FIRST BOOK

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Since 1992, First Book has distributed more than 185 million books and educational resources to programs and schools serving children from low-income communities in more than 30 countries. First Book currently reaches an average of 5 million children every year and supports more than one in three of the estimated 1.3 million classrooms and programs serving children in need.

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

I'm thrilled to be joined today by Kyle Zimmer who is the president, CEO, and founder of First Book. Thank you so much for your time today. 

 

Kyle Zimmer

I'm delighted to be here. 

 

Molly Ness

So, for those of us who are not familiar with First Book, tell us how you got started and what the work you all are doing to end book deserts?

 

Kyle Zimmer

Well, First Book got started based on- really- personal experience. I was a lawyer in private practice in Washington DC in the late 80s and that was in Washington where the crack epidemic had really started taking hold of the city. I was raised to be an activist and so it really- it's incumbent upon all of us who are wired to be activists that we roll our sleeves up especially during these critical periods. And so, I started volunteering at an after school program in a little soup kitchen here in Washington and as I started spending my evenings there, you would find 50 or 60 kids in the neighborhood who were looking for adults in their lives and they were looking for a safe place to be. And it just kept on occurring to me that I could be so much more helpful if we had books in that program and so what we started- two friends and I started kind of peeling the onion back and saying why are there not books in this program? What's the power of books in the lives of kids? We became advocates of the research, of the power of books, and the lack of access. I would spend some times- afternoons and I will take off from my job and go into local schools and say show me a classroom or show me your school library- which as you know- too often the answer was there is no library and so- you know- we started building it very organically, but we were all- and we all are business people, so we approached the solution of this problem by trying to design- really a big system, very scalable efforts because we recognized how catastrophic the need was.

 

Molly Ness

So, from a grassroots beginning of seeing this issue, you've now turned it into- really a major organization. What is it that First Book is currently doing? How are you providing access? Who is your population?

 

Kyle Zimmer

Well, at the heart of First Book is the First Book Network and this is an online community where we encourage anyone serving kids in need 0-18 years of age to sign up with us. It's free to register with us at www.firstbook.org and it takes like 5 minutes and what we realize is we really needed to bring the community together of people who were consistently in the lives of children in need and so well, you now have an online community of about 450,000 members and it's still growing at a rate of about a thousand a week. And so, it's the largest network of its kind in the US and Canada. And so, it is - t's really fueled everything we do and underneath that are our three pillar programs- the first one is directly focused on access to books and it’s called the First Book Marketplace. The marketplace offers more than 6,000 titles of free and very, very low-cost books to anyone who is registered in our network and I can explain the specifics about that, but that moves about 18 million books a year through our systems into the hands of educators and the lives of kids and into the hands of kids who are waiting. The second pillar is called the First Book of Research and Insights because what we realized is that we really needed to pay attention to the voice of people who are in those situations, in the lives of kids every single day. We needed to listen to them; we needed to recognize patterns; we needed to be able to look at what was going on in rural communities,  urban communities; for young kids, for old kids and so having that powerful research arm really gives us unprecedented insight into what we're trying to do. And the third one is called the First Book Accelerator and what the accelerator does is it allows the First Book Network to reach through our organization and to access the world's experts in critical topic areas like reading acquisition, like how to use books in an informal setting, how to engage parents, how to help parents learn to use books in their homes. And we package that- the best and the brightest information on those critical areas and we make it free to anyone in the First Book Network, so those are sort of the three big pillar programs.

 

Molly Ness

So, let me focus on all three- are doing great work and in spreading reading culture that is so important to overcoming book deserts. I want to focus just on this first one which is access for teachers mostly because I'm a former classroom teacher. My day job right now is I'm a teacher/educator and so many of my students are pre-service teachers or in-service teachers who come to their classrooms and think well where's my library? How do I grow a collection of books? Many of us assume that teachers are given classroom libraries or given substantial budgets to grow a classroom library and really that's not the case, so can you talk a little bit- for those people who are saying oh hey I didn't even know that this existed- what can I get if I go and spend these five minutes on your website? What does First Book provide for me- who is trying to get books into my classroom and books for the kids that I work with.

