World Literacy Day: Giving All Kids a Chance

Today is International Literacy Day. With more than 4 billion literate people in the world you might think we've prevailed in the fight for global literacy. But you'd be wrong. Today, one-third of the world's population is illiterate, and entire regions are suffering from severe book famine.

Publishers and authors have the ability to help solve one the world's most enduring problems for free, just by saying a few magic words.

Setting the Scene

For as long as we've been printing books, we've lived with a terrible inequity in access to the world's knowledge. As soon as you decide to apply ink to paper, you set in motion a wonderful, yet costly, chain of events: trees need to fall, presses need to run, trucks need to motor, shelves need to be stocked, and container ships need to steam.

In the developed world Adam Smith's invisible hand runs much of this publishing machinery without anyone thinking too much about it. Books flow in one direction, money flows in the other, and by and large, readers can access the books they need and want. In the developing world however, the story is very different. Years of underinvestment in infrastructure has resulted in poor roads on which trucks travel for days and only cover short distances. What arrives in remote villages are rarely books. As a result, in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, over 200 million children live in houses and attend schools without a single book.

What's At Stake?

A lack of literature results in limited access to the world's knowledge holds severe consequences. At a societal level, as Harvard Professor, Edward Glaeser's analysis of the link between education and income shows, lower levels of education directly correlate to lower health and prosperity in the long-run. To paraphrase the sentiments of New York Times reporter, David Brooks, books and education are inextricably linked. As Brooks notes, putting as few as 12 books into the home a disadvantaged child is as beneficial as sending that child to summer school and children that grow up in homes with books tend to stay in school longer and do better. Yet poor infrastructure in developing nations keeps hundreds of millions of children bookless.

In recent travels to Africa, it became clear to me that this literacy disconnect is a two-pronged problem: limited access to books poses the first challenge, and the quality of literature that reaches these parts is the second. During a trip to Ghana, I visited a classroom that appeared well-stocked with reading material; upon closer inspection, however, I realized it was more a collection of "traveler's cast-offs" than a scholastic library. The books included romantic novels you'd expect to see in supermarkets and a book titled "Utah's Heritage"- I challenge you to find someone who was inspired to read because of this book. Also in Ghana they have a horrible saying: "If you want to hide money from a Ghanaian, put in a book. He'll never find it there." After years without access to books, entire societies have begun to believe they simply will never read.

The problem is real. But what's the solution?

As it turns out, one solution resides in the United States' own back pocket: technology. Products like Amazon's Kindle -- developed for folks in the US to read in bed or on the beach -- address the needs of the developing world quite neatly: they don't use much power, they work well outdoors, and they piggyback on the already prevalent cell-phone networks in Africa to bypass poor infrastructure and allow books to get to children everywhere.

The Magic Words: "Let's send digital books to the developing world."

E-books -- as disruptive as they are -- create several exciting opportunities. For the first time, exposing children in developing countries to an abundance of the world's most engaging literature is possible. Digital books cost nearly nothing to distribute, and existing sales in much of the developing world are negligible. As Simon & Schuster CEO, Carolyn Reidy, puts it, "By helping children [in developing nations] read we can make a positive difference in their lives and in their communities."

Worldreader, the organization I co-founded in 2010, has already put e-readers into the hands of thousands of children across Sub-Saharan Africa, and the results are palpable: when children have immediate access to great books, they read more books -- in some cases over 100 more books!--in a year. Meet Kate, a high-school girl part of the Worldreader program in Ghana. Prior to Worldreader Kate had only read a handful of books in her life; today however, Kate has read hundreds of digital books and now aspires to be the most famous writer in the world.

Authors and publishers: YOU hold the key to unlocking literacy in developing nations. By making the decision to send digital books to the developing world, you can help expose children to the world's most engaging and motivating literature. Join the likes of other international publishers Simon & Schuster, Penguin Young Readers, Egmont Publishers, Jacaranda Designs (Kenya) and Smartline Publishing (Ghana) who have already donated several titles to help expand literacy and improve the lives of children everywhere.

Working together we can create a world in which children everywhere have the books they need, and change the world for the better.

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