There are many reasons to love public libraries and all the free resources they offer. My 9-year-old and I are obsessed with our public library.
We check out dozens of books each month, from adventurous read alouds to reference books about his latest interests. But we also have a big home library, and I've noticed my child has a different relationship to these books. They're often the books he'll read more than once, picking up new things with each reading. Sometimes he'll bring a book up in a conversation when it's been a year or more since he last read it.
Research shows that children who also have their own book collections at home have better outcomes at school and are more likely to develop patterns of lifelong literacy. Fortunately, there are many ways to build a home library for your children with free and low-cost books.
Home libraries are powerful. One study led by sociologist Mariah Evans looked at children in 42 different countries. It found that the size of a family's home library significantly affected how much education a child obtained.
This was especially true for low-income children, even those whose parents had limited formal education themselves. The size of a home library was a better predictor of a child's academic success than their parents' income or education level.
A second study found that the effects of home libraries can even be measured as children become adults. Teens with more extensive home libraries had higher literacy rates and better math and technological skills.
So how can families on tight budgets build a home library that will support children's lifelong learning? Here are 14 resources and ideas for finding free and low-cost children's books to take home.
Sources for Free Children's Books
1. Find out if literacy programs are available in your community in which participating families receive a free book mailed to their homes each month.
The Dolly Parton Imagination Library sends a free book to children each month from ages birth to 5. You can use their zip code locator to see if books are available where you live, or you can learn more about how to start your own affiliated program. PJ Library sends Jewish children's books to kids ages birth to 9 who have Judaism as part of their lives.
2. Look for Little Free Libraries near playgrounds, community centers and even in front of people's houses.
Perhaps you've seen these small wooden boxes and wondered how they work. The idea is simple: take the books you need, and leave the books you want to share with others. Some Little Free Libraries are registered with the national movement, while others aren't, so keeping your eyes open as you're out and about could help you discover one. You can also find a list of Little Free Libraries in Los Angeles County here.
3. Ask at your child's school to see if they partner with groups like First Book, Book Trust, or Reading Is Fundamental. These organizations provide deeply discounted or free books to schools and community groups that primarily serve low-income children. Many times the books are then distributed for children to keep at home. Schools can also point you to any summer literacy camps (which sometimes include free books for participants) available to your child.
4. Ask your child's pediatrician about programs in your community. Some pediatricians are part of the Reach Out and Read program, which provides books to children at well-child visits. Even if they aren't part of this program, pediatricians may know about other programs that give books to children.
5. Look for giveaways of new children's book titles from book bloggers or Instagram accounts. Often when children's book publishers are releasing new titles, they will offer giveaway copies to bloggers. Some of my favorite Instagrammers and bloggers who frequently give away books are KidLit in Color, Pragmatic Mom and Multicultural Children's Book Day.
Goodreads also lists giveaways of new children's books from publishers.
6. Find out if there is a Buy Nothing Facebook group or Freecycle group for your neighborhood. These are mutual aid groups that exchange all kinds of items at no cost. You can post that you are looking for free children's books in a group (as well as many other items.) While you can search for a Buy Nothing group on the page's website, I also recommend searching directly on Facebook using your town or neighborhood's name + "buy nothing," as many groups aren't in the website's directory.
7. Look for specific programs for English language learners or adult learners that may provide free books. For example, the Los Angeles Public Library's adult literacy program gives parents a free children's book to keep each time they learn to read a book.
8. During the summer, look for programs that reward children for reading. Almost all public libraries offer some type of summer reading program with resources and rewards for kids. Barnes and Noble usually has a summer program that awards kids free books for completing a reading journal about the books they've read.
9. In the coming months, many communities will start to hold in-person events again, including book festivals. These can be a great place to find free children's books since literacy organizations often set up booths at the events.
Sources for Low-Cost Children's Books
10. Seek out Friends of the Library book sales. Most public libraries have volunteer organizations that support them, including through used book sales. Some library branches have small used book stores within the library, while others hold book sales a couple of times a year. Children's books are often priced at $1 - $3.
11. Shop at brick-and-mortar used book stores and thrift stores. Search online to find secondhand book stores in your community, or look in the book section of thrift stores. I have found great deals on high-quality picture books for my son at Goodwill. If you live in the Los Angeles area, check out this list of the 10 best used bookstores in the city.
Note: Vajra Books and Gifts and Sam: Johnson's Bookshop are permanently closed.
12. Shop at online used book stores. One of my favorites is ThriftBooks because shipping is just $1.99 for orders under $10 or free for orders of $10 or more. I search for children's book titles that have won awards in past years because there are more likely to be used copies available.
13. While currently on hold due to the pandemic, Scholastic Book Fairs frequently has warehouse sales with deeply discounted books.
14. If you have books that you or your children no longer need, exchange them using a service like Book Mooch or Paperback Swap. The only cost is mailing the books (which can be done cheaply using the U.S. Postal Service's Media Mail rate). Once you've mailed a book to someone else, you receive a credit that you can use to receive a book.