10 million books and counting: How the AFT-First Book partnership is boosting literacy

10 million books and counting: How the AFT-First Book partnership is boosting literacy

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By Randi Weingarten, Kyle Zimmer

May 10, 2024

Books change lives, and this weekend, First Book and AFT will be giving away thousands in Miami in their partnership to get more kids reading.

If you need proof that books change lives, consider the encounter we both had with a boy when we gave out books almost a decade ago in McDowell County, W. Va., one of the poorest counties in the United States. As he clutched a book to his chest he declared, “I’m going straight home to put this in my library.” We asked him what other books were in his library. Bubbling with excitement, he said, “This is the first one!” 

Since then, the AFT and First Book have given away millions of books to thousands of children, educators and families—and just this week we gave out our 10 millionth book.

Why books? Reading is the foundation for all other learning. Reading well is an essential pathway to opportunity. And books can spark joy. But, like the boy in McDowell County, many kids don’t have books of their own. Too many families can’t afford home libraries, and educators don’t get funds for classroom libraries. Children need access to books, with characters that reflect their worlds and show them new ones, enabling them to develop a sense of self, foster empathy, and of course, increase their academic achievement.

Consider a program in Wichita, Kan., where we are working with third graders who are not reading at what is considered grade-level, so they are considered “at-risk” of falling further behind, dropping out of school, and missing out on career opportunities. With funding for school vouchers siphoning funds from public school reading programs, the teachers in Wichita turned to their union, the United Teachers of Wichita. With a grant from the AFT, they purchased affordable, brand-new books from First Book and set up one-on-one, after-school reading sessions over Zoom. 

The result: Once students were reading regularly, they gained nearly 10 percentage points on national reading tests when compared with other “at-risk” students. They also showed increased confidence and joy in their reading. 

Why physical books in the era of AI and smartphones? Research shows time and again that physical books—the tangible kind that you can hold in your hands and flip through the pages—is a cognitive catalyst for children’s development, setting them up for success in school and beyond. The mere presence of books at home boosts a child’s future literacy and problem-solving skills, surpassing even the influence of their parents’ educational background. A study from First Book Research & Insights, First Book’s research arm,  showed that with an infusion of diverse books into classrooms, reading assessment scores were three points higher than nationally expected averages, and collective reading time rose by four hours a week. 

Yet 13 million children in the United States are enrolled in school districts where libraries are understocked and understaffed, and 2.5 million are in districts with no library at all. To make it worse, book bans are on the rise, turning something that can be transformational for kids into a political football, despite the fact that most people don’t support the bans.

The AFT and First Book started our partnership 13 years ago and, since then, AFT local unions have eagerly gotten on the book bandwagon—more than 700 local AFT chapters in 41 states and four U.S. territories. We have given books to children, families and educators affected by wildfires and hurricanes, from Hawaii to Texas, Oregon to Texas. During the COVID pandemic, local AFT unions across the country hosted grab-and-go book distributions. We gave away books at vaccination clinics and back-to-school fairs to encourage in-person attendance. In Florida alone, where last year more books were challenged for removal than any other state, we distributed 25,000 books, including acclaimed books that have been banned in front of the state capitol building. 

Beyond books, we are dead serious about the teaching of reading. We have worked together to not just offer parents tips on reading with their children, but to create tools for educators grounded in the science of reading. We are both cosponsors of Reading Universe, an interactive, step-by-step guide to teaching reading for anyone who wants to help a child learn to read, including teachers, reading coaches, tutors, and caregivers. 

Like in a pre-kindergarten class in St. Louis, where a teaching assistant used an AFT grant to purchase books from First Book and set up time to offer parents tips for reading with their kids. Each week, the kids picked out a new book, and the parents came in and learned a new technique to engage their kids with the words on the page. The result? Even parents noted their reading skills were improving. 

Ten million books into our partnership, we’ve seen first-hand how infusing communities with books is a long-term investment in our kids, our schools, and our collective future. We believe literacy is key to opportunity, democracy, and our country’s future. So, we’re going to give out millions more books, until our kids’ biggest issue is a bookshelf too full, and a reading list too long.

Fedrick Ingram, secretary-treasurer of the AFT, will be in Miami on Saturday, May 11, at the Barry University/Adriana Dominican School of Education to give the keynote address during the commencement ceremony. Over 2,500 books will be given out for free afterward.


  • Randi Weingarten

    Randi Weingarten is the president of AFT - American Federation of Teachers.

  • Kyle Zimmer

    Kyle Zimmer is the President, CEO and Co-founder of First Book , an internationally recognized, award-winning, nonprofit social enterprise advancing educational equity for children in low-income communities.

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