Calling All Harry Potters, Bilbo Baggins and Katniss Everdeens

So come on all you Bilbo Baggins, Captain Ahabs, Harry Potters, Anne of Green Gables and Katniss Everdeens. I know you are out there and we need you to win this one. Because how this story ends affects us all.
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Books have always played a gigantic role in my life. In a lot of ways, books helped me decide what kind of person I wanted to be. When I was a kid my mother used to tease me about how seriously I internalized books. One night I evidently came into the kitchen and, deeply troubled, announced, "I just don't think I have it in me -- I just couldn't have beaten those giant spiders like Bilbo did." While these may be pretty heavy thoughts for a 10-year-old, the truth is that great books call these kinds of questions for all of us. Do we have what it takes to step up in the face of adversity? Will we be willing to take action against great odds? To be heroes?

But then we grow up and get busy. The grand notions of these books fade and the challenges we face seem less dramatic. We face board meetings rather than giant spiders and earnings reports replace the Battle of Waterloo.

But I believe that today we are facing our own Lord Voldemort -- and one that demands action.

Right now, there are more than 32 million children in the U.S. growing up where books are not just a luxury -- they are virtually non-existent.

In this country we are so proud of, almost 45 percent of our kids are growing up in families termed "poor" and "near poor." These kids are, in large part, excluded from the power of books. Books are not readily available -- in their homes, at school or in their neighborhoods.

For most of us, that is almost impossible to fathom. While that may be a shocking revelation, here's one that isn't: Kids need books to learn to read and to love to read. Studies confirm: Access to books is a key to developing reading skills, and the number of books in the home directly predicts reading achievement. Yet EVERY DAY at First Book, the nonprofit social enterprise I lead, we hear from educators right here in the U.S. that the books they receive from us are often the very first books their students own.

The repercussions are everywhere. More than 80 percent of low-income fourth graders score at "below proficient" reading levels; and an estimated 1.2 million students drop out of high school every year -- one every 26 seconds. Poor reading skills impact health outcomes, future education, job opportunities and more. For those who prefer an economic perspective, McKinsey & Co reports that our failure to elevate the education for children in need results in the economic equivalent of a permanent recession.

The good news is this is a problem we can solve.

I launched First Book to tackle the barriers that are keeping books out of kids' hands. Part of the problem is the price of books. Premium picture books have an average retail price of $18.00. By its very nature, the publishing industry is designed for those who can afford to purchase books, not for families at the base of the economic pyramid.

We realized that by aggregating the educators and programs serving kids in low-income families, we could lower the cost of books, not only bringing brand new books to a whole new demographic, but also creating new content to meet their specific needs. Our focus is to open access from both sides: to give educators serving families in need with unprecedented access to books -- and to provide the publishing industry with the opportunity to reach a part of the market they have never before been able to serve. We all win.

This week our team at First Book is celebrating an enormous milestone: we are now working with over 150,000 classrooms and programs serving children from low-income families - who are now connected with free and low-cost brand new books and educational resources for children ages zero to 18!

The bad news: We estimate there are more than 1.3 million classrooms and programs serving kids in need.

But here's what we know:

We know that books and educational resources -- including great digital products - can breathe life into programs and classrooms and literally transform the lives of children all over the country.

We know that when a child learns to read, it can start to break the cycle of poverty for a family.

And we know that with the collective power of publishers, corporations, foundations, educators, researchers and a host of supporters -- there is both the understanding and the will to address this opportunity gap.

Together, we have the ability to bring the power of books to every child -- and help them uncover the mysteries of science, elevate democracy, support economic and social mobility and most importantly, unlock their inner heroes and a brighter future.

To put this in Hobbit terms, we are holding our sword, "Sting" -- and the future of our story is hanging, waiting to see if we will step up.

What are we waiting for?

So come on all you Bilbo Baggins, Captain Ahabs, Harry Potters, Anne of Green Gables and Katniss Everdeens. I know you are out there and we need you to win this one. Because how this story ends affects us all.

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