Food banks & literacy groups to distribute 150K children’s books across Canada this summer

Literacy groups and food banks across Canada are coming together for the second summer in a row with plans to distribute 150,000 free children’s books across the country.

Read On Canada! is a coalition of 16 non-profit organizations, including the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation, First Book Canada, Harvest Manitoba and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, whose goal is to assist with children’s literacy during the pandemic.

The coalition first formed around May 2020, after libraries and schools had been closed down across Canada for weeks. Read On Canada! ended up distributing 140,000 books that summer.

Canadian families have now weathered an unpredictable school year, under constant threat of a classroom outbreak, sudden extended closures and digital learning due to the pandemic.

“Families are definitely exhausted [this year],” said Ariel Siller, CEO of the Canadian Children’s Literacy Foundation, in an interview with CBC Books.

“At least 1 million children in Canada had below grade level reading before the pandemic. The whole story hasn’t been written yet, but there is evidence that children are falling behind and there will be significant efforts required so that kids get the skills they need, particularly around literacy development.”

Publishers are donating about $1 million worth of brand new books for the program, including titles like Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner, The Long, Long Line by Tomoko Ohmura and Fern and Horn by Marie-Louise Gay. 

So far, 75 local food banks have signed up for the program and are in charge of distributing the books to families. Some banks include books in food packages, and others have set up a table of free books for kids to peruse while their parents shop for groceries.

It can be empowering to children to [read about] other people having experiences similar to their own, navigating it and coming out stronger on the other side.– Ariel Siller

The goal is to make the program available nation-wide. As of now, about 80,000 books have been sent out to 11 out of 13 provinces and territories. The coalition is still working on reaching Saskatchewan and Yukon.

Introducing children to reading early and often is beneficial in multiple ways, said Siller.

“Some families say, ‘My baby is so little, why is it important to read for them?’ It’s one of the best ways to develop the child’s language skills,” Siller explained.

“All that language development and storytelling, provides children with new vocabulary and language to describe how they experience the world. Building relationship with peers, navigating conflict, dealing with frustration — those tend to be themes in children’s books.

“It can be empowering to children to [read about] other people having experiences similar to their own, navigating it and coming out stronger on the other side.”

People can visit the Read On Canada! website to access reading resources, including word puzzles or a Q&A with author and astronaut Chris Hadfield. They can also donate funds to help mail the books across the country.

CBC Arts gets an inside look at Chris Hadfield’s debut children’s book, The Darkest Dark. 3:09