likely, books and reading feel like the privilege and practice of an unfamiliar world: a resource that’s out there somewhere, but not entirely accessible.
“If only we could get all of them to come to bookstores,” one writer wistfully said to me.
Easier said than done. If you happen to be comfortable in bookstores or libraries — if you’ve been to them many times before and know what to expect, what you want and where to find it, or if you know whom and how to ask and feel entitled to bother the staff with your questions — it can be difficult to appreciate how intimidating these institutions of print culture can seem to someone who has little or no acquaintance with them.
One of the biggest success stories in children’s book publishing, after all, is the Little Golden Books: racks of inexpensive kids’ books cleverly placed near the registers in five-and-dime stores, where the harried working-class parents of the 1940s could pick them up on impulse while running other errands.
Of course, you don’t have to buy a book to read it, but the act of giving someone a book of his or her own has an undeniable, totemic power. As much as we love libraries, there is something in possessing a book that’s significantly different from borrowing it, especially for a child. You can write your name in it and keep it always. It transforms you into the kind of person who owns books, a member of the club, as well as part of a family that has them around the house. You’re no longer just a visitor to the realm of the written word: You’ve got a passport.