 

Kyle Zimmer

Sure. You're exactly right. There is a presumption by people- you know- who are dropping the kids off at school and people who are living in communities all over the country- that schools and teachers have what they need to do their jobs and the answer is they don't. And in fact- you know- it depends on which community you're looking at. But I can tell you in Maryland where my kids have gone to public school, 94% of the teachers are digging into their own pockets and spending hundreds of dollars every year trying to fill the cabin of need that they see in their own classroom. And so what the First Book Marketplace does is because we've aggregated this wonderful community of people serving kids in need, we can bring great market strength to bear on behalf of those- those individuals who are doing the heroic work. And we focus on two key issues- the first is price and the other is relevancy. And so, with price, First Book has harnessed two major models. One is we are the number one clearinghouse for gifted inventory from publishers in the US and Canada. And these books are called- if you go on the first book marketplace- they're called the First Book bookbag titles and that means- titles- all of them are new, but these are titles that are gifted from publishers directly to First Book. And so, we only charge shipping and handling for those books. Now, you have to buy a carton of them so you'll get 30- I'm making that number up- something like twenty-five and thirty at a time, but you only pay approximately .60 cents a book for those books and it comes and goes. It's like a cell. You pay sometimes and you find the most spectacular books that are exactly what you're looking for and sometimes it's high entertainment books that are just great for kids to read in their spare time. And so that's one category. The other category are the marketplace titles where we went- we go to the publisher then we say we will buy in very large quantity, we will buy on a non-returnable basis and we will pay upfront for that inventory, but the inventory has to be the best books. These are not books that didn't sell; these are the best titles- award-winning titles and they are also- where we really emphasized diversity so 30% of the 6,000 titles that we offer are diverse both in the content, the authors, the illustrations- you'll see the widest variety because we know from our on teachers from entering the service. We've surveyed teachers and they say kids are more interested in reading when they can see themselves; they can see their own lives reflected. We take that very seriously, so we use the strength of our buying power to make sure we push the publishing industry to accelerate access to high diverse, high quality titles. Let me give you a couple of for instances- the average price of a premium picture book at retail now runs about $19 in the US. On our site, a lot of our inventory is softcover and sometimes we take hardcover books and we convert them to a soft-cover format to lower the price points. Our soft cover books on the First Book website is about $3.10 on average and that includes shipping, so we really push hard to lower that price point so that it is acceptable.

 

Molly Ness

So, you've been very considerate to teachers who I know applaud your efforts. Teachers have very little time and they have very little....so obviously you're being very considerate of their per strings, but you're also making it so teachers can build a collection in relative bulk, but also with careful attention to quality so can any teacher access this?

 

Kyle Zimmer

Not every teacher is eligible. If you're in a title one school or a school that is Title 1 eligible even if you are not formally in the Title 1 program, you can access; you can register with us if you're in any program that serves and I mean after school, preschool or homeless shelters. Any conceivable- we even have barber shops- you know- wonderful community locations if you can show us that you serve at a minimum 70% kids in need, then you're welcome into the network. We also welcome in anybody who is serving deployed military families. We also welcome anybody who is serving in disaster relief settings even if they don't set our economic criteria. We give them a 6-month membership into the First Book Network because a lot of times they're just trying to rebuild to get their classrooms back up and rolling as fast as they can so they can even come in for six months during that crisis period. One thing I want to say is that while the book bank titles are in carton quantities, only the marketplace titles that I described that- you know we purchase those books you can buy individual copies, so there's no restriction on quantity there.

 

Molly Ness

So for the listener who have listened to several episodes of this podcast, we understand that kids today spend only about a quarter of their lives in schools and so to end book deserts, we have to provide book access outside of schools and the places that you're talking about- barber shops and after-school programs and laundromats. Listeners may be familiar with United Through Reading which I featured in a previous episode. All of these programs- my hunch- are coming to you guys insourcing their bookshelves with your high-quality, relevant, inclusive, and really top-of-the-line books.

 

Kyle Zimmer

Yes, that's the goal- is really too. We're not really trying to step in front of these groups. We’re trying to make their dollars go further and their voice go further.

 

Molly Ness

Well, I know that the teachers and literacy activists out there who are listening to this are probably- going to rush to their website to register themselves…

 

Kyle Zimmer

I love that…

 

Molly Ness

We will certainly redirect them through our website. In your second pillar, you have a focus on impact and research, so that you're really expanding the impact that you have. Can you tell us a little bit? I know you were able to give us some numbers- just about the share of volume of books that you're providing, but what how else do you measure impact? How do you guys know that you are making a difference in ending book deserts?

 

