Vending Machines Bring Books and Learning to 'Book Deserts'

Little girl reading
Having access to books is great, but kids need both easy access and adult support to get really inspired to read. PeopleImages/DigitalVision/Getty Images

In the book "I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!" The Cat in the Hat says to the Young Cat in the Hat, "The more that you read, the more things you will know." It seems like an obvious statement — when you read a book you've never read before, you're garnering more information. But thanks to tons of research, it's well-documented that reading teaches kids more than just new facts. Reading aloud to young children activates parts of their brain that support mental imagery and help them derive meaning from language. It also reduces the risk of children having behavior problems, like aggression or hyperactivity. But despite the established benefits of reading, books aren't accessible to everyone.

In an April 2018 study out of New York University, researchers installed book vending machines in "book deserts," or poor communities where children's books are scarce or nonexistent. Because children and parents in these areas don't have adequate access to books, they're deprived of the benefits reading can have on child development and academic performance. What about libraries? The authors asked participants about how they used local libraries and found that they were "rarely seen as an option." Moreover, the hub of those libraries seemed to be the computers rather than the books.


This problem of access to books is exacerbated over the summer, when school and early childhood programs are not in session. As a result, disadvantaged children fall behind academically during this "seasonal summer slide," as the study authors call it, widening the gap between them and their advantaged peers.

So, the researchers set out to see how putting book vending machines in four low-income neighborhoods in Detroit and Washington, D.C., would affect family reading patterns and the academic downslide over summer. With the help of JetBlue Airways, which already had a book distribution program, the researchers put book vending machines in high-traffic areas in the neighborhoods for eight weeks. The machines were popular — they popped out more than 64,000 free books to 26,200 unique readers and 38,235 repeat users over the course of the summer.

But more telling than the popularity of the vending machines is the data that the researchers gathered on why people used or didn't use them, who used them and what kinds of books people chose. The authors conducted a range of questionnaires, interviews and assessments to measure and analyze interactions with the machines. They discovered that children who visited the vending machines with their child care center and independently with their parents or grandparents could recognize more book titles in an assessment than children who visited with only one source of adult support or neither. Children in preschool with more adult support also showed slight improvements in school-readiness skills over the summer.

The presence of book vending machines wasn't enough to get children uninterested in reading to pick up a book, though. Forty percent of passersby browsed but didn't make a selection.

"Our findings suggest that only having one side of the equation — access to books or adult support — is insufficient," said co-author Susan B. Neuman in a press release. "Children need access to books in their neighborhoods, as well as adults who create an environment that inspires reading."

According to the study authors, the questions of how to generate more engagement with kids who don't want to read and how to create a better reading culture in book deserts remain. But considering the results of this study, Dr. Seuss was pretty dead-on when he imagined The Cat in the Hat espousing the benefits of reading to the Young Cat.