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Millions are about to have access to free e-books. Thanks, Obama.

Major publishers came together to make more than $250 million in books available for free.

What was your favorite book growing up?

Was it a classic like "The Secret Garden," "The Phantom Tollbooth," or "Stuart Little"? Or maybe something with a bit of mystery like "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" or something from the "Hardy Boys" series? Or maybe it was something else altogether.

Most of us can probably think back to our childhoods and remember a book or two that fueled a love of reading and a thirst for knowledge — a book with near-magical qualities, a book that quite literally changed your life.


Photo by US Army Africa/Flickr.

But did you know that growing up in a house with lots of books can give you a major advantage in life?

That's what a study conducted by the University of Nevada in 2014 found. The more books kids have at home, the better they'll do in school. This rang true across across gender, class, and even country. Those with the fewest books — typically children from low-income families — benefitted the most per additional book added to the home. The books don't even have to be children's books. If you grew up in a household where your parents had lots and lots of books on their shelves, that's enough to give you an advantage.

"Regardless of how many books the family already has, each addition to the home library helps children do better" in school, the study says. "Each additional book has a greater impact on the performance of someone who had only a small home library than it does on the performance of someone from a home overflowing with books."

With this in mind, a new program is looking to make books more accessible to children and their families than ever before.

Photo by George Redgrave/Flickr.

More than $250 million worth of e-books are soon going to be available to kids in need — for free.

And these aren't just any titles. A handful of major publishers have signed on to the program, so these are thousands of popular, award-winning books handpicked by the Digital Public Library of America's Curation Corps.

It's part of President Obama's ConnectED initiative to bring broadband Internet and educational materials to kids around the country. The New York Public Library agreed to take on the task of creating a special e-reader for this new program.

It's called Open eBooks, and it's going to make a big difference in the lives of children and families who can't afford to stock their shelves with lots of books.

The Open eBooks app interface. Images from the New York Public Library/Apple App Store.

First lady Michelle Obama posted a video to the White House's YouTube page announcing Open eBooks' launch last week.

GIFs via The White House/YouTube.

For children with access to the app, it'll be like having a library in the palm of their hands.

Access to the app's library will be provided by a child's school, local library, after-school program, or from other programs aimed at kids in need.

Visually, the app is a lot like other e-reader apps such as Amazon Kindle or iBooks. The big difference is that the book selection is aimed at children in kindergarten through 12th grade and that all the books are free to borrow.

An example of one of the books. Images from the New York Public Library/Apple App Store.

Some barriers remain — for example, what about kids from families who don't own tablets or smartphones? — but that gap is closing.

A recent study found that 85% of families living below the poverty line with children between the ages of 6 and 13 have a tablet or smartphone. One goal of the ConnectED initiative is making it easier for children to borrow these devices from schools or local libraries, as well as gaining access to Wi-Fi.

Do physical books no longer matter? Of course they do. Open eBooks isn't meant to completely replace physical books, but rather to complement them. It's just another building block helping level the playing field between kids who come from houses stocked full of books and kids whose parents can't otherwise afford to keep books and reading material on their shelves.

It's ensuring a future in which all kids can experience that same magical feeling you felt when you read your favorite book as a kid.

You can learn more about Open eBooks at the program's website, and you can watch Michelle Obama's launch announcement below.

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Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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