Since Dajsha Cisneros first started working with a Literacy by Third Grade reading tutor, she has earned straight A’s on her vocabulary quizzes. Just one misspelled word on a recent test made the first-grader’s eyes fill with tears.
The King Elementary student likes to read picture books while her peers prefer comic books. She’s even the classroom librarian, in charge of making sure the books are neat and tidy on the shelves.
But when schools are closed over the summer, Dajsha and other elementary-aged children in Fresno County may not have access to enough books to read, with fewer than three available to each child on average.
That number would make Fresno a book desert, according to research by Susan Neuman, a professor of childhood and literacy education at New York University. Neuman first coined the term “book desert” to refer to areas where there are less than five books per child available, particularly during summer when most school libraries are closed.
During the school year, Fresno Unified has an average of 15 books per student, a number the California School Library Association categorizes as “making progress.”
But like most districts, Fresno Unified doesn’t keep its libraries open during the summer. Some summer school classes have classroom libraries that are available to students, but for all others, the only way to get a book is to buy or borrow one.
For students at King Elementary, the nearest place to do that is the West Fresno branch library, located a few blocks away next to Edison High.
In total, the Fresno County Public Library has just over 286,000 children’s books in its catalog for approximately 98,000 elementary-aged children in the county. That leaves an average of 2.9 books for each child.
There is no breakdown of books by branch available, but library spokesman Rocky Vang said that any book in the library’s catalog can be requested at any branch.
In 2017, 18 percent of Fresno Unified fourth-graders scored proficient or better in reading, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Just 14 percent of eighth grade students in the district are considered proficient, while only 1 percent are considered advanced.
The lack of access to books is worse in West Fresno, where there are no county library branches or bookstores, apart from a space shared by the Teague Elementary library and the county library.
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The few shelves at Teague are not nearly enough, according to April Henry, executive director of Highway City Community Development.
“I think the CVS (pharmacy) has some romance novels if you’d like to count that,” Henry said.
By her estimates, the area defined by Central Unified’s borders west of Highway 99 is home to some 40,000 people. And despite having a higher population than places like Reedley and Exeter, West Fresno receives less attention and fewer resources, Henry said.
The nearest public library branch is anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes away for someone who relies on the bus system for transportation, something Henry learned when she mapped the route as an experiment.
Henry is spearheading a push to open a community center in West Fresno that will also house a branch library. The plan is to break ground this month and open by the end of the year.
West Fresno kids who go to Central Unified do have access to the district’s libraries, which have an average of 12 books per student during the school year.
Over the summer, the district keeps five school libraries open with varying days and hours of operation, with the help of grant funding. The total catalog for those libraries is about 53,000, leaving an average of 3.3 books per student in the area.
As part of her community work, Henry said that she has worked with teenagers in a literacy program. They read a collective 225 books over the summer, or over 10,000 pages.
“They don’t not want to read,” she said.
For children who lack access to quality reading material, the effect can be devastating, Neuman found.
“There’s a lot of research now about the word gap and families who talk a lot to their kids versus families who don’t,” she said. “But spoken language is colloquial language. Kids learn vocabulary from children’s books.”
Kids who don’t read over the summer are also subject to the “summer slide,” a well-documented phenomenon of learning loss found when students return to classes after a summer without academic activities. A 2009 study found that, over time, low-income children end up several reading levels behind their more advantaged peers due to the summer slide.
That may also put their cap and gown in jeopardy.
Literacy by Third Grade, an Americorps VISTA program, focuses on K-3 students in part because kids who don’t read at grade level by the third grade are less likely to graduate from high school.
DeJone Watts, a Literacy by Third Grade program leader at King Elementary, said poverty, trauma, plus a lack of interest and parental involvement are all barriers to kids taking an interest in reading.
The program places community volunteers in classrooms, asking them to commit for three to six months during the academic year so students have a familiar touchstone. That helps them get excited for reading.
Some volunteers like Stanley Jones go above and beyond the program’s requirements. Jones volunteers at King three times a week.
“I got a good education, and I’m retired now,” he said. “If I help one kid, I’ve done my job.”
There is no shortage of need: In Fresno County, 44 percent of students meet or exceed standards for English/language arts, according to the latest state test score data. That is below the statewide mark of 48 percent of students meeting or exceeding English/language arts standards.
When looking at book availability, Neuman’s studies focused on bookstores over libraries. She found in her research that the marginalized communities who could most benefit from libraries often fear them.
She said not to underestimate the hesitation to put down a name and address at a public institution, even a seemingly innocuous one like a library.
“Libraries are doing a fabulous job,” she said, referring to outreach efforts nationwide. “But these families are particularly risk averse.”
Undocumented immigrants might have privacy concerns, Neuman said, while low-income families worry about the fees associated with a late book.
Henry said she understands how this fear could affect the West Fresno population, but believes that her nonprofit has put down enough roots in the community to have established an atmosphere of trust.
“A library is a trusted resource. You can just sit on the floor and read,” she said. “It’s a win for our community.”
Fresno County libraries also host programs specifically for immigrants, Vang said. However, he said the citizenship classes are sometimes sparsely attended, attributing that to the readily available information on the internet.
With so few bookstores in Fresno County (one big-box retailer, one independent bookstore, plus a handful of places to buy used or religious books), The Bee looked at data from the county library system to estimate how many books might be available per child.
Fresno is at another disadvantage because bigger cities in California also have their own library systems that operate alongside county libraries. The city of Los Angeles, for example, has more than 20 city library locations in addition to approximately two dozen county libraries.
Amazon is an obvious answer to why there are so few bookstores around, but Neuman said it’s unlikely that high poverty areas are turning to the online retailer over brick-and-mortar stores.
Oasis in the desert
Some literacy efforts have tried to put books directly in the hands of Fresno elementary students. Reading Heart, founded by 9-year-old Danay Ferguson, has collected hundreds of thousands of donated books that are passed out to kids before summer break.
Neuman’s ideal solution for book deserts is for convenience stores and drugstores that already exist in underserved neighborhoods to start selling books.
“I’d like to see books in more attractive locations, with the impulse items,” she said. “Places you would not expect to find books.”
However, Neuman also said publishers need to start printing more affordable books, as many people can’t spend money on a new, $16 children’s book.
“The effect on a child of having a brand-new book is magical,” Neuman said.
Neuman said one of the greatest success stories to come out of her research is a bookstore that opened in a former book desert near Washington, D.C. Mahogany Books is the first bookstore in the area in more than 20 years, and focuses on books “by, for and about the African diaspora,” the owner said in an NBC report.
Neuman believes that bookstores in book deserts will attract customers in a “if you build it, they will come” kind of way.
Jean Fennacy, co-owner of Petunia’s Place in Fig Garden, said some of her most loyal customers live in the area, like a young boy who rode his bike to the store almost every week.
Petunia’s Place is the only independently run new bookstore in the Valley. Its focus is children’s books, although its catalog includes many thousands of books for all ages.
Fennacy said that a mainstay of community bookstores is hand-selling — asking kids what they like and matching them to books.
Science-fiction and fantasy books are popular among young readers, she said, but so are series books, because of the familiarity of the characters. Also beloved are books with strong female characters, as well as diverse actors, where kids can find themselves and their hopes and struggles.
“Kids need choice,” she said. “Choice is critically important to creating a reader.”
The number of books for children being published continues to grow, Fennacy said, and it’s sad that many may not have access to them.
“It’s really unfortunate for the community,” she said. “They’re missing out on some of the best writing for young people being published today.”
Aleksandra Appleton: 559-341-3747