Growing Up in the Book Desert

It’s the difference between hearing 45 million words by age four, versus 13 million; it’s an absence that’s giving rise to what literary-education researcher Susan Neuman calls the ‘print gap’. The difference between 45 million words and 13 million words may be the difference between literary nourishment and malnourishment. Because of the lack of literature available to low income areas, children will struggle to improve their reading ability.

“When you and I talk to our children, we’re talking in a baby-talk-like way—we’re not using sophisticated language.” Neuman tells the Atlantic. “But even a very low-level preschool book like a Dr. Seuss book has more sophisticated vocabulary than oral discourse. So it’s really about the print gap and not the oral-word gap.”

Unlike the oral-word gap, which can be supplemented to some degree by parents talking to their kids more, the print gap shrinks when children are exposed to novel words, courtesy of books. A study of four neighborhoods done by Neuman and Donna Celano, “Access to Print in Low-Income and Middle-Income Communities“, found that bridging this gap becomes a huge issue when the number of children in a neighborhood outnumbers the number of children’s books by the hundreds. While upper and middle income neighborhoods had “thousands” of age-appropriate reads to choose from,”no young adult titles were available in either of the two lower income neighborhoods. These data indicate that the equation was dramatically skewed in favor of children from middle-income communities.” Impoverished cities suffer a huge disadvantage. The class rift in literacy is largely what spurred “Too Small to Fail” and other similar government initiated projects. This is what’s concerning researchers like Neuman and leading these cities to be dubbed ‘book deserts’.  

Roughly half of LA’s grade and middle schools face mounting budget crises and libraries without librarians or adequate resources.

Neuman recently published a new study that narrows in on book deserts across the U.S. It should come as no surprise that the cities with the greatest disparities in wealth and income are also home to the greatest disparities in access to children’s literature. The poorer neighborhoods of Detroit, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. topped the charts. Each neighborhood in these cities had about 2% of businesses dedicated to books for children ages 0-18, a very low percentage. “Book stores in the U.S. are becoming a rare bird, but [in places like this], there are no bookstores at all,” says Neuman.

These stats aren’t helped by the fact that many of these families are statistically unlikely to go to the library, or order books online. Growing up in a book desert can have harmful long-term effects, Neuman suggests, such as vastly stunting academic scores. 

“What we realize is that children are out of school more than they’re in it,” and the education system needs mending just as much as resources outside the classroom. After wrapping up their research, Neuman and her team installed book vending machines to see if access alone would bolster reading rates. Within several weeks, 27,000 books had been dispensed, suggesting access, not apathy, is the root of the issue, and the beginning of a solution.


All images courtesy of LA Times.