There are a number of ways to obtain free books for students. Before you start, think about the kinds of books you want and how you'll be using or distributing them. In addition to the programs below, keep in mind that local organizations and businesses may be able make donations or organize books drives - it's a nice, tangible way to give something back to the community. Let's get started!
Books for your program
First Book is a national nonprofit that has provided more than 90 million new books to children in need. In neighborhoods across the country, First Book unites leaders from all sectors of the community to identify and support community-based literacy programs reaching children living at or below the poverty line and provide them with grants of free books. The First Book National Book Bank, a subsidiary of First Book, provides new books to children from low-income families using generous donations from children's book publishers. The First Book National Book Bank distributes large quantities of publisher-donated brand-new books to programs serving children from low-income families. There are 25 to 30 book distributions hosted by the First Book National Book Bank annually at a variety of sites across the United States. The books are free to programs that are able to pick them up or just $0.45 per book to have them shipped. To access First Book's free and low-cost resources, programs must register at the First Book website.
The Heart of America Foundation's mission is to teach the values at the heart of America and to help people, particularly children, learn that they help themselves when they help others. Uniquely combining character education, literacy, and service learning, Heart of America's programs include Books From The Heart, a literacy program which engages students, corporations, and other organizations in gathering books that are not being used, solicits publishers for surplus books, and then gets these books into the hands children. Heart of America's priority is to provide books for elementary schools with 50% or more of their students enrolled in the free/reduced meal program. Interested schools can register to become a Books From The Heart Book Recipient School.
To help underfunded communities create a culture of reading, Kids Need to Read accepts requests for books from libraries, schools, and various literacy programs through an online application. Based on the age ranges and demographics of the population served, Kids Need to Read provides select books from their growing book list of more than 350 titles. Submissions from programs serving adolescent juvenile offenders, high school dropouts, youths living in poor urban or rural communities, immigrant children, kids with learning challenges, or children living on Native American reservations are strongly encouraged.
The Library of Congress has surplus books available to educational institutions and non-profit tax-exempt organizations. As most of the books have been turned over to the Library of Congress by other Federal agencies, the collection usually contains only a small percentage of publications at the primary and secondary school levels. There is continuous turnover in the supply of surplus books that can only be received in person by an authorized representative of an eligible organization. The value of the books available at any one time may not justify the expense of sending a representative to Washington solely to select books from this collection, but may be worth the trip in conjunction with a visit to the nation's capital.
The Lisa Libraries provides new children's books to help fill bookshelves for small, grass-roots organizations that work with low-income children in underserved communities and provide books to children who may never have had books to call their own. Some of the libraries established have been at day-care centers, prison visiting areas for children of incarcerated parents, and after-school programs. Organizations interested in receiving books for their children should write to the Lisa Libraries.
The Literacy Empowerment Foundation (LEF) is dedicated to assisting educational programs by providing inexpensive children's books. The Reading Resource Project is an ongoing LEF program that distributes free books in sets of 100 books to literacy programs. Recipients pay shipping, handling, and administrative costs ($68 per set of 100 books). Reading levels are for preK through second grade and are available in a limited quantity on a first come, first served basis.
Books for Kids creates libraries, donates books, and partners with literacy programs to help young children develop the critical early foundation and skills they need to be successful in life. With a special emphasis on low-income and at-risk preschool-aged children, Books for Kids creates and furnishes libraries within existing children's centers. Tax-exempt organizations can apply for the creation of a library or a donation of books. Books for Kids does not ship books so organizations receiving book donations must pick up books from the Books for Kids Warehouse in Jersey City, NJ.
With a special focus on rural and small communities, Roads to Reading serves organizations across the country by providing new books for remedial literacy programming to schools, community centers, and licensed child care providers and to other non-profits serving children. Among their initiatives to bring quality reading materials to children in underserved communities are an Annual Competitive Book Donation Program, Books for All Kids, the Director's Discretionary Book Donation Program, and All Children Need Books. Each program has individual guidelines and application deadlines. Recipients pay shipping, handling, and administrative fees.
The Scholastic Book Grants Program is a corporate in-kind giving initiative that provides high-quality reading materials to children and families in need. Non-profit organizations interested in applying for grants of 500–1000 books must complete a Book Grants Application. Other book publishers, including Hachette Book Group, Penguin and Random House also make book donations to support literacy programs, schools and libraries.
