The gift shop at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is the only place to buy new books east of the Anacostia River.  Image by Ranger Nate Johnson used with permission.

If you want to buy a book east of the Anacostia River, the lone literary oasis is the compact gift shop at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. On the other side of the bridge, there are more than two dozen bookstores offering new, used, and antiquarian titles.

You probably know large swaths of Wards 7 and 8, east of the Anacostia River, are food deserts. Did you know these communities are also book deserts? Although there are numerous cultural and artistic institutions east of the river, the lack of a bookstore impedes the intellectual growth of the community, especially young children and their parents.

What is a book desert?

Pioneering researcher and New York University Professor of Childhood and Literacy Education Susan Neuman defines a book desert as a “community or neighborhood where there are few to no books available for parents to read to children or for children to read on their own.”

Bookstores bring an important social and intellectual presence to communities, but books are also a valuable practical commodity for young families.

In the absence of bookstores east of the river, there are a number of re-modeled and reconstructed branches of the DC Public Library. Of the city’s 26 branch libraries, 7 are located east of the river, 6 currently open, with Capitol View in Far Southeast closed for renovations until this fall. Deanwood is a multi-purpose space and Parklands-Turner is located in a strip mall on Alabama Avenue SE. The four stand-alone branches are Anacostia, Benning, Bellevue, and Francis A. Gregory in Ward 7's Hillcrest community.

Despite the library building new and architecturally award-winning branches, not everyone in the community feels welcome, Neuman discovered in her research. “We also found despite the wonderful library there, the poorer in the community were often hesitant to use it, due to concerns about library fines or issues related to privacy.”

It's worth noting that the DC Public Library doesn't charge fines or fees for children's items. But someone unfamiliar with the library might not know that.

Image by Dan Henebery.

Book deserts set children up for failure

The impact of Wards 7 or 8 not having bookstores on childhood development in the area is profound, says Neuman. “Children lack an awareness of print; they have limited experience with books which sets them up for failure even before entering kindergarten; books enhance children's vocabulary, and without them, children are likely to have limited vocabulary, which is tied to kindergarten readiness; elementary school success, and even high school completion.”

Other urban communities, such as the Bronx, face deep book deserts, but DC’s desert stands out to Neuman. “What was particularly concerning was the lack of access during the summer when schools are closed, and other resources such as child care was limited to enable children to have access to stimulating activities.”

To get books in front of the eyes of children and parents, Neuman says the effort needs to be robust. “Children need to see books, in grocery stores, dollar stores, barbershops and nail salons, because children learn to read by seeing their families read or by seeing it modeled on a regular basis. The libraries are doing a great job, but there is something special about owning a book and calling it your own.”

The DC Council wants more books in childrens’ hands

To provide citywide equal access to books, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen introduced Books from Birth, an initiative led to help families receive a free book each month until a student turns five years old, in 2015. The program launched the next year in partnership with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. It is part of the DC Public Library’s (DCPL) ongoing Sing, Talk, and Read program to help parents and caregivers in the District build print rich home environments for their families,

By registering with DCPL’s Books From Birth, every child under five receives a free book each month. Each newborn has the potential to receive more than 50 books by the time they age out.

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen reading to local children at this year's East of the River Book Festival. Image by Courtney Davis used with permission.

According to data provided by the library, 46,749 children are eligible for Books from Birth, with 22,956 children having participated since February 2016. Of the 22,279 eligible children in the District’s target areas (Wards 1, 5, 7 and 8), 67 percent have participated since February 2016. So far 2,777 children have graduated from the Books from Birth program. Nearly 150,000 books have been mailed.

Measured by zip codes, Wards 7 and 8 have enrolled nearly 6,000 children, almost a third of the city’s overall participants. Zip code 20019, which is in Ward 7, has enrolled 2,364 children, more than 11% of the total rate, 20020, in Ward 8, has 2,109 participants, accounting for more than 10% of the city’s total participation rate and in 20032, in Wards 7 and 8, 1,504 children participated, nearly 7.5% of total citywide participation.

In its first thirteen months, DC’s Books from Birth program has outpaced similar jurisdictions across the country.

An author in a book desert

When Dr. Courtney Davis, a resident of Historic Anacostia, worked with pre-K and kindergarten students at an elementary school in Ward 8, she “discovered they needed a resource that could make a connection between the local community and the alphabet, including their prior knowledge, everyday experiences in the community.”

She visited several libraries to borrow resources but had difficulty finding materials for younger students with visual appeal. Like teachers before her, Davis created the resource she needed: a rhyming children’s book called “A” is for Anacostia that is now quite popular.

Author Courtney Davis with DC Public Library staff at last year's East of the River Book Festival. Image by Courtney Davis used with permission.

To distribute the book, Davis participated in local book festivals and sold copies through neighborhood civic associations. Copies have been sold at the Frederick Douglass house for years. “I could not be limited just because there were no stores in my local community, “ declares Davis, who secured distribution with Politics and Prose, Busboys and Poets’ 14th Street location and Sankofa Video and Book Store near Howard University.

Bookstores equal critical access to learned behaviors. Davis maintains, “It is critical to employ the habits of a reader. Readers are surrounded by words, small ones, big ones, multisyllabic ones and colorful ones that create rich stories that invite your imagination to wander. Unfortunately, many young readers do not have in-home libraries with their own favorite books in my community.”

Beyond authoring children’s books, Davis founded the East of the River Book Festival, now in its fourth year and similar in scale to the Literary Hill Bookfest, to be held at Rocketship Rise Academy on Saturday, October 14 this year.

In my next post, I will explore the last bookstore east of the river, what it would take to open a bookstore and what the absence of a bookstore means for adult writers, journalists, authors and the community at-large.

Correction: The first version of this post implied that one impetus for the Books from Birth program was to “remedy any apprehension about the hidden costs of using the library.” That was not an official reason for starting the program.