January 2014 | Christabelle Noronha

More than by the book

The United States leads the world in many respects, but not so in education. Surveys show that in terms of student literacy and ability in mathematics, the country has started lagging behind its first-world peers. Worse, it appears that the current generation of Americans is receiving education of a lesser quality than the previous one. But solutions are in plain sight and this is where organizations such as First Book are making a difference.

Based in Washington, DC, First Book is a nonprofit enterprise that works with corporations, book publishers and community organizations to deliver access to books for children in need.

The Tata group has been a staunch and steady supporter of First Book’s efforts in the United States and Canada since 2007. As a result of the group’s support, more than 290,000 books valued at about $1.5 million have been provided to programs targeted at children in need. About 180 employees from 12 Tata companies have been involved in this ongoing endeavour, reaching out to beneficiaries in nine American states and two Canadian provinces.

A prime mover and one of the leading lights of First Book is Kyle Zimmer, who cofounded the organization in 1992 and is currently its president. In this interview with Christabelle Noronha, she speaks about the organization and its partnership with the Tata group.

Illiteracy is not a typical problem that comes to mind in first world countries. What are the factors that have made this a significant social issue in the United States of today?
I am a lawyer by profession and have worked with some big names in the corporate and social sector. It was during this time that I began mentoring a child at a local shelter in Washington, DC, and I became aware of how children from low-income backgrounds have almost no access to books. I had started engaging with local volunteers who were committed to improving opportunities for low-income youth when I learned about this dramatic need.

These children grow up in homes without books, go to preschools without books, to schools with no libraries, and live in neighbourhoods with no access to libraries or bookstores. So it is not surprising that they grow into adults deprived and forever limited in their journey towards learning and employment. Irrespective of culture and economics, studies have shown a profound difference between children who grow up in a literacy-rich environment and children who do not.

The malaise is so widespread that illiteracy is a significant social problem today, even in a developed economy like that of the United States. A recent report ranked the country behind 16 other economies, including Poland, Estonia and South Korea, in terms of student literacy, which is the ability to read, integrate and evaluate texts. While the reasons for this are complex, the issue is partly because the United States did not invest in early-childhood education at the rate at which it was needed. Also, books are very expensive in the country. Worst hit are low-income families; millions of children in need spend hours in community programs and classrooms with little or no resources.

What role do you see First Book playing to fill this void?
We started First Book in 1992 as a social enterprise to support the entire educational system — formal and informal — by distributing free and low-cost books to schools and community organizations that serve children from low-income families. Since 1995, when I took over as president of the organization, First Book has distributed more than 100 million books to children in thousands of communities across the United States and in Canada.

We have come this far because of the committed support we have received from our partners, of which the Tata group has been a significant one. We have worked with many publishers, corporates and nonprofit groups to bring books to the communities that need them. With schools facing drastic cuts in funding, the critical factor in making books available in classrooms and homes is pricing. Retail prices were simply too high for most schools to afford. Children’s publishers, used to absorbing the cost of unsold books, have to hike prices in order to be profitable. Unsold books ended up being destroyed or sent to landfills, which was a whole other problem in itself. It was a vicious cycle and one that First Book needed to address.

We offered to be the conduit between the publishers and communities in need, and we got started by creating two new models. We set up a subsidiary called First Book National Book Bank, with a centralized database of teachers, mentors and community organizations. We checked credentials and borrowed warehouses where publishers could drop off books. This addressed two important issues: it got millions of books out off the landfills and city dumps every year, and it brought new resources to programs that would otherwise have had no access to them. Publishers were more than happy to respond.

This was the first step; the second was to be able to control the inventory. While First Book managed excess inventory contributed by the top 90 imprints in the United States and Canada, books came and went through the system depending on what the publishers dropped off. So we had to go to the publishers with a concrete business offer: if the publishers would lower the retail prices of the books, First Book would buy at a high volume on a non-returnable basis, removing their risk. That was the beginning of First Book Marketplace, a website that now offers 5,200 different titles, including, fiction, nonfiction, engineering, math, poetry and college preparation guides.

First Book’s efforts have helped increase diversity in publishing. With a push from First Book, publishers are producing more books that are bilingual and multicultural, increasing their reach. Publishers see that there is a new culturally diverse market out there that they can tap through First Book Marketplace. Moreover, since the books go to children mostly through schools, it has enabled these schools to do new things from a curriculum standpoint.

Who are your biggest partners and where does the Tata group come in?
First Book’s success has always come from its work with the private sector and, as we scale our work to a global level, we are reaching out to corporate leaders now more than ever before. That is how the Tata companies in North America became part of a partnership with First Book, back in 2007.

The cause of education being of prime importance to the Tata group, this is a perfect partnership. There is financial support, which is incredibly important to grabbing the next rung of the ladder, so we can reach out to more kids, but our work with Tata has been bigger than that.

For Tata in North America, the First Book partnership has grown into a group-wide community initiative, much larger in scope than just funding the program. Tata employees get involved in reading programs, which are organized at select preschools in the communities in which they operate. It is a wonderful, inspiring thing for children to have someone sit down and read with them. The Tatas have come in with such joy and personal commitment. It’s unusual and heartwarming and it says a lot about who they are and what they do.

The Tata involvement did not stop there. Group companies also came on board to help First Book design its technology platforms so that the organization can focus its resources on reaching the next child. The Tata group may not be First Book’s largest partner, but the connections are inherently strong. Our relationship with the Tata group has transformed the way we do things at First Book.

Does First Book operate in countries outside North America?
In India, First Book has reached out to Pratham, a nonprofit organization that works at educating underprivileged children. We are building First Book-India with an emphasis on Indian stories for Indian children. We are simultaneously reaching out to children, teachers and tutors in other countries — including Kenya, Nigeria, Haiti and South Africa — but we need good partners to make all of this a reality.

Over these last two decades, our organization has made much progress; in fact, we expect to have provided more than $1 billion in books and resources by this time next year. But it is a long and hard struggle and there is much more to be done. I think we have come far enough to see the potential of where we can actually go. I would welcome the wonderfully committed employees and leaders of the Tata group around the world to help us build our systems to elevate education worldwide.

First Book snapshot
What: First Book is an award-winning social enterprise that brings books to children from low-income families. It is a partnership-based organization that works with corporations, nonprofit groups and publishers to achieve its mission. First Book has an international spread and reaches more than 25,000 registered organizations and schools, benefitting children of all ages.


Where: First Book is based in Washington, DC, USA. It has distributed more than 100 million books to schools and community organizations serving children from low-income families in thousands of communities in the United States and Canada.

Why: Kids need books. Research confirms that lack of access to books is a debilitating obstacle to literacy development. However, most children from low-income families grow up without books. One US-focused study found that although middle-income neighbourhoods have an average of 13 age-appropriate books per child, low-income neighbourhoods average one book for every 300 children. Millions of children in need across North America spend hours every day in resource-poor classrooms and community programs. To address the disparity, First Book created highly innovative and efficient models to improve the quality of education these children receive.