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Local Educators Seek To Provide More Book Access In Bay Area 'Book Deserts'

by Jocelyn Moran

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF)-- World Book Day is on Saturday, but many neighborhoods in the Bay Area often lack access to books. Unite for Literacy calls them "book deserts," and their map shows that areas along the peninsula and in San Francisco, Santa Clara, Contra Costa and Alameda counties fall under these.

One local teacher-librarian though is trying to change that in her school.

Jessica Martinez works at Bret Harte Elementary School on Gilman Avenue in San Francisco. United for Literacy's map shows that in that area, just about 5% of homes have more than 100 books.

Martinez is not just hoping to increase the access for her students – she's trying to ensure they have books that interest them.

"They see books with characters that look like them on the cover," she said.

In her library, there are books in both English and Spanish, and the walls are covered in drawings and paintings for cultural holidays like Día de Los Muertos.

"It's super important for students to see themselves represented in books and not just characters who look like them, but characters who are experiencing the same obstacles or holidays," she said.

Martinez is one of the educators that has partnered with Room to Read, a nonprofit focused on children's literacy. Their recent collection of books has been given to students at Bret Harte Elementary for free.

And included in that collection is a book written by Martinez on the challenges students faced while learning from home, like having to take care of a younger sibling while in school and the lack of internet connection.

"Our internet would cut out a lot while we were in the middle of a lesson," Martinez said. "The book was inspired by a lot of students I noticed were caretaking for younger siblings so babies, changing diapers, feeding them, and playing with them while being in school. So I wanted to acknowledge that and write a story about those challenges."

Room to Read partners with educators who teach in these book deserts.

"Research shows that Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties rate at just around 30% on a book desert scale, that means only about 30% of homes in the Bay Area have more than 100 books in their household," said Shannon Hesel, the associate director of U.S. initiative With Room to Read.

Their goal is to make these books more easily accessible to more communities.

And in Martinez's library, she's already starting to make a difference.

"We have a lot of fun in the library," she said.

The map also shows neighborhoods in Redwood City and East Palo Alto as areas where families don't have as many books compared to other areas.

Ramses Escobedo, the branch manager for the East Palo Alto Library, says they're trying to improve the access. He said they put a cart outside of books for free, and they're averaging about 1,000 books given out monthly from that cart.

"Our staff collaborates to provide books that reflect our multicultural community," Escobedo said.

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