While book deserts in communities that are underserved and need reading support have always been an issue in the United States, the pandemic exacerbated this with the closure of schools and libraries. The nonprofit Worldreader saw an opportunity.
Though its BookSmart app was developed to provide young people in the developing world with free-ebooks, in 2020, the nonprofit decided to launch its programming in the United States.
Kristen Walter, the US Programs Director of Worldreader, says, “With COVID, we realized that a lot of the inequities we were seeing in other countries, we were also seeing here – as far as book deserts and lack of access to literacy resources.”
According to Walter, a book desert is defined as an area where families face barriers to book access. Even where there are public libraries, families may have trouble getting there — or may be wary of registering their identity by signing up for a library card. And when libraries closed due to COVID, it became much harder for families to get books.
Currently, Worldreader is partnering with Worldvision and Reading Partners to bring the BookSmart app to families in the Bronx. Since Worldreader’s partners distribute physical books to families, they are able to also set the families up with access to the BookSmart app and show them how to use it. They go where their reading partners have already established relationships with families and schools.
Kristen Anderson, the Senior Manager for Program and Affiliate Stewardship for Raising a Reader (one of these partner organizations) said that the partnership with Worldreader has helped them support families with reading goals through the pandemic. Raising a Reader normally provides families with bags full of physical books — which kids pick up at school — and that model was upended during the pandemic.
This bookbag model had to adapt to the pandemic. Instead of providing rotating bookbags, Raising a Reader allowed sites to purchase kits that would go home and stay home with families. Although families would normally be able to access 100 titles through Raising a Reader’s programming, they now only had one bag. This is where the BookSmart app came in: Raising a Reader added signup instructions for BookSmart to the kits they sent home with families. This allowed for access to more titles.
Anderson says, “For our model, which revolves around kids being in a school setting where they drop off a bag or pick up a new bag, [the pandemic] has impacted families’ access to libraries or other access. Some of these practices came to a halt. Having access to digital books, especially during the pandemic, has been crucial.”
Although public libraries also offer free digital book collections, families do not have to register to use the BookSmart app. Families can access the BookSmart app through a link without having to give any identifying information, and do not have to go to a library to register for a card. BookSmart isn’t meant to replace the library, Walter says. Instead, it functions as an additional resource to take out the barriers that families sometimes have accessing books. The app has always at least 150 titles available to readers and according to their annual report, they plan to reach 50,000 vulnerable children with their United States launch.
Worldreader partners with publishers like Highlights in the United States, but they also partner with international publishers like Kwani Trust and Primento and are able to offer titles through BookSmart that users normally would not be able to find at public libraries in the United States. Walter said, “It’s a global library – we have books that you wouldn’t normally find in the United States. We supplement a library collection very well.” Popular titles on BookSmart include Un Camino a la Vida by Ying-Xuan Lai, The Girl with the Magic Hands (in Spanish and English by Nnedi Okorafor, and Love Like That by Richa Jha.
The BookSmart app also has “activities” that are paired with many of the books in the collection – many of which are offered as bilingual titles. For example, the book Feeling Happy is paired with a social-emotional learning activity (an activity that is designed to help children develop social and emotional skills) that is centered around what makes the child feel happy. Walter said, “We suggest to parents and teachers that after [reading the book}, you talk to your child about what makes you happy: what makes you laugh, what makes you proud. Then asking them about what makes them happy and taking it one step forward and draw a picture of what makes you happy.”
“We’re having children use their own voice,” said Walter, “not just consuming the information but use their voice to do activities to actually create content to go with the book and really facilitate a conversation with their caregiver.”
Because the book is bilingual, it also offers linguistic choice to the caregiver: they can elect to read the book in Spanish and do the activity in English or vice versa. Although the app does not collect user data, Worldreader does track overall how many people read the books as well as which books have been read, and Walter has been really pleased with the engagement by Spanish-speaking readers. The app currently has 13,086 readers in the United States and 2,510 of those readers have continued to exhibit reading behaviors over time.
“In the top 20 books, around 60 percent of these books are Spanish titles,” Walter said. “We’ve taken the time to be really thoughtful about a Spanish connection and bringing that equity piece for Spanish-speaking families. [I really love] that these titles are being read.”
Nia Springer-Norris is a Chicago-based solutions and culture journalist who contributes to Next City and Kirkus Reviews. Her work has also been featured in Ms., Romper and Parents.com.