Library of Congress announces $200,000 in literacy prizes

Literacy organizations from Oregon to Turkey are among the winners of this year’s Library of Congress Literacy Awards, announced Saturday at the National Book Festival in Washington. The prizes are funded by Washington-based philanthropist David M. Rubenstein.

Winner of the $150,000 David M. Rubenstein Prize.
Winner of the $150,000 David M. Rubenstein Prize.

Room to Read was named the winner of the top award, the David M. Rubenstein Prize, worth $150,000. Room to Read works to increase literary and academic success in Africa and Asia. The group has helped construct more than 1,800 schools, established more than 16,000 libraries and distributed more than 14 million books. Gender equality is a special focus of the organization’s work.

Erin Ganju, CEO and co-founder of Room to Read, said via e-mail that winning the Rubenstein Prize will allow her organization to reach thousands more children: “We will be able to continue to scale our programs, which provide quality reading materials in local languages; safe, child-friendly learning environments; teachers trained in effective literacy instruction; community engagement activities; and academic and life skills support for girls who are at risk of dropping out of school.”

SMART won the $50,000 American Prize.
SMART won the $50,000 American Prize.

Start Making a Reader Today (SMART) won the $50,000 American Prize. Founded in 1992, SMART works with 9,500 young students in 250 schools and Head Start programs across Oregon. The organization currently has 5,000 volunteers, who regularly read with children from pre-K through third-grade to build their interest in books and confidence in reading.

“It’s very much a community engagement,” said SMART Executive Director Chris Otis. “It’s the kind of volunteer experience that once you do it and you experience the ‘SMART magic,’ you develop a relationship with that child. It’s the kind of experience that really gets in your system.”

SMART also gives every participating child two books a month to take home and build his or her personal library. “In the course of 23 years, we’ve given away more than 2 million books,” Otis said.

The Mother Child Education Foundation (ACEV) in Turkey won the $50,000 International Prize. The organization, the largest of its kind in the country, works to improve education and literacy among people of all ages.

In reaction to the news, ACEV foundation CEO Ayla Goksel said via e-mail, “The International Prize will enable us to invest in programs providing literacy training through Web-based and mobile technologies to improve literacy levels in Turkey and help bridge the digital divide.”

The Library of Congress launched the three literacy awards in 2013. Almost 90 applications were submitted this year from more than 30 countries. The winners were chosen by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington in consultation with an advisory board. The prizes will be presented at a ceremony in Washington in October.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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