Teaching and Reading in a Book Desert

By Jarred Amato

Imagine a future where all children are passionate and proficient readers. It’s possible, but today many students, especially those living in communities affected by poverty, do not have access to high-quality, diverse books that engage and excite them as readers. You might call these schools and communities “book deserts.”

On Wednesday, March 21, 2018, a group of educators from across the country came together to discuss book deserts, how they affect children, and what might teachers and students do together to increase access to books. Read on to learn from teachers who are addressing book deserts in their schools and communities.

What is a book desert?

It might seem straightforward: a book desert is a place with limited access to books. However, the group raised many variances in how book deserts present themselves in schools and classrooms. Together, the group co-constructed a definition based upon each of their unique experiences and perspectives.

Host Jarred Amato began by sharing that in the neighborhood in East Nashville where he teaches, students and parents do not have access to a library, bookstore, or other places to purchase and read books. After reading an article in The Atlantic, “Where Books Are All But Nonexistent,” which cites statistics and paints a picture of book desert communities, he knew his students could identify. Researchers cited in the article say this about book deserts: “When there are no books or where there are so few that choice is not an option, book reading becomes an occasion and not a routine.”

Veronica Dougherty, who teaches high school English in New Jersey, shared that many of her students’ parents work two jobs and so she knows it’s tough for them to find the time to read with their children at home. Home can be a place where students lack access and opportunities to read.

Molly Castner, a middle school teacher in Wexford, PA, teaches in a more affluent community and so access to books isn’t an issue, but access to high-quality, multicultural texts is what she thinks about. She teaches students from other countries, including Pakistan, Korea, and India, and shared that “nobody understands one another.” She shared, “In my school, book desert refers to a lack of culturally relevant texts and not enough mirror books for students to see themselves in.”

Gregory Bowman teaches at a newcomer school in Guilford County, NC that serves students who have just recently immigrated or fled to the US. Fortunately their school has had a lot of books donated. However, they don’t have enough books that are both the appropriate reading level and intellectually rigorous. She shared, “My students have been through war, and have lived on their own, and are pretty much adults, but they’re having to read these baby books because of their reading level and lack of English proficiency. It would be a great joy to find books that matched their intellectual interests and their reading level.”

Lastly, Melissa Gentile, a psychology teacher in Bridgeport, CT, shared that a large portion of the school library’s research books have disappeared as construction gets underway to convert the library into a media center. In the process, her students have lost access to essential scholarly resources and informational texts. For her, a book desert is a place that lacks access to books, both fiction and nonfiction. It also begs the question of whether students still need access to hard-copy books in a time when so much is online. (See “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens” for more on this.)


Involving students in eliminating book deserts

As the conversation shifted from defining the problem of book deserts to finding solutions, a wonderful theme came about: Get students involved!

In 2016 when Jarred first connected the book desert issue to his students’ experience, he decided to approach the topic with his students through project-based learning. He presented his sophomores with the issue and the following guiding questions:

  • What are book deserts?
  • Why are book deserts harmful?
  • Why do you think book deserts exist?
  • What can we do this year to solve this problem?
  • What ideas or suggestions do you have?
  • List any places where you can currently buy or get books.
  • List anywhere you go in the community that would benefit from more books.

The students researched the issue, wrote persuasive letters to local celebrities and community members asking for book donations, and they developed mission and vision statements for their project. They set up book stands in community centers and YMCAs, and eventually started a book club. The project, called Project LIT Community, has continued to grow and now has reached students and educators in roughly 100 classrooms across the country.

Several educators shared examples of involving their students in book drives for other children who need them. Kate Lewallen, a school librarian in Knoxville, TN, ran a book drive in conjunction with the school book fair so that students could choose which books the school would donate to the Knoxville Empty Stocking Fund. In Cassy Niblack’s third grade classroom in Mobile, AL, students are running a fundraiser next month to purchase books for a classroom in Belize.

Molly Castner pointed out the importance of and opportunity to teach empathy through this work. In getting her students involved, she has said to them, “You know how excited you were to get a book? Let’s pass that on and do that for somebody else.”

When asked about how his students have reacted and been impacted by this work, Jarred said it has created bonds and sense of belonging that’s hard to describe. Students feel proud as readers, and as human being who have made a difference.” Yes!! We love this.


What are other solutions to help students access books? What else might we do together?

Jarred reminded the group that “Every school and every community has challenges, they just may look different.”

Cassy Niblack teaches at a magnet school where access to literature isn’t an issue, however she shared that some students just don’t have the desire. This challenge prompted her to research and begin using textmapping, which is the practice of creating a scroll of the book to allow students to see the text in its entirety. It’s a pre-reading and comprehension strategy that helps students access and engage with the text.

Regarding another contributing factor to student access, Molly brought up that some educators aren’t comfortable teaching certain books that could stimulate gritty or sticky conversations. She proactively invites community members, in one case a lawyer, to join her class for certain discussions where a particular real-life perspective could support the classroom discussion.


Resources and ways to get involved

Project LIT Community is a growing literacy movement and national network of dedicated educators and students who work together to increase access to diverse books & spread a love of reading in our schools and communities. Follow Project LIT and Jarred Amato on Twitter, and participate in their biweekly #ProjecLITchat on Sundays at 7pm ET / 6pm CT.

To see examples of textmapping, follow Cassy Niblack on Twitter.

To identify books that might meet your students’ needs, two resources were suggested: American Association of School Librarians and National Network of State Teachers of the Year’s (NNSTOY) social justice booklist.


We are grateful to Jarred for hosting this wonderful chat! We hope you can join one in the near future. Check out the chats coming up soon.