Book Bonding ; Why Aren't Children Forging Stronger Connections with Literature, despite a National Emphasis on Reading?

Article excerpt

You'd expect to see children's books flying off the shelf.

Reading is being emphasized in this country as never before. The Bush administration is rolling out its $5 billion Reading First initiative. The president and the first lady are both making young readers a personal cause and a top national priority.

But the flurry of excitement over "Harry Potter" seems to have been the exception. There's an abundance of good books out there, experts say, but children just don't seem to be connecting with them enough.

Parents who don't read themselves, teachers who are too busy to learn about the wealth of literature that's available, and school budgets that don't permit informed teachers the luxury of purchasing such books anyway - these are among the explanations for the gap between kids and literature.

After all, say many of the experts, with the enormously expanded entertainment possibilities available to today's children, unless the adults around them really work to get the right books into their hands, the reading habit has little hope of grabbing hold.

A new report from the Matawan, N.J.-based Book Industry Study Group, sales of children's books are down by 7 percent - from $1,954.2 million in 2000 to $1,816.2 million in 2001. While the report depicts stagnation throughout much of the industry, the drop- off in young readership seems particularly alarming.

The irony, say some observers, is that the downturn comes when there is a richer field of reading material for children than ever before.

The industry churns out about 5,000 new children's titles a year, at least a few hundred of which are widely acclaimed as excellent. While many of these titles are fiction, there are also a large number of quality nonfiction works - biographies, books on outer space or historical subjects - that would seem ideal both for classroom use and independent reading.

Some blame the grown-ups. "It only reflects what's happening in the adult population," says Michael Cader, creator of publisherslunch.com. "We're reading less, we're less compelled by reading."

But there's also a failure to channel relevant information to the people - parents and teachers - who need it most, says Leonard Marcus, a children's book author and critic based in New York.

"There's a disconnect between all the talk about literacy and the lack of resources for people to find out about the books that already exist," he says.

Any children's bookstores nearby?

He points to the disappearance of children's bookstores. At their peak, in the 1980s, there were about 800 in the United States, many of them staffed by people who had worked in libraries. Today - due to the rise of large chain bookstores - there are only about 200.

Becky Anderson, owner of Anderson's Book Shops in Chicago, does about half her business in children's books. But Ms. Anderson is not encouraged by the consumer response she sees.

"It's incredible what's available today," she says. "We're being offered translations of so much literature from other countries. Old favorites are coming back into print." And yet, she finds, most teachers and parents are too busy to investigate the possibilities for their children. "People aren't looking hard enough. Kids need to read more, to be exposed to better literature." As a nation, she feels, "we're missing the boat on this."

And of course, it's not just children's bookstores that are disappearing. Budget cuts are also thinning the ranks of school librarians, the professionals perhaps best placed to funnel the right books to the right children.

"Librarians are already on the lookout for new books," says Theresa Borzumato, executive director of school and library marketing for Random House Children's Books in New York. With the many demands teachers have on their time, "we have to be very selective and find creative ways to let them know about our new books. …