Free books for children build brains and spur achievement

ADDISON COUNTY — It’s Tuesday morning at the Lawrence Memorial Library and Jensen Ringey is enjoying a good book the best way he knows how. The 13-month-old is sitting on his dad’s lap, enjoying the story his dad, Jameson, is reading out loud.
A little later, Jensen strikes out on his own, gleefully turns some pages and gently gnaws a corner. He looks up and beams, as only a 13-month-old can. There’s nothing like a good book!
“He’s definitely eating them,” said his mom, Jessie Ringey, 24, about Jensen’s early explorations of the power of reading. “And now that he’s turned one, he’s turning the pages and letting me get all the way through a book without him moving on to something else.”
Like more than 1,000 other kids throughout Addison County, Jensen is enrolled in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. Each month a book comes in the mail with his name on it, no charge and no strings attached. The program serves kids birth to five. The only requirements: live in Addison County and sign up.
   JENSEN RINGEY OF Bristol looks through the classic children’s book “Goodnight Moon” while sitting in the Lawrence Memorial Library in Bristol Monday morning. The Ringey family participates in the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell   
Dolly Parton launched the Imagination Library in 1996, in part as a tribute to her beloved “daddy,” Robert Lee Parton, a hard-working farmer and construction worker who never learned to read but who believed in her big dreams. The program initially served just Sevier County, where Parton grew up in eastern Tennessee. It became available nationwide in 2000 and today serves over 1 million kids in the United States.
In Addison County, the program is about to clock its first decade.
In April 2007, Middlebury’s Ilsley Public Library began offering Parton’s tot-sized free book-of-the-month club to its youngest patrons — the first such offering in the state of Vermont. When Bridport resident Dinah Bain heard about Ilsley’s new program, she thought it was so important it should be expanded to serve all the county’s children.
Bain got to work finding like-minded individuals and the organization Addison County Readers was born. Ten years later, the all-volunteer group is still going strong, putting Imagination Library books into the region’s littlest hands.
Retired Ilsley children’s librarian Carol Chatfield remembers that when she first offered the program about 50 families signed up. Addison County Readers was organized and operational by end of summer that same year and by January 2008, Bain said, the group had 451 children registered countywide.
Today the Imagination Library reaches 1,150 children through Addison County Readers — around 70 percent of eligible children.
Earlier in 2017, ACR reached a milestone of 100,000 books distributed to preschoolers over the first Addison County decade. The group focuses on outreach: getting the word out about the program, signing up as many kids as possible, and raising needed funds. Twelve months of books costs $30 per child.
Alongside its many volunteers and donors, ACR partners with United Way of Addison County, which acts as its 501(c)3 umbrella, and with Ilsley Public Library, which provides a database for registration.
The program is designed to start with infants and help carry that child confidently into the first day of kindergarten.
Jensen’s big sister Jordyn, now five, has “aged out” of the Imagination Library. Now in preschool, Jordyn will start kindergarten in the fall.
“Jordyn loved it,” her mother said. “She loved the fact that it comes in her name and in the mail so she gets mail. She was very excited about that and then of course reading them, getting different books every time. It was like opening a present.”
ACR board member and Lawrence Memorial Library Children’s Librarian Marita Bathe-Schine explained that the first book every child receives is “The Little Engine that Could.”
From there, books are tailored to children developmentally. Babies get simple, easy-to-use board books (and other easy-to handle formats) with big, bright colorful drawings. One-year-olds learn about colors and numbers. Two-year-olds get books that help introduce feelings. And so on, covering everything from trucks to dragons to Peter Rabbit to llamas in pajamas.
Each year of a child’s life the selection grows in complexity so that by age four children are learning about science, hearing folk tales and enjoying rhymes and poetry.
Audrey Beckwith, 37, said that her four-year-old, Mikko, loved the March title, “Violet the Pilot,” about a girl who builds her own plane out of scraps of wood and flies with her trusty dog alongside.
“I feel like they’re pretty cool about having different kids, different colors, different backgrounds,” said Beckwith. “That’s really important to me because we’re a diverse family. And then this last one with the girl who was an inventor and an engineer — that’s awesome because 50 years ago it would have been a boy. So I’m glad that they’re picking out some good authors in the book club.”
Having a favorite book right on the family bookshelf is great too, said Beckwith, because of how much young kids love repetition. Case in point, Imagination Library selection “The Gruffalo” by Julia Donaldson.
“Kids this age they’ll read a good book over and over and over again. It’s not like you read it once and you put it on the shelf. When Mikko first started getting into books, “The Gruffalo” was a favorite, and we read it every single night or day. I didn’t even have to look at the words. I knew it by heart after awhile.
“And he knew it too. I’d read a sentence and I’d stop and he’d finish the phrase or the page — which was so fun just listening to him know the story so well.”
With two jobs and two kids and she and her husband also starting their own business, Beckwith says the convenience of knowing there’ll be a new book in the mail really helps out. And like most parents with young children, she loves the price tag.
“The fact that this is absolutely free is so awesome,” she said.
Schine said that one of the things she loves most about the Imagination Library is the ways it builds connections between children who get excited when they realize they’ve all enjoyed the same book.
While no data can compete with the joy of holding a child on your lap and sharing a great book, ACR board member Mary Dodge nodded toward the positive effect that early shared reading has on the developing brain and on improved academic achievement and the growing data on the importance of having books in the home.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2014 issued a policy statement recommending parent-child home reading beginning at birth and continuing at least through kindergarten,” said Dodge in an email.
Moreover, she added, “There is research, from data collected in the U.S. and internationally, that indicates that children who have had experiences with books at home start school with an advantage.
“Importantly, the impact of having books in the home is stronger than the impact of parent occupation or education.”
Meanwhile, back at the library, Imagination Library graduate Jordyn Ringey tugs on her mom’s sleeve with an important question.
“Mom can we take some books out?”
Getting a big yes, Jordyn turns to her dad and shares her news.
“We can take some books out!” she says excitedly.
To learn more about Addison County Readers and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library in Addison County, go to addisoncountyreaders.org.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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