Open Books, Open Worlds: 6 Ways to Get Free (or Cheap) Books for Kids

Books open up worlds of educational possibilities for kids, but can be expensive. Here are 6 places to get free or cheap access to books for your kids.
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Books open worlds for kids, but books can be prohibitively expensive. With the launch of Open eBooks, however, low-income kids can have free access to thousands of best-selling titles using a smartphone or tablet. Five additional programs also give educators and parents access to free and discounted books to help foster a love of reading, a critical goal since reading ability is one of the major predictors of high school completion.

Open eBooks

Open eBooks, a partnership between Digital Public Library of America, The New York Public Library, and First Book, with support from digital books distributor Baker & Taylor, Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, launched in February as part of President Obama’s ConnectED initiative. Participating publishers—Bloomsbury Publishing, Candlewick Press, Cricket Media, Hachette, HarperCollins, Lee & Low, Macmillan, National Geographic, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster—supply content that is made available to low-income students ages 4-18 for free.

Open eBooks supply content to low-income students for free.

The program operates by having teachers, school administrators, program leaders and librarians who work with in-need youth in libraries, schools, shelters, clinics, out-of-school time programs, military family programs, early childhood programs, and in other capacities register with First Book (below).

They then apply for a code for each child to gain the ability to access up to 10 books at a time on a smartphone or a tablet equipped with the free Open eBooks app. The app is available for IOS and Android devices and may be downloaded through iTunes or Google Play. There is no time limit on how long the child may “keep” the book.

Parents may ask their child’s teacher, local librarian or other eligible person to sign up with First Book and request an access code for their child.

One of the major upsides of this program is that the books are not out-of-copyright, but best-sellers by contemporary authors. The downside is that the child must have access to a smartphone or tablet and to wifi. The ConnectED initiative, begun in 2013, has set a goal that 99 percent of American students will have access to next-generation broadband in their schools and libraries by 2018. As part of the initiative, Microsoft and Apple have supplied free and discounted devices to some schools.

First Book

First Book is a nonprofit that provides books and other educational resources to schools and programs serving low-income children for free or at greatly reduced prices on the principle that access to books is a leading contributor to literacy and school success and the main impediment to access to books is their cost. “Programs have limited funds and 94 percent of teachers use their own money to provide books and resources for their students,” writes First Book.

First Book is a nonprofit that provides books and other educational resources to schools and programs serving low-income children for free or at greatly reduced prices.

The disparity in access to books is profound. “One study found that in middle income neighborhoods the ratio is 13 books per child; in low-income neighborhoods, the ratio is one book for every 300 children.” To date, First Book has distributed more than 135 million books and educational resources in the United States and Canada.

Titles by Native American authors include “A Boy Called Slow” by Joseph Bruchac, “The Absolutely True Diary of A Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, “Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story” by S.D. Nelson, “Bull Trout’s Gift: A Salish Story,” and “Bears Make Rock Soup” by Lise Erdrich.

The first step for organizations that want to benefit is to register with First Book. Schools, after-school programs, shelters and clinics, libraries and museums, early childhood programs, military family support programs, and faith-based organizations that serve low-income populations are among the entities that may be eligible for the program.

Eligible organizations receive access to new books at 50 percent to 90 percent off the retail price and/or access to the First Book National Book Bank, which supplies new books for free, charging only a shipping fee of 50 to 75 cents per book.

First Book has partnered with more than a dozen publishers, including DK, Candlewick Press, Hachette, Macmillan and HarperCollins and counts dozens of corporate and nonprofit partners among its supporters.

Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library

Every child who lives in Tennessee gets one book a month from birth to age 5, so by the time the child starts kindergarten they have a library of 60 books! Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library operates in dozens of communities across the U.S., including in Alaska and Hawaii, where parents may sign up their child to receive books if there is a local affiliate in their area.

How about a book a month from birth until the age of 5?

Lisa Libraries

The Lisa Libraries donates children’s books and small libraries to organizations, such as day care centers and after-school programs that work with low-income kids. The organization supplements library holdings and provides books to many children who may never have owned a book before. Supporters include Macmillan, Houghton Mifflin, Scholastic and Disney Books. Since 1990, Lisa Libraries has donated 375,000 new and “like new” books. In 2014, the organization gave 1,000 books to a medical clinic serving the Navajo Nation in Pine Hill, New Mexico. Some of the books were used to stock the shelves in the clinic library and others were sent home with children.

The Lisa Libraries donates children’s books and small libraries to organizations.

Project Gutenberg

Project Gutenberg has 50,000 free ebooks to download or read online. These are books whose copyright has expired, so while they are not “trending,” they do include many classics, such as works by Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charlotte Bronte, Jack London and Zora Neal Hurston. Computer-read and human-read audio books are also available. Many Books offers 33,000 copyright-free ebooks at no cost.

Project Gutenberg has 50,000 free ebooks to download or read online.

Bookshare

Bookshare is a free program supported by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs that provides free reading materials to anyone who has a print disability that keeps them from reading traditional print materials. An eligible Bookshare member would be someone with a visual impairment, a physical disability that impinges on reading ability, or a learning disability.

Bookshare is a free program that provides free reading materials to anyone who has a disability that keeps them from reading traditional print materials.

A competent authority, who might be a family doctor, ophthalmologist, neurologist, psychologist, teacher of the visually impaired or special education teacher, must verify the applicant’s eligibility. Bookshare has 300,000 books available from dozens of publishers as well as apps for reading the books on a computer or smart device. Works by every American Indian author whose name we checked were available. Sign up online.

This story was originally published April 20, 2016.