Mom Launches Literacy Program With Her Kids To Get 50 Diverse Kids Books Into All 50 American States

You may be familiar with one of Malala Yousafzai‘s famous quotes: “One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world.” She is certainly not wrong, as evidenced by the enormous impact she has had on the world with her tireless advocacy around education and literacy.

But she is not the only dynamic young woman who understands the value of books and education. A team of two school-aged kids and their mom launched a program in July 2018 called ’50 States 50 Books’ with the express aim of “closing the literacy gap in America and expose more children to diverse literature.” Charnaie Gordon (mom) and her kids Madison (Age 7) who runs the program with her 5 year-old brother are doing their part to address this particular aspect of the American education system, by helping especially minority kids get excited about books that feature more diverse characters and storylines. Essentially, they want to see more books about kids that actually look like them.

“Many children across the U.S., particularly those of color, bear the burden of our broken education system. Early literacy is one area where lack of progress is particularly alarming. A student’s ability to read at grade level by the end of 4th grade is a key indicator of future success in school and in life. We believe it’s crucial to have more community-wide efforts, similar to our project that focus on scalability and measurable results. 50 States 50 Books is a small step towards thinking about early literacy through a much wider lens,” says the description on the website.

Charnaie Gordon’s kids who are helping her spearhead the ’50 States 50 Books’ literacy program

This fantastic family-based organization has already seen some substantial success during the 2018-2019 school year. Over the course of nine months they collected and donated over 2,500 diverse children’s books for deserving kids in the United States. They also partnered with Pizza Hut’s Book It! Program during the summer of 2019 for their 50 Books Challenge where we inspired children in the U.S. to donate 50 books (or more) at a time to a literacy organization of their choice. The program has also been featured in The Huffington Post, Moneyish and Time for Kids, proving that their message is resonating with more and more people.

“It’s important to understand that investment in early literacy is crucial to the success of any given country. Students who do not read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school.  Four times!!! That’s why it’s important for this project (and many other projects like it) to exist today for future generations to come,” says the website’s mission page.

We spoke with Charnaie Gordon to find out why this program is important to her and her kids, and how they hope to see more people get involved in the education and literacy skills of future generations of American kids.

Charnie Gordon with her two children being interviewed at a local radio station.

What made your family start 50 States 50 books?
We started our 50 States 50 Books initiative in July 2018 after my 7 year-old daughter Madison suggested we donate our unwanted books to other children who don’t have access to books. Since we receive books in the mail often from different publishers and authors, we periodically donate books to our local library. There’s no way we can keep all the books we receive in addition to the ones we already have.

One day as we were donating to our library, my daughter wanted to know why we always brought our books to the library instead of giving them to children in need. This thought sat with me for a few days before I came up with the idea of donating books to kids in need in all 50 of the U.S. states.

How did you first become interested in closing the literacy gap in the US?
As a part-time influencer and content creator who focuses primarily on diverse children’s literature, I am fully aware of the literacy gap in the US. I thought our 50 states initiative would be a perfect way to do our part to help close the gap. 

I first became interested in helping to close the literacy gap about two years into blogging. Due to the severe lack of representation and diversity in children’s literature, that made me want to get more involved and help in any way I could. I figured by showcasing high-quality diverse literature it would help make more people aware of books, the authors and illustrators.  The hope is by creating more awareness it will help drive book sales, increase library attendance across the country and help publishers see how needed and appreciated high-quality diverse books are to families, educators and librarians.

For those who aren’t aware of how the education system works in this country, why do you focus on one state at a time, as opposed to one national campaign?
We decided to focus on one state at a time rather than doing a national campaign because we understand how huge the need is for diverse books in each of the 50 U.S. states. School libraries and educators in each state often have limited budgets to purchase new books for classrooms and libraries each year. By focusing on one state at a time we’re able to help more people in each state.

What kind of books do you look for and donate to schools and libraries?
Our goal is to donate diverse children’s books for kids ages 0 – 17 to different schools, libraries and organizations that serve children across the United States. Diverse books are not limited to ethnic, religious and cultural minorities. We also look to donate children’s books that include, but are not limited to: biodiversity, LGBT+, gender diversity, people with disabilities, people of color including: Latinx, Indigenous, Pacific-Islander and Asian.

Why is the diversity aspect especially important to you all?
Diversity is important to us because we believe it’s crucial for all kids, but especially marginalized kids to believe and understand they can do and become whatever they desire. This allows children to see beyond the dominant images of White protagonists in children’s literature. We believe it’s important to represent children of all colors, genders, abilities and disabilities in books to accurately reflect the world we live in.

Initially your goal was to donate 2,500 books, which you accomplished within 9 months! So what are your new goals and targets with the organization?
Our goals for this year are pretty much the same as last year. We still have a goal to collect and donate 2,500 books total by June 2020 (or sooner). That’s 50 books for each of the 50 U.S. states. This year we also have a goal to network, collaborate and partner with more people and businesses in hopes of helping us reach our goal. We recently partnered with Read Conmigo!, an award-winning program that encourages parents to read to their children in English and Spanish.

What does it mean to be a family and work on such an important initiative together?
This initiative has been a joy to work on together as a family despite some of the initial setbacks we had the first time around. We had to deal with shipping delays and books getting lost in the mail. Through it all, we kept pushing and finished last year ahead of schedule. We’re hoping to do the same this year.

It’s great to be able to share our love of reading and books with others across the nation. The kids also enjoy knowing that we’re helping to inspire others and get books into the hands of kids who need them the most.

It’s also amazing for me to show my children the power of reading and books by working on this initiative together. It’s helped bring us closer together as a family and I’m hoping it’s helping my children understand the difference we’re making in the world.

Lastly, it’s been cool for us to have the opportunity to be featured in places like: Girl Talk HQ, The Huffington Post, Time for Kids magazine, Moneyish and on our local news and radio stations.

What are some of your favorite books you have collected, and why do you like them so much?
This is such a tough question because we received SO many amazing books!  We’re grateful to authors like Meenal Patel who sent us 50 copies of her picture book Priya Dreams of Marigolds & Masala. There was also author Asia Citro who sent us 49 copies of her series of Zoey and Sassafras books. We’re hopeful we have the same outpouring of love and support like we did last year.

If people reading this want to get involved or help out, how can they do that?
We need monetary donations to help cover the cost of shipping and packing supplies. People can make in-kind monetary donations (big or small) on our Go Fund Me page. We’re also in need of gently used and new diverse books for children ages 0 – 17.  To see a wish list of books you can head here. Book donations can be mailed to us at: 50 States 50 Books, P.O. Box 214, Simsbury, CT 06070. 


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