Research shows that lack of access to good books is a key reason why kids from low-income and disadvantaged families fall behind their peers in literacy skills. Children from such families typically own fewer books and other reading materials at home.

Complicating matters further is the fact that many of the popular books these kids do get exposed to don’t feature characters of color, or aren’t written by authors of color. Minority children and those who don’t speak English as their first language need to see characters like themselves and their families reflected in books to relate to the stories and to boost their self-confidence.

One Book at a Time is Madison Public Library’s solution to these literacy challenges. This program, which began a few years ago, primarily reaches low-income, black and multilingual young people from birth to high school age, as well as those for whom English is not a first language. These children and teens are given the opportunity to choose brand-new, high-quality books at school and community events to help them begin building a home library, and to jump-start their interest in reading. One Book at a Time also makes inclusion a top priority by selecting diverse books, as well as books in Spanish and Hmong.

“We start early, planning what high-quality books we will purchase that children will love and get excited about,” said Madison Public Library Youth Services Manager Tammy Pineda. “We work with library media specialists from Madison Metropolitan School District to get a feel from them on what books kids are talking about and excited to see at school.”

In 2017, the library gave away more than 2,700 books, and the number grew to 3,400 in 2018.

Funding the One Book at a Time initiative also allows the library to support community partners such as early child care centers, Head Start, Madison School Community Recreation (MSCR) after-care programs, school family nights and other community events, such as the Elver Park West Fest.

Books are purchased through multiple wholesalers to keep costs as low as possible, averaging $2.55 per book. High-interest books can cost $5 each, with bilingual Hmong/English titles averaging $13.30 each.

In 2019, the library team plans to increase world language offerings alongside featured authors of all identities.