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Book bonding

Why aren't children forging stronger connections with literature, despite a national emphasis on reading?

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You'd expect to see children's books flying off the shelf.

Reading is being emphasized in this country as never before. The Bush administration is rolling out its $5 billion Reading First initiative. The president and the first lady are both making young readers a personal cause and a top national priority.

But the flurry of excitement over "Harry Potter" seems to have been the exception. There's an abundance of good books out there, experts say, but children just don't seem to be connecting with them enough.

Parents who don't read themselves, teachers who are too busy to learn about the wealth of literature that's available, and school budgets that don't permit informed teachers the luxury of purchasing such books anyway – these are among the explanations for the gap between kids and literature.

After all, say many of the experts, with the enormously expanded entertainment possibilities available to today's children, unless the adults around them really work to get the right books into their hands, the reading habit has little hope of grabbing hold.

A new report from the Matawan, N.J.-based Book Industry Study Group, sales of children's books are down by 7 percent – from $1,954.2 million in 2000 to $1,816.2 million in 2001. While the report depicts stagnation throughout much of the industry, the drop-off in young readership seems particularly alarming.

The irony, say some observers, is that the downturn comes when there is a richer field of reading material for children than ever before.

The industry churns out about 5,000 new children's titles a year, at least a few hundred of which are widely acclaimed as excellent. While many of these titles are fiction, there are also a large number of quality nonfiction works – biographies, books on outer space or historical subjects – that would seem ideal both for classroom use and independent reading.

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