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What is a book desert? When this high schooler found out, she started a charity to end them

Millions of children in the U.S. lack access to books. “I saw that there was a desperate need to address this,” Zuri told TODAY.
Rania Zuri

Rania Zuri is running a nonprofit, giving TEDx Talks and talking policy with federal officials all while still in high school.

Zuri, an eleventh-grade student in Morgantown, West Virginia, told TODAY that she started her work when she learned about "book deserts" at a young age. Book deserts, similar to food deserts, are areas where books are relatively difficult to access.

Zuri poses with books to be donated.
Zuri poses with books to be donated.Rania Zuri

In ninth grade, Zuri worked on a project to set up a small library for migrant girls. "I learned about book deserts through that," said Zuri, who said she has always been a voracious reader. "The more I researched, I found out about the book deserts that exist in our own country."

Due to book deserts, Zuri said, more than 32 million children, typically in poorer socioeconomic regions, lack access to reading materials, whether through living in neighborhoods not near libraries or bookstores, or not having books within their own homes. This makes it difficult for children to build reading habits and literacy skills. "That is just absolutely crazy to me," Zuri said.

As Zuri learned more about book deserts and their impact on low-income areas, including in her home state, Zuri she felt that she had to do something. The project also grew out of her own family’s experience with literature.

“My maternal grandfather grew up in a small village in India that was the epitome of a book desert. I heard stories from him about the joy of receiving just one or two books a year ... and the magical connection that he would have to just that one book,” Zuri said.

"I saw that there was a desperate need to address this," Zuri said.

She began her project at home in West Virginia, starting a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization called The LiTEArary Society. The nonprofit "promotes a love of reading among children ages three to five that come from disadvantaged families."

Children share a book from The LiTEArary Society.
Children share a book from The LiTEArary Society.Rania Zuri

"I chose this very specific demographic because at this age, the children are too little to go and check out a book themselves from the library, but their families don't necessarily have the disposable income to buy books," Zuri explained.

The LiTEArary Society paired with Head Start, a federal program for preschool children of families that live at or below the poverty line, to donate a book to every single child enrolled in Head Start in West Virginia. Zuri herself was present at most of the donations, where classrooms were surprised with deliveries of beloved children's books like "Pete the Cat," which has sold 75 million copies as of 2021.

"This project impacted every single child that lives below the poverty line in West Virginia," Zuri said. "I call it the West Virginia Head Start road tour. I saw how the teachers (appreciate) it so much. They told me how most of these children do not have even one book at home. I can't imagine not having any books as a child."

To balance her schoolwork and book deliveries, Zuri only attended high school every other day — while also juggling college classes at West Virginia University. She said that her teachers are also understanding of her work and supported her.

"Every other day, when I didn't have school, I would travel to literally everywhere in the state. It was absolutely incredible," Zuri said.

A child jumps for joy after receiving a book.
A child jumps for joy after receiving a book.Rania Zuri

While the schedule was hectic, she said the joy on children's faces makes it worth it.

"Seeing the children with their books was absolutely amazing," Zuri said. "They're jumping up and down. It's absolutely incredible ... You could really see the impact of these books on them, and they were just so excited."

Zuri has also travelled outside of West Virginia in her quest to end book deserts: She has spoken with Dr. Bernadine Futrell, director of the office of Head Start at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and both senators for West Virginia, about the importance of ending book deserts. Zuri also gave a TEDx Talk where she spoke passionately about how people can work together to end book deserts and ensure every child has the opportunity to love reading.

"You can’t donate a whole library, but you can donate a book."

Rania Zuri

"Ending book deserts is something that's tangible. A lot of people (feel) they can't make a difference ... but in reality, individuals can make a difference," Zuri said. "(You) can't donate a whole library, but you can donate a book. (With the LiTEArary Society) you can see the impact that just one book has made."

Through the LiTEArary Society, Zuri also fosters conversation around books. She makes sure that all of the children in a classroom receive the same book so teachers can incorporate it into their lesson plans and kids can discuss the story with their friends.

Now, she's bringing authors into the mix. Zuri is launching an author collaboration where book writers read their stories aloud in a recording that can be shared in the classroom. Zuri said her first author collaboration — which was with Eric Litwin, author of "Pete the Cat" — was a huge success.

Children meet author "Pete the Cat" author Eric Lipton.
Children meet author "Pete the Cat" author Eric Lipton. Rania Zuri

"It wasn't like your average read-along," Zuri said. "(Litwin) played the guitar, and it was so interactive and fun and the children loved it. It was very magical for them."

After seeing how well The LiTEArary Society has worked in West Virginia, Zuri is planning to scale up the nonprofit's reach this summer.

"We are expanding nationwide," Zuri said, explaining that the organization will be taking a "road tour" this summer to donate books to Head Start summer programs across the country. The organization will also expand overseas, with Zuri planning to start working in nations like India, Pakistan, Germany and Iran.