Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
SUBSCRIBE
By Lisa Tolin

When Jarrett Lerner offered to mail a stack of books to a class of kids to take home for the summer, he didn’t expect the response. More than 1,000 teachers raised their hands.

The educators told Lerner they had been using their own paychecks to get books for their kids, many of whom lived in so-called book deserts, where children don’t have easy access to books.

“The kids who are at the greatest disadvantage or struggling the most in other areas also have the least access to books," says Lerner, author of “The Enginerds.”

Lerner was inspired to use the #kidsneedbooks hashtag by his friend, the author Ann Braden, who was giving away a stack from her own shelf. Lerner jumped in with his own giveaway and soon a movement was born.

Since then, Lerner has given away a stack a month, and played matchmaker for classrooms in need and potential donors.

In the past year, Lerner estimates he’s given out 1,000 books and inspired others to do the same with the #kidsneedbooks hashtag. He doesn’t want to stock classroom libraries; he wants to send kids home with books of their own.

Trending stories,celebrity news and all the best of TODAY.

“Some kids are in disbelief and it takes them a while to understand that someone sent them a book that is theirs, and that it’s theirs forever, and it’s now their property,” Lerner says. “They’ve never owned a book.”

“I’ve had pictures of kids hugging books. They’re just so excited.”

The summer slide — the decline in reading skills over summer break — hits kids without books at home the hardest. That means some of the poorest and at-risk kids are also most likely to fall behind.

But literacy researchers have found that just owning a book makes kids more likely to read.

“Kids who grow up in homes with 500 books or more, over the course of their life, that’s like the educational equivalent of 3.7 years of education,” says Colby Sharp, a fifth-grade teacher and co-author of “Game-Changer! Book Access for All Kids.” “So that’s the difference between making it to high school and graduating from high school, making it to college and graduating from college.”

Sharp, who teaches at a Title I school in Parma, Michigan, says he sees students’ reading assessments climb all year, then dip each summer, like a roller coaster. And it’s not happening to kids who spend the summer in museums, camps and libraries.

“Summer slide happens to kids who are economically disadvantaged,” Sharp says. "We don’t have a reading crisis in this country. We have a poverty crisis."

Other efforts are taking aim at book inequality. The nonprofit First Book gets books to educators serving children in need. Many teachers set up DonorsChoose registries to get books for their classrooms. And major publishers make their own efforts to get books to kids who need them. The Scholastic Summer Read-a-Palooza sends books to kids in need when other kids log reading time.

“There are tons of other people out there giving away books and doing the same sorts of things. I guess I’m just loud about it, because I feel like the more I shout about it, the more other people will do it,” Lerner says.

For those inspired to give, Lerner recommends gathering books at library sales or used bookstores and leaving them at a Little Free Library, or reaching out to a school or library that could help get books to kids who need them.

Sharp says getting books into kids’ hands is crucial. Many don’t get a chance to visit libraries or stop going when they rack up fines they can’t afford.

“If we want them to read, then we have to have books and they need access. It’s not really super complicated,” Sharp says. “If we surround kids with books, they’ll read them.”