Our chance for all Illinois kids to have books at home

There’s a literacy crisis plaguing the state’s under-resourced communities — rural, urban and suburban alike. Many thousands of Illinois kids show up for the first day of kindergarten without the basic reading skills they need, very often because they’re growing up in homes where there are no books.

Governor JB Pritzker’s proposed 2024 budget contains a modest and little-noticed provision that has the potential to alleviate that crisis in just a few years — and to help ensure that all Illinois kids have the literacy skills they’ll need in the information age.

The fundamental problem is that, all across the state, children are growing up in counties or neighborhoods where there isn’t a single bookstore, or any place that sells books. Many Illinois kids live far from the nearest public library.

But a wealth of research shows that kids who grow up with books at home do better in school, and have a better chance of living healthy, productive lives. Book access is especially critical in the pre-K years, when 85 percent of brain development happens.

The solution is obvious: make books available to all Illinois children. Of course, we need a way to deliver the books to all those kids, and to pay for it.

Enter Dolly Parton. The legendary singer-songwriter’s Imagination Library program mails free, brand-new books to the homes of kids ages 0-5, at a cost of about $2 per book. In the 28 years since Dolly started the program, she’s shipped more than 200 million books to kids around the world.

The governor’s 2023 budget proposal would make Illinois the 19th state — including California, Indiana, and Ohio — to open the Imagination Library program to all of its youngest citizens. It would allocate $1.6 million this year, then increase the funding gradually over five years, to $6.6 million in 2028. The state funds would be matched 50-50 by local funding, raised from private donors.

That means in five years more than 500,000 Illinois children could be receiving a free book, delivered to their homes, every month until they reach kindergarten age.

Passing the provision would have a profound impact on every single one of those kids. Since Dolly started the Imagination Library in her childhood home of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, in 1995, it has been repeatedly and thoroughly studied. In rural and urban settings, in local and statewide sample sizes, in pairing with other literacy programs and in isolation, researchers have examined the program. Their conclusion is unanimous and universal: it works.

A 2021 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics showed that kids enrolled in the Imagination Library program closed the kindergarten readiness gap with their wealthier peers less than two years after they started receiving books. An Ohio study showed that eight out of 10 low-income families enrolled in the Imagination Library were reading to their kids more than they had before they started getting books.

There are many, many more. Studies that show access to books at a young age makes kids less likely to drop out of school or be drawn into the criminal justice system. Studies that show the program works across racial, economic and gender status.

My organization, Open Books, has been the Imagination Library partner in Chicago — local nonprofits administer the program, recruit the families, and raise the funds — since 2018. We’ve enrolled nearly 10,000 kids in that time; today we’re delivering books to about 6,000 families on the city’s South and West Sides — the Chicago neighborhoods where book access is most limited.

The families who’ve enrolled describe it as life-changing; they rave to friends and neighbors about the excitement their kids feel when their books come in the mail every month. Passage of Gov. Pritzker’s proposal would enable us to instantly double our enrollment, at a cost to the state of only $150,000 this year.

The other 35 Imagination Library programs in Illinois, from Chicago to Springfield, from Rockford to Cairo, could add twice as many kids as well. The program could easily be designed to channel the state’s funding to the communities where the need is greatest. Then, as we raise additional funding from private literacy champions around the state — an easier proposition with the prospect of doubling donor impact — the dissemination of free books to Illinois’ neediest kids could grow by an order of magnitude.

That would change those kids’ lives. And change Illinois for the better.

Eric Johnson joined Open Books as executive director in November 2018.
Open Books is a nonprofit that provides literacy experiences for tens of thousands of readers each year through inspiring programs and the creative capitalization of books. Funding for their work comes in large part from the sale of donated booksat their award-winning Pilsenand West Loop stores, as well as online and at special events. Eric lives in Chicago with a wife and two daughters, all avid readers.

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