Nearly 800 million adults around the world do not know how to read or write. Almost 3 billion people live in extreme poverty. There is a direct correlation between illiteracy and poverty. Often, children in low-income neighborhoods are only exposed to books at school -- but since their schools are very underfunded and there are no books in their classrooms, students have very little exposure to books overall. Since a child can only truly learn to read through constant practice, the absence of books greatly decreases the chances that these children will become literate. By creating a classroom library, we can provide those necessary resources for every student who passes through the classroom.

Literacy is essential for everything from basic tasks like navigating and driving, to survival issues like finding or maintaining a job. Illiteracy also has a direct correlation with the likelihood of continued poverty. In the United States, there are 32 million adults who can’t read. That adds up to 14% of America’s TOTAL population. Further, 21% of American adults read at below a fifth-grade level and the U.S. illiteracy rate hasn't changed in 10 years.

Reading has always been an incredibly important part of my life. For as long as I can remember I’ve been surrounded by books, and my mom read to me every day until I could read on my own. At 14 I began to realize the incredible impact that literacy had on my life after learning some startling statistics: Over 120 million children around the world are denied access to a basic education, 1.3 million students in the US drop out of school, and children who don’t learn to read face extreme challenges for the rest of their lives, especially poverty.

I decided I wanted to help as many children as possible have access to a high-quality education and in 2007 I founded Breaking the Chain. I’ve been working toward this goal and urging my community to join me.  Breaking the Chain seeks to break the bonds of illiteracy and poverty through education. Thus far, we have put thousands of new books in high-need classrooms across the U.S., built three schools and clean water systems for villages in Africa, in addition to creating a literacy center at a women’s shelter.

To maximize my impact, I use 5 main steps:

1. Learn about the need for literacy in the U.S. - It is critical for American students to read and write well. But many low-income households and classrooms in the U.S. do not have the funds to acquire books for their students, making it very difficult for them to practice reading, and therefore nearly impossible for the students to achieve literacy.

2. Partner with Scholastic - I reached out for help from Scholastic. They provided us with a list of great books which we could buy at low prices. With donated funds, we are able to buy about 250 books for only $500.

3. Fundraise, raise awareness, and inspire children to commit themselves to their education - I asked for donations from a variety of groups and individuals through letter writing, talks given to groups of students, friends, and family. We’ve also sought out grants from local businesses. People have been so generous and supportive. We have been able to provide over 20,000 new books to classrooms in high-need elementary schools.

4. Inspire community action through Partner Schools - We have worked to forge stronger community involvement by creating Partner Schools. Students have formed chapters of Breaking the Chain at their schools to raise money and conduct book drives to provide books for high-need classrooms. We have worked to encourage all students to become more engaged in their own education and to give back to their communities so we can reach as many schools and children as possible.

5. Donate books to schools - We identify classrooms in great need of books, and then we provide each classroom with 150-250 books with a wide range of reading levels and subjects to match student needs and interests. The books stay with the classroom for many years, so that every student who passes through that classroom will have access to a library of books. We focus on elementary school classrooms since that is the time when access to books is most important to achieving literacy.

Below is a list of supporting documents and different ways people can help:

PRIORITY #1: Start Your Own Breaking The Chain Chapter at YOUR School

Starting your own chapter is easy and fun, especially if you like stories and reading.

PRIORITY #2: Share The Facts About Literacy

Children who do not learn to read by fifth grade will likely remain illiterate for the rest of their lives and face extreme challenges and poverty for the rest of their lives.

PRIORITY #3: Use Social Media to Increase Awareness

Share a video or written content that gives your audience some context and information so they will want to get involved.

