The Itty Bitty Book App, created by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Melvin Claxton, enables children and young people from five to 17 to write, illustrate and publish their own books.
Claxton, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1995 for a series titled “Virgin Island Crime: Who’s to Blame?” said in a phone conversation recently, “Everyone should have a chance to tell their story.”
But, most importantly, the app has the potential to address the startling low literacy rate of Americans and people across the globe, Claxton said. A 2020 story in Forbes magazine highlighted a Gallup study that suggests low levels of adult literacy could be costing the U.S. as much as $2.2 trillion a year. The Forbes story said, “according to the U.S. Department of Education, 54 percent of U.S. adults 16-74 years old – about 130 million people – lack proficiency in literacy, reading below the equivalent of a sixth-grade level.”
And while these statistics are startling and disturbing, the Itty-Bitty Book app does something else that is also much needed.
It offers children and young people a chance to see themselves as well as others of different cultures and backgrounds and experience through the windows provided by books that will be available in August when the company launches an Amazon-like online bookstore for kids.
A case in point, as part of the mission to make this program available everywhere, Claxton’s first foray was into nine war-torn countries, where he provided the app and other assistance free of charge. He said while his company had to do more traditional publishing and provide for translation, it was important to give children exposed to the trauma of violence a chance to share their experiences and stories. To that end, the first person who wrote a book was 12-year-old Farah Esleem, who lost her right leg in an Israeli bombing in 2021 during the Hamas–Israeli conflict in Gaza.
Detroit News reporter Francis X. Donnelly interviewed her in a phone call that was translated, during which she said she was so happy to be able to tell her story. Donnelly quotes a representative of the Palestinian relief organization that aided Farah. “Our kids aren’t numbers. They have dreams. In Gaza, things are hard and difficult. But they have the right to live normally.”
The same could be said for any number of urban communities in America, where children routinely slip through the cracks in public education.
A public school vice principal in the Virgin Islands recently said she had encountered a fourth-grader who didn’t even know the difference between an S and a J in the alphabet. She was clear that the youngster had no learning disabilities other than English not being his first language. “He would’ve been in kindergarten when the storms hit in 2017,” said the administrator who had not given permission to be named at the time. “Then came Covid. We just missed him during those four years.”
Another elementary school administrator, in a casual conversation, just as the schools were shutting down on the cusp of the pandemic, noted that the third-graders in her school were already being recruited by gang members.
This cutting-edge writing program is available in the Google and Apple app stores. Claxton said the app will nurture a love of writing in students from all backgrounds, ages, and academic disciplines, especially marginalized children who are often not given a fair shot at learning to read and write early in life. “The app can be the spark that lights the fire to tell their story while improving their reading at the same time.”
Itty Bitty Book aligns with Claxton’s belief in “giving every marginalized kid a chance to be heard.” With that in mind – and the understanding that all children are not born with the same abilities, aptitudes, or supportive families – he engaged experts in the field of learning disabilities, including his daughter, who is an international award-winning education innovator. The result is a product designed to aid every student regardless of their challenges.
An additional and deeply motivational benefit of the app is that it gives students the opportunity to see their work published. “This deepens a kid’s sense of accomplishment and further motivates the student to practice and improve their writing skills,” Claxton said.
The Itty-Bitty Book project was not Claxton’s first venture into the online world. His company, Epic 4, developed and designed a wildly popular Bible video game, The Great Bible Race.
The Itty-Bitty Book project, however, has a much deeper meaning to him, “This one has a unique motivation for me,” he said. It pays homage to his parents. Growing up in Antigua, where he was homeschooled for much of his early life, Claxton said, “My mom was my very first teacher, providing a rich experience of reading and writing for me.”
And his dad, he said, “had a huge library and gave me Plato’s Republic when I was eight years old.”
Claxton said from the beginning of his own life, he understood the importance of reading and writing. “This is about giving kids skills that later in life will impact them in meaningful and measurable ways.”
Lead author of the Gallup study, Jonathan Rothwell, would no doubt agree. “Eradicating illiteracy would not solve every problem, but it would help make substantial progress in reducing inequality in the long-term and give a much-needed boost to local and regional economies throughout the country.”
It is important here to note that when the Itty-Bitty book store becomes accessible in August, the authors will receive payment whenever someone buys their book.
Along with individuals who might download it, Claxton’s far greater goal is to see the app included in education curriculums everywhere. While he’s very aware that many school districts cannot afford to buy it for all of their students, he has his sights set on finding corporate sponsors and foundations who understand the vision and support it.
“A literate world simply makes sense.”