A Brief History of Reading is Fundamental

Remy Lai, the award-winning creator of Pie in the Sky makes her middle-grade graphic novel debut, Pawcasso, about the unexpected friendship between the loneliest girl in class and the coolest canine in town. "It's tail-wagging entertaining!" —Kelly Yang, New York Times bestselling author of Front Desk

U.S.-raised children: is there any memory in the world better than getting a RIF book? (Okay, maybe it’s tied for first with the book fair or Scholastic book orders.) RIF, or Reading is Fundamental, is probably the country’s preeminent free book provider. Started in 1966, it’s been organizing efforts to get books into every child’s home for more than half a century. Its origins may surprise you, though.

Whose idea was it?

An educator, of course! It’s always an educator or a librarian (and librarians are a kind of educator). Margaret McNamara, the story goes, was visiting a Washington, D.C., school for a read-aloud, and she was shocked to learn that a number of families did not own any books. They may have visited libraries and borrowed books to take home, but there were none that just lived there all the time. She wanted to do something about it. But that takes money, more than what she might have socked away in a savings account — that wouldn’t go far if she wanted to get a book in the hands of every child.

Conveniently, McNamara had some high-up connections to people with more money than she had personally. Her husband was U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and he in turn got her in touch with Arthur White, a wealthy philanthropist, and Lady Bird Johnson, whom you may have heard of, because she was the first lady. Her husband, Lyndon B. Johnson, was, y’know, the president. With a grant from the Ford Foundation and those big players behind her, Mrs. McNamara founded Reading is Fundamental. Their flagship program, Books for Ownership, is probably what you think of when you see RIF.

If you’re reading Book Riot, you are probably onboard with the idea that all children should and have the right to read. It’s easier to do that when you have access to reading material. The great thing about Books for Ownership is that they don’t just believe in getting books into homes, they see the value in letting children choose the books they read.

You may be surprised to learn that RIF doesn’t just send out books to any and everyone. They prioritize low-income communities and areas, and they actually act as more of a granting organization and shopping site. Any organization — a school district, public library system, or nonprofit — can apply for a RIF grant, but they must commit to holding a “book celebration” and letting kids choose what they read, not handing out the same book to everyone or pre-selecting books for specific groups (e.g. one book for boys, one book for girls, or one book for all 5th graders). Organizations must also commit their own funds to the program as well. RIF offers books for sale at $3 each and does grants in a matching model. So if you have 100 children who needs books, you need $300. RIF will grant you $150 and you make up the rest.

That requires funding on RIF’s part, of course, which they get from a variety of sources, just like the way they started off with money from the Ford Foundation and private investors. Until 2011, they also received federal funding, but Congress and President Barack Obama eliminated that subsidy. Now they rely a bit more on donations from individuals than they might have before that.

Okay, but are these, like, good books?

Seeing as how it’s been a minute since I was in school, I was curious how (and if) RIF was responding to all the renewed calls for diversity in children’s literature. As it turns out, they have a national board of advisors to help them continually take stock of what books they’re offering (and what other resources they are creating), which includes author-illustrator Don Tate. They also signal boost the work and resources done by other groups, such as We Need Diverse Books, Embrace Race, and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. On just a quick glance at the books they offer, I saw authors as diverse as Allen Say, Duncan Tonatiuh, Randi Pink, Jacqueline Woodson, Ozge Samanci, and Mariko Tamaki. So yes, they are, like, good books. And there were more than 15,000 total books on their list, ranging from preschool to 12th grade. In that sense, RIF believes anyone who can’t vote is a child — that is, when they say “all children have the right to read,” they mean anybody who is school-aged deserves to take part in their program.

Importantly, RIF does not view itself as a replacement for school or library book and literacy programs, but rather another piece of the puzzle, a partner. That is why they include libraries as partners in administering the RIF program, though, as I mentioned, community organizations and schools can also apply for the grants. Libraries provide virtually unlimited access to new and changing materials, collections that are continually growing and evolving to meet kids’ and families’ needs and interests, not to mention community programs and personalized support in reader’s advisory and reference interviews. But they also see the psychological and emotional benefit of handing a child a book that they get to keep FOREVER. It’s a both/and, not either/or, type of situation.

Other programs that seek to put books in children’s homes include Imagination Library, founded by national treasure Dolly Parton; First Book; PJ Library and PJ Our Way, founded by philanthropist Harold Grinspoon; and Reach Out and Read.