  • Riley Carney graduated from high school in May 2011. She attended traditional schools until she was a sophomore in high school, at which point she began studying at home through Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and other online programs, so that she would have time to speak at schools and libraries around the country, write, and run her non-profit. She is a published author and philanthropist. She is passionate about eliminating illiteracy and poverty for children around the world and believes teaching children to read will break the cycle of poverty. As a teenager, she wrote books for teens from a unique perspective. Her stories are exciting, filled with action, humor, and characters who kids can relate to. At the age of fifteen she wrote the first book in "The Reign of the Elements" 5-book series, finishing the 5th book at sixteen. Riley has won a number of awards, including the Coca-Cola Scholarship, AXA Equitable/U.S. News & World Report Achievement Scholars, and more.


Brilliant Author

Author of a 5 book series at just 15...

The Fire Stone: Book One of The Reign of the Elements is the story of fifteen-year-old Matt, who knows how to shovel hay, dig trenches, and dodge his father’s whip; but when three terrifying creatures attack Matt, and he is rescued by a wizard, he kidnaps a baby alorath, and is befriended by elves, Matt’s life transforms overnight from dreary to astonishing. When he unwittingly joins a quest to find the Fire Stone, one of the elusive Stones of the Elements which have the power to destroy the world, Matt is thrust into a string of perilous adventures. He soon discovers that magic does exist and that he has extraordinary powers that can change his destiny and determine the fate of Mundaria.

The Immortality Scroll: Book Four of The Reign of the Elements was released July 24, 2011.

The Water Stone: Book Two of The Reign of the Elements and The Wind Stone is a continuation of the adventures of Matt and his friends, and was released in 2010.

The Wind Stone: Book Three of The Reign of the Elements is a continuation of the adventures of Matt and his friends, and was released in 2011.

The Final Alliance: Book Five of The Reign of the Elements was released March 30, 2012.

Young Author Interview & Book giveaway: Riley Carney, Writer Inspired, October 18th, 2010

Imagine being only 17-years-old and having landed a 5-book series! Welcome our young guest, Riley Carney, today as she talks about her love of writing and helping combat to world-wide illiteracy with her nonprofit organization: Breaking The Chain. More...

Awards & Stand Outs

Breaking The Chain: Working to elimiate pverty for children through education and literacy, Affect Magazine, 5/30/14

Coca-Cola Scholarship

Through her words and actions, Riley Carney proves that nothing is impossible. More...


AXA Achievement Scholarship/US News & World Report

As with Scholarships in previous years, 52 students – one from each state, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico – have been awarded college scholarships of $10,000.  Of those 52 winners, 10 students have been chosen as national winners and will receive an additional $15,000 scholarship award and a new laptop computer. More...

Build A Bear Huggable Heros National Award

We salute all the young people who are making our world a better place through their generosity and kindness. These young people have devoted countless hours to raising funds and awareness for so many causes. More...


Prudential Spirit of Community Award, State Winner More...


Meet young social entrepreneur Riley Carney!,, June 1, 2011

I first met Riley Carney on Twitter. As you can see in her profile, she’s 18, has published 3 books (so far), and founded a nonprofit organization for children’s literacy. Pretty amazing, huh? I knew right away she was somebody I wanted to follow! More...

The Power of Words

Harvard Speaks with Riley Carney, "The Power of Words"


Amazing Kid: Teen Helps Break the Chains of Poverty Through Literacy,, June 15th, 2010

Riley Carney is just 16 years old, but she realized early on the link between literacy and poverty. At age 14, she founded Breaking the Chain, an organization that strives to provide educational opportunities for children living in poverty, both in the United States and abroad. More...

Loving To Write, Adventures in YA Publishing, August 10, 2011

Today's WOW guest is the amazing Riley Carney, who was fifteen when she wrote the first book in the five-book THE REIGN OF THE ELEMENTS series. Now eighteen, she has just completed an exciting new YA, urban fantasy trilogy for teens, but is also following her passion for eradicating illiteracy and poverty for children around the world. More...

KooDooZ Feature

KooDooZ has worked with a number of youth social entrepreneurs to “mash-up” new approaches to philanthropy, imaging and supporting new ways to affect change.  This video is purposed to showcase youth participation as Social Entrepreneurs using the KooDooZ system.

Similar Innovations