How BOOK IT! Is Helping Children See Themselves in the Stories They Read

Aug 19, 2020 11:30 AM ET

For the past 36 years, the formula has been simple: Kids participating in Pizza Hut’s BOOK IT! program get a free Personal Pan Pizza for meeting a monthly reading goal. The irresistible opportunity for a delicious, hot pizza has motivated millions of students to read, with one in five Americans touched by BOOK IT! since it launched in 1984.

And while children are encouraged to select their own titles, about four years ago, Pizza Hut employees became more intentional about recommending books with diverse characters to accurately reflect students in today’s classrooms, of which 51% are non-white. These recommendations are more than a feel-good effort; they’re an attempt to inspire kids through characters and stories that resonate on a personal level. “There’s a ton of research that shows kids are inspired to read about characters who look like them,” said Natasha Collins, senior manager, Social Impact for Pizza Hut U.S. “Kids want to read good stories, and they want to see themselves in them.”

In fact, some experts have found that children as young as 3-years-old begin to show evidence of societal messages affecting how they feel about themselves or their group identity.

So, not only is it important for children to see themselves in books but as the United States grapples with the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, children of all races need to experience diverse characters, as a way to learn empathy for all.

Needles in a Haystack

One of the key components of these efforts is Shelf Help, a monthly email newsletter to teachers and parents, featuring a handful of book recommendations organized around a theme, such as books by black authors, poetry or Pride Month.

"This is so wonderful. I used your suggestions on Friday; the students loved it!"  — Lorraine Reid, fourth grade teacher in Cicero, Illinois, in response to the Memorial Day Read and Do suggestions.

Shelf Help, which launched two years ago, identifies diverse authors and subject matters for teachers. This is a valuable tool considering that a review of more than 3,600 children’s books in 2018, found that just 10% featured black characters — and less than 5% featured Latinx characters, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which collects data on books by and about people of color.

Source: Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: Retrieved from Released for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0 license).

But with the assistance of Shelf Help, teachers get inclusive recommendations like “Black Is a Rainbow Color” by Angela Joy about Black history and culture, “Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré,” the biography of an iconic librarian and Latino author, or “Jack (Not Jackie),” which tackles love and acceptance in the face of questions about gender identity. Joy was also featured in the BOOK IT! Author Spotlight, which delves into the story behind the story – to learn more about the author and their work.

Variety, the Spice of Life

Kathryn Waite, a marketing program specialist at Pizza Hut U.S., is responsible for the recommendations in Shelf Help. She goes out of her way to make sure selections include tales of individuals breaking down barriers or overcoming huge obstacles. “I think everyone wants to see their lives reflected in what they read, and of course, we want to provide that mirror,” she said.

Waite is constantly on the lookout for books that feature geographical and cultural diversity. She also likes those written in more than one language, like Raul the Third’s “¡Vamos! Let's Go to the Market” about a fox named Little Lobo and his travels through border towns.

“I lean in toward the ones based on a true story or the story of someone who grew up a refugee and has written about it,” Waite said. “That firsthand information is so valuable. Their insight is so honest and pure.”

Waite grew up in libraries, and her daughter is a children’s librarian, so she knows how to find that special book. “Last year, we did a book on a Vietnamese family and another on a family from Pakistan and an orchestra program in Paraguay,” she said.

She’s chosen books on women’s equality and others featuring characters who are differently abled. Not only do these books provide a measure of comfort and familiarity for underrepresented students, they provide a lens into different cultures, experiences and abilities for all students. “People who read these books will hopefully have discussions and compassion and understanding for each other and our differences,” said Waite.

Recently, the team has been focused on books featuring LGBTQ+ subject matters. “There are some families who are not able to find a book that features a family pursuing normal life with two dads or two moms. There are families, parents, teachers and students who are looking for that content, and it’s a privilege to provide them with great recommendations,” said Collins.

Along with publishing Shelf Help, Pizza Hut has partnered with First Book, a nonprofit that provides free or reduced cost books to children in need. Since December, Pizza Hut and the BOOK IT! program have helped First Book distribute more than 850,000 books — 100,000 of which include diverse and inclusive titles – through First Book’s Stories for All Project. And, later this month, Pizza Hut, First Book and American University’s Antiracist Research & Policy Center will host "Empowering Educators: A Convening on Racial Equity in Education," a free event providing educators with guidance and resources to help them prepare for conversations on race and racism.

“Part of our mission is to provide educators with relevant, accessible and inspiring resources that support and encourage their students,” Collins said. “Now more than ever, teachers are looking for resources that will help them engage in effective conversations on race and anti-racism, and Empowering Educators will equip them to have conversations that are fruitful and productive.”

As the conversation around social justice and equitable access to opportunity progresses, the Pizza Hut and BOOK IT! teams will continue to do their part to provide access to books that help children develop a deeper connection to the world around them.

“If we’re going to have an impact on literacy in a positive way, we’ve got to do more,” Collins said.