CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Charleston Gazette is collecting gently used children's books to share with children around the state.The Gazette's Happy Valentine's Children's Book Drive runs from now until Feb. 14.Donors may drop off books at the newspaper's lobby at 1001 Virginia St. E., Charleston, seven days a week. Children's Home Society of West Virginia and Read Aloud West Virginia have agreed to help distribute the books to children who need them."Books are so important," said Gazette Publisher Elizabeth E. Chilton, who created the book drive. "If you love books, you just want to share them."Having books at home actually makes a difference in how far children go in school, according to a 20-year study published in 2010.Children in homes with their own books go further in school than those with no books at home, according to a study of families in 27 countries led by Mariah Evans, sociology professor at the University of Nevada.Having books at home made a difference whether families were rich or poor and whether parents were highly educated or not.In families with libraries of 500 books or more, children averaged another 3.2 years of education compared to those who had no books.Even smaller book collections made a difference. Families with as few as 20 books still showed a significant educational difference.Children need opportunities to practice the skills they learn in school, said Mary Kay Bond, executive director of Read Aloud West Virginia."You don't fall in love with books if you don't see them and you don't have access to them," she said.Other research has shown that children who read for pleasure read more often than kids who don't read for fun. Kids who read on their own also improve with practice and tend to make better grades and test scores than children who do not read for fun."We have a lot of research out there that suggests some of the simple and most effective ways to raise readers are overlooked," Bond said.Motivating students to be interested in reading, giving them reading materials of interest to them and then giving them opportunities to read can spark new habits."Those three things, whether you're applying it to reading or sports, have to be there," Bond said.Donated books will be distributed to children in many different circumstances. Some may be in foster homes or staying in shelters because of abuse or neglect. Many more donations will go to children in families whose biggest problem is poverty, who have nothing left after paying bills and buying groceries."When you are trying to survive, you're not thinking about buying books," said Mary White, chief operating officer at Children's Home Society.But poor children need access to books, too, and her agency routinely tries to put books in the hands of children who do not have easy access to them. She answers calls from families, other agencies and teachers looking for extra help for needy students."We want children to learn to read because if you learn to read your opportunities are far greater than if you don't learn to read," White said.The Happy Valentine's Children's Book Drive welcomes new books, but used books are fine. Books should be clean and in good shape and appropriate for children.Books that appeal to all kinds of readers are wanted. That means picture books and novels, but also board books for little ones, and non-fiction books about horses, dogs, cats, bugs, sharks, dinosaurs, pirates, sports, space and anything else that kids enjoy reading about. Joke books can be popular and inviting among new readers, as are "strange but true" science books."Very often the opportunity for children to read for fun gets drowned out with overscheduled children or because children are plugged in all the time," Bond said. In busy classrooms, many teachers feel like they cannot spare 15 minutes a day for students to read something just because it is of interest to them."Yet, we know when they do, they catch that reading habit, and the benefit extends beyond the school day," she said.Reach Dawn Miller at email@example.com or 304-348-5117.