In a small, two-bedroom apartment in Corona, Calif., Trinity Santos, 5, reads her hardcover copy of “Green Eggs and Ham” again and again. She never tires of the Dr. Seuss classic, sometimes reading it to her 3-year-old brother, Joshua, said their mother, Diane.
Life is a struggle for the Santos family. Diane worked as a waitress before her children were born, and the family of four lives on the $35,000 that her husband earns as a phlebotomist. They don’t have much.
But the children own the four dozen books in a small, homemade bookcase, courtesy of First Book, a nonprofit organization that combines market forces and philanthropy to get new books into the hands of poor children to encourage early reading.
“I didn’t have books at home when I was growing up in the Philippines,” said Diane Santos, 33, who connected with First Book through a local parent education program she attended shortly after Trinity was born. “I learned the most important thing is reading with them, talking to them, introducing new words.”
First Book, founded in the District in 1992, has grown into a sophisticated national enterprise that gave away more than 15 million new books to low-income children and teens in 2015. But as financial troubles have deepened in households nationwide, First Book has turned to items well beyond books, this year adding winter coats, nonperishable snacks, toothpaste, fleece blankets, underwear and other goods to its charitable arsenal.
“There’s a profound need that is really unprecedented,” said Kyle Zimmer, 55, a onetime corporate lawyer who formed First Book with two friends after she volunteered at a D.C. soup kitchen and realized that many of the children had no books at home.
Even as the economy recovers from the housing collapse of 2008, many families continue to falter. The number of homeless children in public schools has doubled since before the recession, reaching a record total of 1.36 million nationwide in the 2013-2014 school year, the most recent one for which data is available.
More than 215,000 teachers, libraries, health clinics, after-school programs, shelters, faith-based groups and others — more than five times its 40,000 users in 2012 — are now registered to use First Book. Any provider or program is eligible if at least 70 percent of the children served come from low-income families.
First Book’s focus has expanded beyond literacy as teachers and caregivers have made it clear that their students face obstacles that are getting in the way of reading, Zimmer said.
“If kids need a snack to get through the morning, we want to fix that,” she said. “If absenteeism goes up in the winter because kids don’t have winter coats to go to school, we want to fix that. We’re about equal access to education, and we’re trying to remove barriers.”
To get a sense of demand for items besides books, First Book partnered with a grocery chain earlier this year and bought a bulk order of heavily discounted fruit snacks and granola bars, items with a long shelf life. Within 24 hours, 10,000 were claimed, she said. Forty-five refurbished notebook computers, at a cost of $150 each, were made available to its network; they were gone in 32 minutes.
Sharlene Scott, an intervention coordinator at an elementary school in Gardena, Calif., spends her own money on school supplies for her students, most of whom are eligible for free lunches. Through First Book, she has cut her bill in half. “It’s been a really awesome thing,” said Scott, whose school also gets enough books from First Book to give two or three free ones to each of its 800 students during the school year.
First Book operates an online book bank, which collects donated books from publishers and gives them away; recipients pay only shipping costs, at about 55 cents a book.
For publishers, the book bank solves the dilemma of being stuck with unsold books returned from retailers. Usually, those books are either resold at a lower price to a secondary market — known as “remainders” — are donated or destroyed.
“We can’t keep the inventory forever. It’s expensive to house books in warehouses that aren’t selling,” said Susan Katz, who stepped down in September as president and publisher at HarperCollins Children’s Books and now teaches publishing at Pace University. “It’s awful to think there are children in the U.S. who would be thrilled to get these books while a publisher is faced with shredding them.”
Publishers do donate unsold books to schools, libraries and elsewhere, but fielding requests and shipping to individual organizations is inefficient, said Angus Killick, vice president and associate publisher of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. “We are overwhelmed with donation requests,” he said. “First Book is a go-to for us, just because of that consolidation. It’s one-stop.”
And by donating to First Book, publishers can realize a tax benefit while also introducing their books to new audiences they wouldn’t normally reach.
First Book also has been able to commission inexpensive, paperback versions of popular children’s books for resale at rock-bottom prices. In those cases, First Book places a large, nonrefundable order, which saves the publisher marketing costs and removes the risk that it will be stuck with unsold books. Those books, for sale on First Book’s marketplace, join an expanding line of other heavily discounted items such as food, clothing and school supplies.
English teacher Justin Hofstetter is relying on First Book to help him stock the library he is building at Alta Vista Charter Middle School in Kansas City, Mo., where 95 percent of his students are eligible for free lunch.
“When you hear charity donations, you figure it’s going to be super beat-up books or books you’ve never heard of,” Hofstetter said. “But First Book had all the Newbery Medal winners, everything on the Coretta Scott King [Book Awards] list, all brand-new, and I paid less than half I would have paid on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.” (Amazon.com founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
First Book has warehouses in Pennsylvania and Tennessee, which it supplements with donated warehouse space around the country.
For disadvantaged children, owning a book they select for themselves is “magical,” said Melissa Spradlin, executive director of Book’em, a small nonprofit organization in Nashville that gets books from First Book.
“When you borrow books, they have to be returned, they’ve been used by somebody else, they’re not new and that’s fine — I love libraries,” she said. “But there is a huge difference between owning a book and borrowing a book. There’s something magical about reading a book as many times as you want because it’s your favorite, sharing it with your family and your siblings. And that’s what First Book makes possible.”
As it has grown, First Book also is influencing children’s publishing, using its market power to encourage the industry to create more books with characters and themes relevant to the racially and ethnically diverse population it serves.
First Book persuaded Penguin Random House to publish a bilingual English-Spanish version of Eric Carle’s classic book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” When First Book purchased 140,000 discounted copies of the book and they sold quickly on the marketplace, Penguin soon introduced the bilingual version in its retail line.
“We are trying to do things that move the industry,” Zimmer said.
First Book is also trying to cultivate and support new authors whose work is more relevant to its students than the “Dick and Jane” series.
This year, First Book placed an order for 10,000 copies of “Boats for Papa,” the first book by Jessixa Bagley, a 35-year-old biracial author and illustrator. The story is about a young beaver who lives with his mother but longs for his missing father.
The hardcover version of “Boats for Papa” can be purchased for about $14 online; the paperback through First Book sells for about $3.
“I was so completely touched,” Bagley said. “The fact that these books went to children that might not have access to new books like mine, and these were kids who would really resonate with the materials, was just wonderful.”