UNITE FOR LITERACY

Unite for Literacy is credited with coining the term 'book desert' in 2010.  Their interactive book desert map analyzes NAEP data and census data to depict the presence of book deserts. Unite for Literacy pictures a world where all children have access to an abundance of books that celebrate their languages and cultures and cultivate a lifelong love of reading.Their projects build home libraries and support families to develop a daily habit of reading, both of which are key factors in growing lifelong readers.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness:

Wondering how the term book deserts was created, this episode features Mike McGuffey, the CEO and founder of Unite for Literacy. Credited with coining the term book desert Unite for Literacy also has created an interactive book desert map which uses statistical analysis to examine book scarcity. With the mission of creating a world where all children have access to an abundance of books which celebrate their languages and cultivate a lifelong love of reading, Unite for Literacy provides a rich library of digital books. Join me as I chat book access, the book desert map and how COVID as impacted the work of Unite for Literacy.

Molly Ness:

Welcome to End Book Deserts, the podcast featuring the innovative people and programs who work to provide book access to our nations under-resourced areas or overlooked populations. I'm Dr. Molly Ness, lifelong reader book nerd teacher educator. I've created the End Book Deserts podcast so that all children have access to books and reading culture. The End Book Deserts podcast, a part of the education podcast network, just like the show you're listening to now shows on the network are individually owned and opinions expressed may not reflect others. Find other interesting education podcasts at edupodcastnetwork.com.

 

Molly Ness:

I am joined today by Mike McGuffey, the founder and CEO of Unite for Literacy. Thanks for joining us today, Mike.

 

Mike McGuffey:

You’re welcome.

 

Molly Ness:

Well, I feel like our conversation is probably a year in the making in the sense that I knew about Unite for Literacy and your work around coining the term book desert. Um, when I started this podcast back in the summer of 2019. Um, so I'm hoping that you can explain Unite for Literacy's mission as well as your really unbelievably cool and informative interactive book desert map, which we will, um, direct listeners to on your website. So, talk to us about that map and how that came to be in the world.

 

Mike McGuffey:

Um, it's started probably about 10 years ago, and kind of several different things came together. One was a article that I read, um, by Mariah Evans, uh, about scholarly culture. And it was really interesting. Um, there was one graph in that article that was extraordinary to me, and it was how she predicted, um, graduation rates in 27 countries. And it was all about books in the home and the probability of coming, uh, graduating ninth grade, I think it was like 30% probability if you had obtained from a booklets home, but then the graph went like almost straight up and it curved at about a hundred books. And so that was really interesting that she was, you know, her conclusion was that every book matters and you know, you go from 13 books to 16 books, it really makes a big difference in graduation rates, but then curved at about a hundred. So that was one, uh, the other was, um, we were looking at NAEP Day, the national assessment of educational progress and they had been asking kids forever. How many books do you have in your home? And how often do you choose to read for fun? They ask lots of survey questions, but those two really stood out to us. So, we could, we could kind of start predicting, um, by this, these questions that have been asked for several decades, how many books are in kids' homes, just based on, you know, cause neighbors is, uh, across all 50 States. So, you know, looking at those, those two things, uh, really helped us. And then finally, um, at the same time, the USDA was coming out with a book desert map and, uh, and I just thought, you know, that's a really interesting ideas to make this visual for people. So, um, so the combination of those made us think for us, it was about books in the home, you know, with food deserts, its close you are to grocery stores, that sort of thing. But it was really more about what is really happening in the home. And so we looked at census data, we looked at the NAEP data and we realized that it was more than poverty. Uh, it was ethnicity, it was geography, it was language spoken in the home. There were a lot of variables. And so, I just had someone on my staff, uh, at Unite for Literacy, that's an, that's a master at data. And he, he put together a formula and we were able to use Esri and take that census data and the NAEP data and predict where we saw book scarcity and all the way down to the census track. And we worked in some of these areas and it's amazing to us how often that predictability is really accurate. So, it was really the benchmark then was a hundred books in the home. And what percentage of homes had a hundred books in the home? And we found that, um, you know, only 30% of the homes in the United States have a hundred books. And then there's some areas that it's way less than 10%.

 

Molly Ness:

And talk to me about, I'm wondering if there's a significance around the hundred books, the particular number a hundred. Why is that the focus, um, why is that sort of your benchmark?

