Bringing literacy to the Utah book desert

Nov 22, 2023, 1:00 PM

A mural on the outer wall of The King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City. A speech bubble reads "...

Calvin Crosby, of The King's English Bookshop and Brain Food Books, is on a mission to connect children with books that will resonate with them. (Mariah Maynes/KSL NewsRadio)

(Mariah Maynes/KSL NewsRadio)

SALT LAKE CITY — A study conducted by Room to Read found that 45% of children in the U.S. do not have adequate access to books.

Children who live in a book desert experience greater educational inequalities. Additionally, children who belong to minority groups are disproportionately impacted. 

Calvin Crosby is the owner of Brain Food Books. He said that with the exception of city centers, the entire state is a book desert. 

The Utah book desert

Brain Food Books is working to provide books to all children in the Utah book desert. Some communities in Utah see a larger impact. 

“The tribal communities are probably … the most severe book deserts in our state,” Crosby said. 

He added that Utah has a great library system, however, children in tribal communities often struggle to access books at home. 

“Those kids are primarily taken care of by their grandparents. They don’t have a legal guardian to get a library card. So they can still come to the library, they can read at the library, but they can’t take books home,” said Crosby. 

Brain Food Books is working with some native tribes to expand access to books, according to Crosby. “We’re in … two city pediatric clinics for the Navajo Nation. We’re working on expanding with northern Ute, and a couple [of] other tribes,” he said. 

Brain Food Books

Dr. Barbara Bean founded Brain Food Books. “[As a] pediatrician, [she] was putting books in the pediatric clinics on the west side … When the children got their wellness checkup, instead of a lollipop, they got to go pick a book,” said Crosby. 

A couple of years ago, Crosby met the pediatrician as she was preparing to retire. She was going to shut the nonprofit down. “We had a random conversation … I told her my goals about getting to the west side and making sure that really just owning books is normalized for kids,” Crosby said. 

For Crosby, the goal stemmed from his life experiences. ” I grew up in [a book desert.] I’m from Magna, and I grew up in a primarily not-literate family,” he said, adding that he and his sister were the literate outliers. 

Crosby added that his grandmother always made sure they had books when they went to visit. “I know firsthand what it’s like when you get your first book,” he said. 

“A lot of this [came from] having a grandmother who was illiterate, still understand that reading was important to me,” Crosby added. 

Dr. Bean was able to transfer ownership of Brain Food Books to Crosby. Since he took over, Crosby has helped the organization expand its reach. 

Book desert outreach 

In the past 13 months, Brain Food Books has given 21,450 books to those living in the Utah book desert. 

“We’ve taken her core mission [and] we’ve expanded it,” Crosby said. Brain Food Books has established “Little Free Bookshops.” The bookshops are bringing books to children and adults alike. 

Crosby said that there are a few locations throughout Utah. Two, one for children and one for adults, are located in Salt Lake City’s Horizonte School. Additionally, there is one in Provo and one in Highland. 

“Our goal is to just make sure kids who don’t have access to books and adults have access,” Crosby said. 

In addition to the free bookshops, Brain Food Books does outreach activities with underserved and Title 1 schools. “We do a lot of schools on the west side. Rose Park Elementary is one of our all-time favorite places to go because [the] kids are so enthusiastic and amazing,” Crosby said. 

Recently, Brain Food Books hosted a “Little Feathers Literacy Night.” The event was focused on getting books to native American children. 

“We gave out 450 books, they were all native focus books to native children,” said Crosby. The organization has collaborated with Granite School District’s Title 6 program, which is focused on bringing education to native children. 

At times, the outreach program brings authors to schools. 

“We did one in Taylorsville … where the title six kids actually could have lunch with the author before they presented to the school,” said Crosby. 

The King’s English Bookshop’s role

Sometimes, the kids are invited to The King’s English Bookshop for outreach activities. Crosby co-owns The King’s English. 

During those events, small groups of children are brought in before the store opens.

“We give them a tour of the store. I talk about being a minority business owner, and we talk about the importance of supporting local businesses … it’s very brief,” said Crosby.

Then the children are invited to the kid’s room inside of the book store. They’re presented with a few book titles. 

Following the presentations, the children are presented with one golden ticket. Each golden ticket is redeemable for one book, and the children get to choose whatever they would like during the event. 

“We approach the golden ticket purchases, the same way we approach anyone who walks into the store,” Crosby said.

He added that as a bookseller, he approaches book recommendations with care, concern, and consideration for the reader. When recommending books, Crosby said, sellers are accepting the responsibility of entertaining and influencing the reader. 

“In general, kids self-select what they want to read,” Crosby said. He and his staff at The King’s English bookshop are there to guide them toward books that reflect and inspire them. 

Reading’s impact on child development

According to the report by Room to Read, children who grow up with books in their homes are three grade levels above students who don’t. That is because reading has immediate and long-term impacts on a child’s development of vocabulary, knowledge, and comprehension. 

Additionally, the study said its findings are true regardless of the social class of a child’s parents. 

“The more access and more availability children have to it, the more compassionate an adult they will be,” Crosby said. 

 “There’s really nothing better I think I can contribute to the world and making sure kids know that … they’re worthy of their own library,” said Crosby. 

Related: STEAM learning excites students, builds life skills, according to experts

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Bringing literacy to the Utah book desert