Book distribution programs
Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, developed in 1995 for her hometown of Sevier County, Tennessee, has been replicated in communities across the United States and abroad to bring books into the homes of preschool children. Through the program, all young children in a participating community are eligible to be enrolled at birth or when they move into the community. Each month, from the day the child is born until their 5th birthday, a selected book arrives at the mailbox. The Dollywood Foundation has developed the delivery system, negotiated price, selected the publisher and the individual titles, and created registration and promotional materials. Local champions in the community — businesses, school districts, civic organizations, individuals, or local government — finance the cost of the books and the mailing, register the children and promote the program.
Reach Out and Read (ROR) programs make early literacy a standard part of pediatric primary care for low-income families. At every well-child check-up for children from six months to five years of age, doctors and nurses encourage parents to read aloud to their young children, offer age-appropriate tips and encouragement, and provide a new, developmentally appropriate children's book to keep. Though clinics need to raise funds to pay for the books (approximately $2.75 per book), support may by available from the Reach Out and Read National Center or ROR Coalition.
Reading Is Fundamental, the nation's oldest and largest children's literacy organization, is most well known for its flagship service, the Books for Ownership program. Through this program, children choose and keep several free paperback books each year and participate in reading motivation activities.
You may be fortunate in your community to find a local organization dedicated to the redistribution of new and gently used children's books similar to the book banks below:
Local Stores and Libraries
Contact your local public libraries, bookstores, toy stores, and other businesses. They may be willing to donate or sell at a discount older or overstocked books that they carry. Better yet, create an ongoing partnership so they will regularly set aside books for your group.
Whenever you send out a newsletter or e-mail, include a Wish List of the books you'd like donated. This makes an especially effective appeal during the holidays. Choose the books for your wish list by checking with a children's librarian, teacher, or the recommended books on Reading Rockets. You could also make use of the Wish List feature on Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble or post your need for books on DonorsChoose.org
Your Public Television Station
Each month, participating public television stations distribute free books to their local partner organizations, who then make them available to children who otherwise would not have books of their own.
Online options: Book giveaways & crowdsourcing
There are more places to look for book giveaways online now, such as the Twitter campaign #kidsneedbooks. You can read more about this campaign and how it came about in this School Library Journal article. Teachers have also started fundraising campaigns through crowdsourcing sites like Donors Choose and GoFundMe.
Online options: E-Books
Many sites on the Internet offer free children's books by unknown authors and of uncertain quality. The following sites, however, have some good online choices for kids. Note that the experience of reading a book online is very different from holding and reading a printed book.
The Digital Book Index is a catalogue of major eBook sites, university collections, commercial and non-commercial publishers, and hundreds of smaller specialized sites. A search for Children's Literature in the Subject Guide of the Digital Book Index results in links to some 3,500 contemporary and classic children's books and stories, including the State University Libraries of Florida's Literature for Children, a collection of the treasures of children's literature published largely in the United States and Great Britain from before 1850 to beyond 1950.
The non-profit ICDL Foundation's library has evolved into the world's largest digital collection of children's books. Currently its digital library collection includes 4,643 books in 61 languages. The compete ICDL collection is also available as a free iPad app. A limited number of titles are included in the free ICDL iPhone app. The ICDL also created the free Story Kit app that helps users create their own electronic storybooks for reading and sharing.
The Library of Congress' selection of digitized books includes illustrated children's classics for readers of all ages. The Library of Congress also makes available millions of primary sources for free online. To assist educators in teaching with primary sources, the Library offers classroom materials and professional development to help teachers engage students with content and develop critical thinking skills.
Project Gutenberg is the largest single collection of free electronic books. With more than 40,000 free books in the Project Gutenberg Online Book Catalog, the Project is on its way to meeting its goal to provide as many eBooks in as many formats as possible for the entire world to read in as many languages as possible. The Project Gutenberg site offers download formats suitable for eBook readers, mobile phones, and other devices.
TumbleBookLibrary is an online collection of children's favorite story books, such as "The Paper Bag Princess," "Diary of a Worm," "How I Became a Pirate," "Miss Malarkey Doesn't Live in Room 10," "One Duck Stuck," and "Tops and Bottoms," that have added animation, sound, music and narration. The result is an electronic picture book that you can read, or have read to you. The TumbleBookLibrary is a subscription service, but offers a free one-month trial for librarians, media specialists, teachers and school administrators that provides unlimited access for everyone in your school or library to the complete TumbleBookLibrary.
We Give Books is a digital initiative of the Penguin Group and the Pearson Foundation that connects kids to quality online books. The books available for free online reading are a mix of fiction and nonfiction children's picture books appropriate for children through age ten. We Give Books also provides young readers the opportunity to practice philanthropy — for each book read online, We Give Books makes sure that physical books get to children's literacy programs worldwide.