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The Plan To Give E-Books To Poor Kids

President Obama announced an initiative to give e-books to low-income students while visiting the Anacostia Library in Washington on Thursday.
Shawn Thew
President Obama announced an initiative to give e-books to low-income students while visiting the Anacostia Library in Washington on Thursday.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear what do you see?

I see a blue horse, a purple cat, and a new program — unveiled today by President Obama — with one goal in mind:

To put good books in the hands of low-income kids.

More specifically, $250 million worth of e-books available to young, low-income readers — free. The effort will work through a new app, being developed by the New York Public Library, that has the buy-in of all the major publishers.

"Children should not be unable to get reading materials because their parents don't have money," says Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster, which has offered up all of its titles for kids from 4 to 14.

Candlewick Press, publisher of the popular Judy Moody series, is also opening its catalog.

"We really, really care about getting books to all kids," says Candlewick CEO Karen Lotz. "Kids who can't afford them. Kids who are in rural areas and not near bookstores."

If there's a fly in the ointment, it's one little letter: e.

Publishers aren't giving kids a quarter of a billion dollars' worth of free books. They're free e-books. Which require two things:

A good Internet connection — at least at school if not at home — and some sort of device to read them.

And that's a challenge. According to the Census Bureau, in 2013 nearly 40 percent of households that earned less than $25,000 a year didn't have a computer. Forty percent. And fewer than half had an Internet subscription.

The Obama administration can't simply give a computer or tablet to every kid who wants to read an e-book. But it has made it a priority to get broadband into just about every public school and library by 2018.

The nation's chief technology officer, Megan Smith, says part of the plan involves "really leveraging libraries as a third place; if families don't have access to devices at home, the children can get to the library and [get in] that habit."

To help make that happen, the White House is also running a program in more than 30 cities and counties to give every student a library card.

As for the e-book titles that will be available through the new program, it's a growing list that includes Dr. Seuss, Twilight and, of course, Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.