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Remember your first book? One group hopes you don’t

Remember that favorite book from your childhood, the one that made you fall in love with reading? One organization in New York wants your experiences with books to start even before those memories.

Family Reading Partnership is an Ithaca, New York-based nonprofit that works with local and national organizations to promote reading in families.

“Our goal is creating a culture of literacy in which all children have early, frequent and pleasurable experiences with books,” said Elizabeth Stilwell, interim co-director of Family Reading Partnership.

The organization was founded in 1997 by a small group of volunteers. Armed with a grant through the local school district, they teamed up with Health Department workers in the Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, nutrition program for low-income mothers. They found that parents would read to their children in waiting rooms, but they didn’t have books at home to continue the practice.

At the same time, kindergarten teachers in what Stilwell described as an “upper middle class” community noticed that some children were coming to school with little or no experience with books.

The volunteers realized that not only did they need to make sure all families had access to books to encourage reading at home, but there needed to be more opportunities for the community as a whole to enjoy books.

The Family Reading Partnership was born and began tapping into existing systems, like the Health Department, to foster a culture of literacy. The group gives WIC mothers a book called “Rah, Rah, Radishes! A Vegetable Chant” by April Pulley Sayre. “It’s the perfect book for us to be able to give the message that just as you’re feeding your baby’s body, you need to be able to feed their brain,” Stilwell said.

But she said the group doesn’t just focus on low-income families. “We’re not making an assumption that families with fewer financial resources aren’t reading to their kids, but people with more financial resources are. We want to promote a culture of literacy for all families so that reading is the norm.”

An annual Kids' Book Fest combines reading with games and art projects. Photo courtesy of Family Reading Partnership

An annual Kids’ Book Fest combines reading with games and art projects. Photo courtesy of Family Reading Partnership

In another initiative, the group gives every baby at birth the book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle. “It’s an engaging story of love, hope and promise of this little caterpillar becoming a beautiful butterfly,” said Stilwell.

Babies may not be learning to read yet, but they still benefit from hearing words and sounds, she said.

“In order for children to learn to read down the road, they need a vocabulary of about 5,000 words,” said Stilwell, who is also an early childhood specialist. “It’s the connection around the book that provides this extra language, so children begin to be curious and ask questions about what they see.”

To encourage families to create a habit of visiting the library, newborn babies are given a “library card” to all six libraries in Tompkins County. “For families who haven’t grown up using libraries or haven’t felt welcome there or for whatever reason aren’t readers themselves, it’s often a big deal” to walk through those doors, said Stilwell.

So the organization ensures that libraries are equipped for families, including having a selection of board books for babies, a diaper changing station and playtime where families can connect. Participating libraries also waive overdue charges for board books.

Family Reading Partnership works with doctors to give their little patients a new book at each wellness checkup. For example, four-month-old patients get the board book “Moo Baa La La La” by Sandra Boynton. It’s suitable because “they’re babbling, they’re starting to play with language,” said Stilwell.

As a toddler, when they’re more interested in running than reading, “That’s a great time to have a book on their high chair while they’re eating breakfast,” she added.

A program called “Bright Red Bookshelves” provides gently used books at different sites around the city. Photo courtesy of Family Reading Partnership

A program called “Bright Red Bookshelves” provides gently used books at different sites around the city. Photo courtesy of Family Reading Partnership

There are 12 programs in all, spanning different levels of childhood development. Six staff members and an army of volunteers hand out about 15,000 new books a year and manage 53 “Bright Red Bookshelves” that circulate gently used books at police stations, day care centers and free clinics.

The partnership holds community-wide reading fests, where storybook characters come to life and children can make art projects and read to each other. The group’s most recent alliance is with the National Head Start Association; together they will sponsor a national read-aloud challenge in March for readers everywhere.

“We want to connect families to the joy of books,” Stilwell said. “If children really love books, the reading part will come later.”

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