Insights and Analysis

The Book Effect

April 24, 2019

By Morgan Belveal

At this moment, news feeds are flooded with stories of disparity and division. On the heels of the “varsity blues” college admissions scandal, we are reminded that the gap between privileged and disadvantaged children is wider than ever. Tension between cultures is mounting, and the global cooperation of nations is at an all-time low. These realities are hitting low-income countries hardest, where resources are too scarce to conciliate diverse populations. While there are many efforts to address the world’s biggest challenges, key problem-solvers are overlooking a powerful and proven tool—books.

Here’s the truth: despite all we know about privilege, a child’s passion for reading better predicts their academic success than their family’s socioeconomic status. Let me say that again: a child’s passion for reading better predicts academic success than their family’s socioeconomic status. Children who develop a love of reading are more likely to read better, write better, build their vocabulary, and comprehend more in their reading. Sharing books in a household and talking with children about these stories helps children be safe and successful and supports their emotional, behavioral, cognitive, and social health. People who develop a love of reading at an early age see lifelong benefits and are better able to care for themselves and their families as adults. Even more, reading children become reading adults who are more likely to be employed and able to contribute to local economies.

The benefits books offer to children and families ripple beyond the home and into the communities where they live. When children discover themselves in the pages of books, they begin to find confidence in their own identity and their potential to contribute to society. At the same time, books that introduce children to the immense diversity of identities in the world can cultivate empathy, tolerance, respect, and a richer understanding and acceptance of other cultures. The unique ability of books to act as both mirrors that reflect our own identities and windows that introduce us to the experiences of others makes them a valuable tool for the growth of collaborative communities and tolerant societies.

But creating diverse books for diverse populations of children is impractical for market-driven publishers and cost-prohibitive for community-based NGOs. In places that are remote, war torn, or postconflict, books and reading are often not a priority. As a result, there is today a massive book scarcity in parts of the world that leaves millions of teachers and families without one of education’s most critical tools, and millions of children without the opportunity to fall in love with the characters in colorful storybooks.

To unlock the enormous multigenerational and societal benefits of reading, we need to work with communities to spark demand. At the same time, we must support the development of book ecosystems: networks of authors, illustrators, and translators able to produce high-quality children’s books that reflect local languages and cultures. Finally, in a digital age, we can and must use the power of technology to create equitable access to the transformative power of The Book Effect.

This op-ed originally appeared, in slightly different form, in Thomson-Reuters Foundation News.

A new film, shot on location in Cambodia and Laos, explores how The Asia Foundation’s free digital library, Let’s Read, is building sustainable book ecosystems in Asia. The film debuted at the 2019 conference of the Comparative & International Education Society, in San Francisco.

Morgan Belveal holds degrees in children’s studies, international educational development, and human development and is a program specialist for Let’s Read. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related programs: Books for Asia
Related topics: Let's Read


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