The Literacy Competition (Soapbox Series, 1)

Speak now, or forever hold your peace. Just about two weeks ago, Colleen Mondor ( Chasing Ray) observed that within the kidlit portion of the blogosphere, there have been a number of issues grabbing our attention … some of which are worth discussing more. In this post she proposed that July 20 open a week to “write about the aspects of children’s and teen publishing that frustrate [us].”  This is a chance to stand on your soapbox. So we have pulled out ours …

The Reading Tub, Inc. started out as a hobby. It offered a Stay-at-Home-Mom with an18-month-old child a chance to match her love of reading and books with her need for a creative outlet and a chance to use her brain.

Over the last four years, I have learned a lot.  Back then, I couldn’t spell H-T-M-L. Now I can actually speak a little geek. Back then, I thought that people passionate about reading and literacy would be a collegial group. We all want to raise our children to be successful, and reading is critical to that success. When I decided to seek 501(c)(3) status and grow the literacy side of the Reading Tub’s mission, I expected to be part of a community that had ideas to share about reading with kids and helping them become independent readers. Boy, was I naïve.

I am shocked by the number of times someone has told me “you’re my competition.” Ironically enough, these aren’t product vendors, booksellers, authors, or book reviewers. They are other non-profits. Did I miss something? Aren’t we working toward creating a world that gives our children a chance to chart any course they want?

Pause. I want to say – and I will do it in capital letters if I need to – that for the most part I have found what I was expecting: people who put kids first and who want to work together for the greater good. Now continue…

I view reading as a public commodity. We need to be able to read in order to function in daily life, whether it is looking at the cans on the grocery shelf to pick potatoes (not tomatoes) or buying a car.

I have always believed there are different paths to learning to read. We are individuals. Our learning style, motivation, and likes/dislikes are different. There is no one-size-fits-all model to reading, just is there is no one, best program for dieting or breaking your smoking habit. The trigger  (that “thing” that finally got you to make the lifelong change) came from inside. Whatever approach you took worked for you …but it didn’t necessarily work for your sister.

If you want to lose weight or quit smoking, you have many choices. Companies create products – and compete with each other – to help you meet your goal. When you are talking about commercial products, you are talking about a business competition. For-profit companies are creating products to meet consumer demand based on the demographic forces of the day: studies on obesity, our obsession with being thin, studies on the health effects of smoking, etc.

There is a learning-to-read segment, too. Companies create products because they perceive consumer interest: NLCB demands on schools, parental pressures to get kids to read at early ages, academic studies on reading ability, etc. There are tools (some of them highly effective) that can help children learn to read. Some kids don’t need extra assistance, others do. The tool that worked for Sally, may not work for Betty. What turned Ben into an avid reader may have no effect on James. So yes, you need choices.

But that is commercial enterprise. When you are talking about literacy as a societal issue, though, there should be no competition. Yes, non-profits compete for dollars, too. A well run non-profit is like a commercial enterprise, except that the “profits” go to the stakeholders, not shareholders. I understand that. With more dollars, we can do more things. I get that. But we’re more than that.

Non-profits with literacy missions help the members of our community find success. We approach literacy from different angles, even within the venue of children’s literacy. We have different approaches, different audiences. For example, the Reading Tub, Inc. promotes family reading (reading out loud) and facilitates getting books to at-risk readers to help them succeed. Read Aloud Virginia promotes reading out loud (family reading) and works directly with at-risk readers and their families to give them the tools to raise successful readers. Same goals, different models.

Just as there is no one, best solution for helping someone live a healthier life, there is no single solution for promoting literacy and turning kids into successful readers. You will never reach everyone by yourself. Some day, some time, you will meet someone that doesn’t connect with your idea, approach, or answer.

So I’ll close with these questions to my “competitors.” What happens when someone who musters every ounce of courage comes to you for help? Can you offer them alternatives that might better meet them where they are? If they don’t buy into your approach do you just turn them away and wish them good luck so they don’t go to a competitor? How literate is that?!