The Children’s Book Bank: Bridging the Literacy and Diversity Gap for Local Kids

Though Portland is hailed as a literary hub, in reality, many homes don’t have books readily available. This is particularly problematic for children who need to read books and have books read to them in order to build foundational learning skills. The Children’s Book Bank (CBB) is a local nonprofit that works to bridge this literacy gap here in Portland by giving books to those in need. I spoke with Jocelyn Beh, development director, about the CBB and the need for more diverse children’s books.

Tell me a little bit about the mission of the Children’s Book Bank and the work you do.

The CBB’s mission is to get books to kids who don’t have them at home. Many homes simply don’t have books. They are seen as a luxury, and parents who don’t read themselves don’t see books as a priority for their children. To combat this, CBB gives quality books to children in need in the Portland area. Kids deserve to have books, and CBB provides a way for the community to come together to help provide this basic functional resource. Books are a foundational learning tool, and gaining exposure to books at home leads to early literacy skills and sets kids up for success in school and beyond. National data shows that in low income neighborhoods, there is only one book for three hundred children. In middle and upper income neighborhoods, there are thirteen books per child. We’re here to change that in our local community.

Often when we talk about diversity we think mostly about race. Can you talk about some other aspects of diversity you’ve encountered by working with the CBB?

As an organization, when we think about cultural diversity we are thinking about a whole range of issues: ability and disabilities; family diversity, including gay and lesbian parents, single parent households, and multigenerational homes; language diversity; biracial and multicultural diversity; and, of course, racial diversity.

We would love to see all these aspects of diversity represented in children’s books, but right now that’s not realistic. So CBB is focusing on racial diversity as a starting point. Seventy-five percent of the children we serve are from communities of color. We want them to see themselves reflected in books, especially the books we provide.

Why is it important that the disparity in children’s book publishing be addressed?

The state of children’s book publishing right now just isn’t realistic. The selection of books we have to offer doesn’t reflect our whole world, only a segment of the population. Kids need to see themselves and their families reflected in the books they read. It’s a point of validation. It is a way to feel like my life matters, my community matters, and there is value in my experiences. And as the characters in books serve as role models, diverse characters and themes help children relate to the world and feel connected to it. The more a child can relate to the characters, the more they will connect to the book, the more they will enjoy reading, the more books they will read, the better they will do in school, etc. Reading and reading diverse books is really a foundation for success.

And diverse books aren’t just important for children from underrepresented cultures. Children in dominant cultures need to see the reality of the world reflected in books because it gives them a way to experience other cultures vicariously. It increases their empathy for all of humankind, and it gives parents a way to talk about different lives that maybe aren’t right outside the door.

Often in children’s books, characters are anthropomorphized animals or inanimate objects. Do you view these books as diverse in that they are not predominated by little white children? Do you think they just sidestep the problem of diversity altogether?

Not necessarily. Language and perspective are still reflected in these kinds of characters and indicate dominant or diverse cultures. Even baby books that just have pictures are showing objects that are more familiar in some cultures rather than others. And really, we need more diverse authors writing all kinds of books, even just showing objects and animals. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, in the past twenty years, only 10 percent of children’s books have included multicultural content, despite the fact that people of color represent 37 percent of the US population.

To address some of these issues, last fall the CBB launched the A Story Like Mine project, a revenue- and awareness-building campaign to increase the availability of culturally diverse books and to give kids books that represent their lives. You can learn more about the Children’s Book Bank and how to help here.

Doing It Differently: The Pros & Pitfalls of Operating a Nonprofit

Last term, I found myself sitting in the boardroom of the PSU Foundation and discussing how to get a crowdfunding campaign up and running for one of our upcoming titles. After getting through all the technical mumbo jumbo, I inquired about the part of the campaign when donors receive gifts, and therein lay a problem. I was informed that because Ooligan Press operates as a nonprofit organization, we’re extremely limited in how we’re allowed to reward our donors—so limited, in fact, that it could mean serious trouble if we were to reward a donation with any object with a monetary value over $10. And when I say “trouble,” I’m talking IRS-knocking-at-the-door, full-out-audit trouble. This means our idea of rewarding donors with music-related prizes like concert tickets, music lessons, vinyl records, and CDs was a big fat no-can-do. Even giving out our own books as prizes was off limits.

This revelation made me realize that we’re operating under a different set of rules here at Ooligan, and it begged a question: what exactly does “nonprofit” mean for what the press can and cannot do? Because my first experience with these nonprofit regulations was one that severely limited our plans, I naturally assumed that the nonprofit tag was nothing but a pain in the neck—a necessary evil that we had to deal with. After doing more research, I realized my assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. Except for a few legal hindrances, the nonprofit tag allows Ooligan to exist in a way that really sets us apart from other publishers. Sure, the generally small profit margins and the necessary dependence on grants and fundraising aren’t ideal, but when you counter those issues with the many great opportunities that being a nonprofit makes available to us, it quickly becomes more than worth it.

Because we don’t have to constantly dwell on finances here at Ooligan, we have the freedom to truly stick to our mission statement and publish the books that we want to publish. Whereas most publishers strive to find a happy medium between the books they want to produce and the books that will sell, we’re lucky to be able to gamble on the titles that really speak to us. All of this freedom is quintessential to what we represent and strive to achieve as Oolies when, if we’re being perfectly honest, it wouldn’t be possible for us to do what we do under any different set of circumstances.

Rather than working as a quasi-intern at a press where the decisions are made above our heads and we’re left to simply follow orders, at Ooligan, we’re in charge of the process from beginning to end. This situation works great for students as well as the press—which employs students as staffers for virtually no out-of-pocket cost—and we get to participate in almost every aspect of the book production process. This symbiotic relationship continues into the partnership between the press and the university itself. As our publisher, Abbey Gaterud, explained it to me, Ooligan is “a business working within a place that is not a business.” This means that while we need to focus on putting out quality materials that we can be proud of, the more logistical worries faced by typical for-profit publishers—like electricity, computers, and rent—fall into the larger operations of Portland State. This is an understandable load off our shoulders, and one that simply wouldn’t be possible if we weren’t a nonprofit press.

Many things make Ooligan Press stand out from other publishing houses around the country. Being this unique sometimes comes at a price, but one that we’re gladly willing to pay in order to keep doing things our own different and very special way.