On the Need for a Reading Revolution

Reading is a civil right.



The following remarks were made by Richard Robinson during the 2019 PEN America Literary Gala at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he was recognized as PEN's 2019 Publisher Honoree. Mr. Robinson is the Chairman, President, and CEO of Scholastic Books, a children's book publisher with more than $1.6 billion in annual revenue and 10,000 employees.


Richard Robinson CEO Scholastic PEN American Gala 2019
                                                                                                    photo by @PENAmericanCenter


I think as a children’s publisher we may seem a little bit out of place here, but I think as I talk a little bit you’ll find out that some of these themes that animate PEN are also part of the world that Scholastic has lived in for the past hundred years. But we’re here to support you Suzanne, you’re a brilliant leader, and help you to protect speech and journalists around the world, and more broadly support the rights of the individual not only to be heard but to be central to what we believe in.


This regard for the individual was beautifully captured by Jo Rowling in her most generous comments that Alec just read. And as Alec has also kindly pointed out, the reason PEN is recognizing Scholastic tonight is really to shine a light on the mission of our company to help young people understand themselves and the world. Or in the words of Sebastian, a 10- year-old student in Chicago public schools, who wrote to me this last week: “I read to learn the things I do not know.” The way we carry out our mission is through helping kids to read, both for inspiration and for understanding of how the world works. Reading, as Alec said, is about heart and head, passion and analysis, stories and information.


For nearly 100 years, our familiar classroom magazines have brought information to young people at almost every age and grade level. Meeting Anita Hill, she said, “Yes, I got those magazines when I was a child in rural Oklahoma.” And so many children have got their information that way. Now print and digital, with total circulation of 15 million, these magazines reach kids each week and nearly half of the classrooms in America. Written with a balanced approach, welcome in both red and blue states, these nonfiction resources help kids develop skills of discussion, argument, and logic. And so, to understand that while people may differ on important questions, they can resolve disagreements through discussion rather than mere assertion.


And what you just responded to there, is what particularly attracted PEN and Suzanne this year to honor us. Knowing that the basis of our democracy is being challenged, we’ve just heard that from her, and that the ability of young people to develop a fact and reason based approach to the world is critical to our future. The history of Scholastic in this area has often been controversial and we have been banned in schools in the ’30s and the ’50s, for being too soft on communism; and the ’40s and the ’60s for promoting liberal views on race, civil rights, and the Vietnam War; in the ’70s for articles on student rights, not a popular subject in schools; and in the ’80s and ’90s for climate change; and in the 2000s for the Iraq war. But despite these controversial and temporary bans, schools have relied on the balanced approach of these magazines to help young people gain basic knowledge of their world with the larger goal of helping kids know how to build and maintain a fragile democracy.


The second part of Scholastic’s mission is through our books. Books created by the authors here and supported by the staff that has done such a wonderful job for kids all over the world. The power of literature and great stories to help us understand who we are and who we can be. From picture books like Clifford or Happy Dreamer, to novels like Harry Potter and, of course, The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins being here, kids discover how to be curious, courageous, and resilient, to recognize good and combat evil, to see examples of love and hope as well as of sorrow, and to understand how human choices define who we are.


By publishing and distributing through our clubs, fairs, and trade, more than three million copies of thousands of different titles each year, Scholastic makes available great stories of the human heart and also books that make us laugh out loud, prompting kids to choose and read books that help them discover who they are.


You become a reader in the moment when you find a story about somebody else who has had the same experience as you, and suddenly you feel exactly like the character in the book, whether Hugo Cabret or Dog Man, that is the moment the young reader goes from taking a month to finish a book to finishing it in an hour, and then goes for the next one. Likewise, nonfiction creates a geography or culture you know nothing about, and suddenly you understand that there are children on the other side of the world who have the same hopes that you do. Or you read a story or an article about a doctor or a pilot or a scientist and you realize you would like to do exactly that job and be that person in the future and that dream never leaves you. Reading is about discovering who you are and how you can fit into the world and improve it. It is that trigger that gives you the power to be someone you never thought you could be. Authors could write this a lot better than I could, but I’m glad to represent you.