 

Mike McGuffey:

Well, again, that, that graphic really did, uh, help us see how, you know, when you have 200 books and you have another book, it's not nearly as significant as when you have 20 and you had 21. So, there was some point that, that the graph kind of just rounded a curve and it was right at about a hundred. The other thing was that night does ask it's a multiple-choice question. So how many books do you have in your home? And their answers were zero-10, 11- 25, 26- 100 or a hundred or more. And so, once we kept seeing this hundred or more, and then kids choosing to read and their proficiency, uh, is, uh, way higher than it is. If you have zero, 10 books and you never read. So it was just kind of a nice cutoff number. Uh, and it's not like that you would then say, okay, well here's a hundred books done. It's, it's a reflection of what Mariah Evans calls a scholarly culture. What's that book culture in the home? And when you have a lot of books in your home, it's an, that you have a scholarly culture or culture in your home.

Molly Ness:

So for people who have not seen the map, um, or are unfamiliar with sort of the logistics of it, what are some of the takeaways? What information would you want people to come away with after visiting that?

Mike McGuffey:

I would say it makes, it makes the problem visual. And so, if you're working in a community and you're trying to figure out a place to start the areas where you, our, on our map that are red or indications, that there's a high concentration of homes with very few books and you could start there and start saying, okay, what's going on? And what are the things that I could do to really, it's a, it's a multifaceted problem for us, it's access, but access isn't enough. So, access, it should be digital and print these days. All the research is really around print in the home, but I think we've got to start understanding digital. So, access is digital and print. Next, the books have to be relevant. So, uh, it really has to fit with the language and culture of that community. And the third thing is engagement. So, you've got to put all these pieces together. So, the book desert map helps you understand access, but then as you go in and start doing the work, you have to have all three of those pieces in place, I think, to really make a difference.

 

Molly Ness:

So, you know, Unite for Literacy is probably best known for the term book desert, as well as this map, but I know you've got other topics and other content and other work that you're doing around this. So what are some of the other things that are going on with Unite for Literacy, particularly with regard to what you're saying around, um, engagement?

 

Mike McGuffey:

Well, we, we look at this and say first access digital access is a big thing to us. So, we have about 500 books for emergent readers. That's the main focus. We have digital public books, uh, but we're really concerned about equity. And so, we do a lot and think a lot about language equity. Uh, so book equity and language equity for us are intertwined- this kind of journey. This journey kind of began about 30 years ago for me on Native American reservations. And I wasn't seeing hardly any books that reflected the culture and language of the communities I was in. And so, like today are, uh, digital books. I think we're, we're up to 40 plus narrations of different languages. So, I think that's been our engagement component is how do we make books relevant? And then, and then how do we support parents so that they can, uh, grow lifelong readers in their homes? So our work is a lot of our work is project-based. Uh, we're just coming off of a major project with Gila River Indian Community, where they made a hundred local books that celebrated their language and their culture. And now they're narrating those books and often in [inaudible] language. Uh, so there's a big language revitalization component that's coming into it. So, I think it's, um, it's, I think about it as it's as simple as a handshake and it's complex as a friendship. Uh let's get books in kids' hands that they can read and want to read uh, and when they finished let's up them find another, but, uh, it's, it's a lot of hard work.

 

Molly Ness:

And as we're talking, um, for our listeners, I- I'll give the context. And, um, note that it's July of 2020, we are now four or five months into this current pandemic at a pivotal crossroads, where we are trying to figure out what schools will look like in the upcoming weeks and months for kids. Um, so I very much believe that the work around book access, um, is more pressing now more than ever, um, as schools and as libraries have shuttered. Um, so how has the pandemic impacted your work and maybe refueled and sort of given, um, given new challenges and new, um, opportunities for Unite for Literacy?

 

Mike McGuffey:

Well, our readership is skyrocketed, um, digital readership. We have print and digital solutions, but I think more than anything, um, it's helping us think about parents and what can we do to support parents that have a lot going on. And again, I think it's maybe coming back to some of the simple ideas and that is how can parents, uh, get a book in kids' hands that they can read and want to read, and when they finish up and find another, I think we're probably, um, putting a lot on parents, that's academic and maybe too much. And so maybe this can help us just really rethink what it is we're doing to support parents. And I think the beauty of it is how simple this can really be. Um, uh, just enjoying books. The goal, uh, to me, is that we want our kids to become lifelong readers. And how do you do that? And so how do you get the right book at the right time? Will the librarian's mantra- how do we do that?

