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Literacy begins at home. Children who have access to books are at an advantage when learning to read, so a coalition that includes the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the National Book Foundation is trying to ensure that children who live in public housing have lots of books in their communities and in their homes. NPR's Lynn Neary has the story.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation, wants to promote reading and literacy as much as possible. So when she heard that a program aimed at giving free books to kids in public housing was getting underway, she figured her organization could help.
LISA LUCAS: I, maybe stupidly, was like, I can find books. And at that time, I think our goal was, like, a million books. We're going to find a million books, and we're going to give them out to kids in public housing authorities. That was definitely ambitious.
NEARY: Lucas didn't find a million books. But by the time the program launched last year, the National Book Foundation had persuaded publishers to donate 270,000. This year, Lucas upped the ante. Eight publishing companies donated more than 400,000 books. Maria-Lana Queen, the HUD liaison for the program, says some of the books will be available to kids as soon as they walk into public housing.
MARIA-LANA QUEEN: We are putting books in common spaces that residents hold, for instance, meetings where families walk in to get supportive services, community facilities, public housing authority, tenant admissions offices, so that every door in a community - that's our goal - that a family walks in with children, they see books and have access to these books.
NEARY: But Queen says the idea is also to get books into homes. So local housing authorities give books away to kids and their families at events that often have a catchy theme.
QUEEN: Books and barbecue, books and beaches, books and pizza - whatever it takes to get families engaged. And families and children are able to obtain a permanent portfolio of books that are brand new, diverse, multicultural, bilingual, that they can see themselves in and that they can develop a joy of reading.
TERESA COLUCCI: You want a book?
NEARY: Recently, in the nation's capital, DC Public Library set up a table at a street fair a couple blocks away from a public housing complex.
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NEARY: A school band marched, and local entertainers performed on a nearby stage as the librarians helped pick out books for kids and their parents. Teresa Colucci (ph), who says her children love to read, found a book for her son and was looking for one for her other kids.
COLUCCI: Do you see one that Vanessa might like? She's 6. And then I have - Eliseo (ph) is 2. And they love "Pete The Cat."
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Oh, so definitely grab a "Pete The Cat" for the 2-year-old.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, he loves it.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah.
NEARY: The librarians brought 400 books to the fair, and a couple of hours in, they had only 100 left.
TRACY SUMLER: So now we know 400 is not enough and that we might need to bring 500 to the next one.
NEARY: Tracy Sumler is the DC Public Library outreach manager. As the sounds from the stage got louder, we headed over to a nearby recreation center to talk. She says these book giveaways complement what a library can do.
SUMLER: Parents work. Sometimes it's very hard for these kids to actually get into a library, so we want to make sure that they have the easiest access to books. And so they can get these free books and start collecting their own little library.
NEARY: These giveaway events, says the National Book Foundation's Lisa Lucas, are just the beginning.
LUCAS: We come in. We do a big event. And then we also create a connection with the library. You can sign up for a library card and whatever literacy resources are active in that community. And it's not just the book itself, it's also the creation of connections. And the books - that's the jumping-off point.
NEARY: Right now, books are being given away at 37 sites in 19 states. Partners in the Book Rich Environments initiative hope one day they will be in all 50 states. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.