Of course there is a risky side to books as well. For Harry Potter and Captain Underpants are perennially on the top five list of banned books in the United States, largely because of the magic and mischief of pitting the adventurous child against the adult society seeking to maintain control.


Helping the child through this reading process is what Scholastic does, all 10,000 employees live this mission. Our book fair drivers deliver to school gyms and libraries cases of books all packed in shelves that become one week pop-up bookstores in schools across the country. When kids see our trucks drive into the school parking lot, they know they’ll find the books they’ll want to read and buy and keep forever.


In Scholastic early English centers across China, young children learn to read and speak English through our digital reading programs. In India our Geronimo Stilton series, the story of a mouse turned journalist, is a perennial national best seller. In the U.S., we partner with caregivers in early childhood centers, teachers in schools with literacy organizations like Reach Out and Read. And this summer we’ll provide Scholastic Lit Camps for 8,000 kids in New York City schools, a new approach to summer school where kids can read books for pleasure with mentors. And with the Yale Child Study Center we’re researching how reading builds resilience in children. All of this is about action and activity. Making reading active instead of passive, communal as well as independent, promoting the excitement and fun reading brings, emphasizing the story, the ideas, and the sharing.


But while excitement and engagement of reading leads to joyful discovery for many kids, we face a deeply serious issue about reading in our country and globally, and this is my most important message to you.


Phyllis Hunter, an author, an advisor, and a school administrator in Houston, contributor to the Bush Administration effort, No Child Left Behind, was the first person to say in the early 2000s, “Reading is a civil right.” A cry that was then picked up by many others, including superintendents of schools in most of our large cities. She believed that to succeed in our current society, every child has to be able to read at great level, to read for greater self knowledge and resilience, and to seek information in order to hold a job in a workplace where literacy is a basic requirement.


She knew full well most children were not going to read at grade level and our education system had to change to ensure that we had the intensity of focus and teacher capacity to guarantee that every child could read. Almost 20 years later there in an even greater need right now for reading as a civil right.


The stakes are high, at best 30 percent of children throughout the United States are reading at grade level, while 70 percent read below grade level, many significantly below, and right now our U.S. schools are affected by the economic inequality that drives our entire society, where school excellence is determined by zip code the school is in.


Many American schools are stuck in zip codes with few resources and underpaid teachers. More kids are arriving at school with greater learning, emotional, and health needs, but the resources and focus are not sufficient to boost kids to reach the future-ready skills which the standards require.


At the same time, we know the mid-century world will require almost all working people to have higher level thinking skills and to be able to navigate the world in a more sophisticated way in which knowledge will be distributed. Tech experts predict A.I. will eliminate 40 percent of the world’s jobs in 15 years. The six-year-old child in first grade today will graduate high school in 2031, and will be working at her peak powers in 2050, will need to understand the systems that will link us all together in the collaborative future work world. She will require greater understanding of others in a world where face-to-face relationships may be rare and a global outlook will be natural and necessary.


Without knowing precisely what the jobs of the future will be, we know people will require the ability to communicate and partner in a way well beyond what we’re doing now. And while reading, thinking, and literacy will be operating at far higher levels, everyone will also need to understand much more science and technology to be successful job holders in the world of tomorrow. And these future-ready skills will need to be taught in our schools right now.


This is why our company in its 100th year is calling for a reading revolution to direct more resources to help kids in all schools, but especially the less affluent to experience the learning focus and intensity which will help them be part of the society of the mid-21st century. Without this revolution, many of our future citizens will not be able to contribute significantly to the learning and knowledge society of the future.


Through this reading revolution we can and must provide schools with far greater resources and much more intense focus, determination, and will to ensure that all kids develop their passion and skill for learning more, reading more, and understanding more, so that they can be part of the future. Reading is a civil right and this is our message tonight. And this civil right, the reading revolution, can be summed up again through the words of Sebastian, the 10-year-old Chicago boy who says, “I read to learn the things I do not know.”


Thank you.


Education, Children's Rights, Civil Society