 

Molly Ness:

Certainly it looks very different now than it looked six months ago and probably will look in six months from now and as a parent, um, I just want to note my appreciation for that. I have a, um, little postcard that I've printed out from a graphic I found on social media that says when the world feels too heavy, um, the best thing you can do in parenting is read with your child because all of this has felt really heavy and it, um, my parenting and my professional guilt art have skyrocketed during this time. And I'm trying to navigate my own digital work and then do it with a fourth grader at home who is struggling as so many of our kids are. And there have been many days where we've closed the computer and logged off of Google Docs and Zoom and such and sat on the couch and read. And obviously Unite for Literacy is making that reading happen and more accessible to many families and parents all around doing this work and really troubled times.

 

Mike McGuffey:

I think that's it. That's really important. I think if there's a message that you have to parents is that let's, let's shut everything down and let's just have this quiet time and read with arcades and enjoy a book together. Uh, I mean, when it all gets chaotic and stressful, that's it, that's a wonderful relationship, quiet time with our kids that we could spend that kind of shuts out some of all that, a lot of great authors out there…

 

Molly Ness:

I've been fortunate to, um, interview some of them for the podcast, which has always been, it's always fun to talk to the people who are producing such great content for our kids and our families. So in the spirit of, um, showcasing reading culture and the importance of ourselves as readers, let me ask you the question that I ask of every guest, which is, um, asking you to share a book that's been really pivotal to you, either something from your past or present bookshelf. It's sort of a little bit of a different question than what's your favorite book, but, um, a book that you continue to think through and mull over and somehow has influenced you personally or professionally. I know it's impossible to choose one book. So often people oftentimes guests on the podcast cheat and say, well, I might say this, but instead I'm going to say that. So I'm all for having more than one if need be.

 

Mike McGuffey:

Yeah, that's a hard one. I think there's a couple of things that come to mind. One is I do think it's like impossible to say, because you have this reading life that, you know, you have hundreds and hundreds of books and it kind of forms this incredible constellation of, you know, your thinking and your ideas. But if we're going to go there, I'm going to say The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss. I think, uh, this whole idea of, uh, you know, how do you end book deserts now, I think it's grow book gardens. And so I think this idea of watch your metaphors, uh, really pay attention to your metaphors. And I, I, you have a whole different view if you think about this as a gardening project than if we thought about this as an industrial, you know, assembly line complex solutions. So, I'm going to go with The Carrot Seed.

 

Molly Ness:

And you've given us such great metaphors to, to mull over. I really love the, um, the, the image of it starts with a handshake and hopefully blossoms into a friendship. Um, what a different world we would be literacy-wise. Um, but just in so many of the challenges that we are facing today. So, thank you for your time. Um, Mike, we will have, um, we will link your website to ours, so that parents and teachers and people who are searching for those digital books to get us through these times, and for more information about the really amazing interactive book dessert map, um, people can find it on the End Book Deserts website, um, and link to you. Thank you for your time today.

 

Mike McGuffey:

Thank you.

 

Molly Ness:

So, it's time for the portion of the podcast called today's related reading, which is the time where I showcase a personal or professional book that relates to the topic of our conversation today. So I wanted to showcase a picture book today called My Librarian is a Camel and it's by Margriet Ruurs. It's subtitled How books are brought to children around the world. And this book showcases how our global neighbors end book deserts through innovative ways, delivering books by bus, by boat, elephant, donkey, train, even wheelbarrow. It's a perfect way to discuss book access with young readers. And it's a photo essay that celebrates books, readers, and libraries I'm using My Librarian is a Camel as a home read-aloud with my young daughter as a way to introduce the ideas around this podcast book access and how important books are for our global community.

 

Molly Ness:

That wraps it up for this episode of End Book Deserts. If you know of a person or program doing innovative work to get books into the hands of young readers, email me at molly@endbookdeserts.com. For more about my work and for more about the program featured on this episode, check out our webpage www.endbookdeserts.com. Follow me on social media at End Book Deserts and share out your stories and reactions with the #EndBookDeserts. Thanks to Dwayne Wheatcroft for graphics and copy and to Benjamin Johnson for sound editing. Until the next episode, happy reading!