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First Books for Future Readers

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First Book Canada's Pongapalooza

We think of Canada as a fairly literate, even literary, nation: “Thank God there are still people — Canadians, we call them in the industry — who read,” said American novelist Gary Shteyngart at last year’s International Festival of Authors. And yet almost half of all Canadian adults (48 percent according to the Canadian Literacy Network) have low literacy skills.

Last month, First Book Canada, a national non-profit that provides new books to programs serving children in need, announced another milestone reached in its mission to tackle the literacy deficit head on. Courtesy of their publisher partners, they are distributing a further 31,000 brand-new books to schools and programs working with children from low-income families. With this latest distribution they are for the first time sending books not only to kids in need in Ontario but across the country.

Literacy means knowing how to read but the term is applicable to more than just words. Literacy in relation to money — or, more specifically, in relation to debt — seems to be the education hole most on our collective consciences just now. But becoming literate in anything, from global markets to home economics, family health to baseball stats, requires having the tools with which to approach the information and the confidence to use the tools. The Internet provides us with access to all the facts and figures in the world, but it’s a lot of white noise if you don’t know how to “read” it. The confidence to approach vast blocks of information comes from education and access. Which starts in childhood, with a book.

The link between access to books, opportunity for education and self-esteem was the guiding principle of former Lieutenant Governor of Ontario James Bartleman when, in 2004, in response to staggering rates of child suicide in native Northern Ontario reserves, he initiated an annual drive to collect lightly used books to donate to libraries in “our own Third World.” Bartleman identified books to be an antidote to despair and a simple, material solution to a complex psychological and societal problem. Taking the same principle to the publishers instead of to the public, First Book Canada solicits donations of brand-new books for its giveaways.

There’s a proverb (the oldies are the best) that says “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Putting a book in a child’s hand isn’t about giving a child a book, it’s about fostering interest and engagement for the future. “By introducing their own books into their families,” says Tom Best, executive director of First Book Canada, “we can start to change the pattern of [low-income children’s] lives, making time for good books, allow them to just enjoy reading on their own and hopefully start them on a life-long love affair of reading and books.” Creating a culture of books and reading as second nature, not as a chore.

I’m sure everyone reading this piece (if you're on this site in the first place I'm preaching to a well-read choir) has happy early book memories to share. For me it’s my family’s complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, which became a member of my family half a decade before I did. Those books and their Children’s Britannica companions became whole worlds for me as a child. I played with them, traced images from of them, was permitted to use them to have any hope against the grown-ups at Trivial Pursuit, all the while (and unbeknownst to me) educating myself on how to use an index, categorize and prioritize information, and follow the breadcrumbs of linked ideas eons before we had invented Five Clicks to Jesus. Those terrifying-looking books were never intimidating because they had always been available to me. I can’t imagine it otherwise.

First Book distributed more than 250,000 books to those that need them most in the latter half of 2011 and is on target to distribute 1 million books in Canada over a two-year period. To help in their endeavour First Book has organized a burst of physical activity in celebration of a sedentary one. At Pongapalooza on May 8, Toronto authors and book types will put down their pens and fight to the (metaphorical) death with paddles instead. Thirty-two teams representing almost every publishing company in the GTA will be there, each one headed up by an author captainAlyssa York, Brian Francis, Julie Wilson, Noah Richler, Kyo Maclear, Robert Rotenberg, Frank Viva and Sean Cullen among them.

For each of us who bemoans the fact that we have too many books or too much to read, there is a child who has nothing at all, and this is a tragedy. First Book Canada is going from strength to strength and this is happy news for Canada’s sad literacy statistics. You can help — and have a giggle — by signing up to spectate at Pongapalooza here.

Becky Toyne is a publishing consultant specializing in manuscript development and book promotion. She is a regular books columnist for CBC Radio One and Open Book: Toronto, a freelance publicist for many of the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s literary award and fundraising programs, and a member of PEN Canada’s Board of Directors, where she serves as Events Chair. One or two days a week Becky works as a bookseller at Toronto indie Type. You can follow her on Twitter: @MsRebeccs

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