Kyle Zimmer

Sure. What we do is focus on- we do research on a huge range of issues- everything from health to- you know- trauma in the kids’ lives like we really cover the waterfront, but we really focus very, very clearly on whether we're making it happen in a way and whether we're moving the needle in some simple ways. We know when we asked- as educators- what do you need? What do you want? And let me give you a simple example. They will say to us we need a bilingual The Very Hungry Caterpillar- right. And when they first wrote to us or responded with that answer to our survey work, we were early in the process and we naively called the publisher and said hey we need to order some of your bilingual A Very Hungry Caterpillar and their response was: there is no bilingual edition, so we were able to turn to the publishers who have been great partners and say we’ll buy 30,000 copies if you produced it because our network needs it. And they jump to the task. 130,000 copies have gone out through First Book- had a really reduced; really barebone pricing structure- is the same beautiful quality that you would get at a retailer and so, there are tangible things we know because we heard back from the network. They've never had an organization where they say can you make this happen and then they watch it happen. That's extraordinarily empowering, but in addition to that let me share a few numbers with you on impact. For us, 84% of our network responded that without First Book, their children would have very few and often no books in their homes and in their lives. 88% report that children's increase interest in reading after receiving books through First Book. This next one is my favorite one- 88% report First Book helped them to be the best educator possible and 90% have reported that the resources from First Book directly help them close the achievement gap. These are questions that we consistently asked. We also do deep dives into them and say what do you mean by the best educator possible- you know? And we get great responses about places where they weren't able to hold a parent-child reading program and now they can. These are educators- you know this yourself- they go into this field swinging for the bleachers. They go into education because they want to make an impact in kids’ lives and a lot of time the budget makes them feel like they can't do what- what they were there, what they studied, what they hope to do so, access the First Book resources at such low prices- it's like wind in ourselves; it's like for the first time they can actually execute on things that they have been dreaming about for years and so we hear these stories all the time.

 

Molly Ness

Well your numbers and some of your qualitative things- the fact that you guys are pushing publishers forward in providing more inclusive texts really is- epitomizes what a key player First Book is in providing book access. Where do you see First Book going in the future? What's down the road for you guys?

 

Kyle Zimmer

More, more, stronger- you know. We really want to get from our 450,000 members- our estimates are there. There is 1.3 to 1.5 million people in the US and Canada who would qualify to register with First Book, so we're proud of what we've built getting the 450,000, but we want everybody in the town because that collective power, that collective community- that's where the real traction happens and so one thing I would do- a big shout out to anybody who's listening- if you are serving low-income kids; if your church has a program, if your brother is a teacher- anyone you can think of who might be eligible- for heaven's sake get them registered. We're stronger together and so we really want to get- we really want to break that million-member benchmark there as fast as we possibly can. We also realize if there are some deep chasms of need in our country were looking at Appalachia, for example which is where I grew up and we're looking at the Gulf region which has had chronic poverty and chronic need and we're looking at tribal populations through the southwest and into Alaska and into the northern stretches of our Canadian program and we're saying how do we hold hands with people who are authentically from those regions to tell us what they need to get them in the broader community and to get them the support and resources they need, so I think that the word is more and better as far as what's coming for us.

 

Molly Ness

Well I'm hoping that with this podcast and with word getting out in many different venues, those numbers will continue to go up and I'm so pleased to hear that some of your work is focusing on some of the areas of geographic isolation, in rural poverty in particular- we’re- on this podcast, we are featuring Reader to Reader which works in Navajo nations. We are featuring some programs that are trying to increase book access to migrant children who are in detention centers along the border communities because of that exact reason. The reason the isolation- the programs in areas of geographic isolation are harder to reach and harder to get to.

 

Kyle Zimmer

Absolutely.

 

Molly Ness

So, as we finish up our time together I wanted to ask you the question that I ask of all of my guests. I asked this question because so many of us literacy activists are passionate ourselves about reading and our reading identities, our reading lives. And in my belief is that ending book deserts is far more than just providing access to books- it’s creating a culture where we showcase our reading identities and everything, so to honor that I'm hoping that you'll be able to tell me a book from your past or present that really- that has a lasting impression on you. One book that just continues to stick with you. I know as a lifelong reader, it’s just nearly impossible to narrow it down to one and I know were I to ask you the same question tomorrow, it would probably be a different answer, but at this time and place what's that one book that jumps out for you?

 

Kyle Zimmer

You know you're really 100% right. I can tell you Winnie the Pooh when I was a little kid. I read The Adventures of Pooh. I still have that copy. I love The Good Earth, but if I had to pick one that I know really opened my eyes- as a young woman it was Margaret Mead’s Blackberry Winter. And it was her book about her early years, and I think it was- it was important for me for a lot of reasons. One is- she was a fiercely, independent woman. She was fiercely academic. She was unapologetic about her goals and her global view and she- and I grew up in a small community in Southeastern Ohio enduring a time when there weren't a lot of role models for young women going out and swinging for the bleachers in fields that were predominantly male and I remember reading that book Blackberry Winter by Margaret Mead and thinking you know it's possible. All of this is possible, so it gave me an insight beyond my little world. It gave me an insight beyond the borders of the United States and for my gender perspective, it kicks open a significant door for me. 

 

Molly Ness

Well and my hunch is that Margaret Mead who you say was so unapologetic about her goals has really helped you shape and create an organization that is unapologetic about- your passion that you feel to end book deserts I so appreciate your time. I really appreciate your work that First Book is doing. I know listeners will be directed to my website which will link to you guys, so that we can increase book access through the amazing programs you provide. Thank you for joining us today.

 

Kyle Zimmer

Thank you so much. We really appreciate being included.

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