A nationwide effort launches to turn ‘book deserts’ into literary oases

HUD Secretary Julian Castro
HUD Secretary Julian Castro greets Anthony Mares, 4, in the boy’s Estrada Courts home in Boyle Heights in September. A new program will bring free books to residents of public housing like Estrada Courts.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The National Book Foundation is teaming up with publishers and the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Education to make “book deserts” a thing of the past.

The literary organization, best known for presenting the annual National Book Awards, joined its partners Thursday announcing the Book Rich Environment Initiative, which will donate books to residents of public housing nationwide.

The National Book Foundation is working with publishers to make sure the books donated are appropriate for a wide range of ages and reading levels, and that they reflect the diversity of the communities participating in the initiative. 

Penguin Random House, the world’s largest publisher, has committed to donating 200,000 books for the project. Two of the other five major publishing companies, Hachette and Macmillan, have also promising to provide books for the initiative.


Four million children and their families live in HUD-assisted housing, which is often located in neighborhoods without nearby bookstores or libraries.

The Book Rich Environment Initiative will distribute free books to schoolchildren and families in these “book deserts” starting in March.

The Urban Library Council and the Campaign for Grade Level Reading are additional partners. After the first book giveaway to housing residents, the Book Rich program will work with local libraries to provide community programming. The National Book Foundation will be a key part of those efforts, and with helping to connect these communities with authors. 


“The National Book Foundation is committed to making sure all people, especially young people who are building their identity as readers, have access to books,” David Steinberger, chairman of the group’s board of directors, said in a news release. “By collaborating with these key national partners, we are able to build the Foundation’s reach and further our mission of making sure that books matter, and that they matter everywhere.”

Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, said the initiative extends work the organization began with schoolchildren.

“To date, the National Book Foundation has given away over 30,000 books to young people through BookUp, our free afterschool reading program,” Lucas said. “Through the Book Rich Environment Initiative, we will expand that to over 300,000 books by the end of 2017.”

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