Once a month, my 2-year-old son pulls a brand-new book, addressed just for him, out of the mailbox. He runs it up the driveway to the house and begs to read it at bedtime. Usually a couple days later, his little brother gets one too. He chews on it.
One of their favorite books so far is called I Can Share. It’s a pop-up book published by Penguin Putnam, and they like to fight over it, almost as much as they like to smack each other to gain possession of another book entitled No Hitting. But as I watch my 10-month-old’s Cheerio-encrusted digits pry I Can Share from his sibling’s Crayola-stained hand, I don’t even care that the wordless shrieking is reaching a fever pitch. All I can hear is that my boys love books.
And that is exactly the point of Books From Birth, the statewide program that delivers a free, age-appropriate book each month to every Tennessee resident under age 5. In 2002, Phil Bredesen campaigned for governor with the promise that he would expand Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library statewide as a first step toward giving every Tennessee child the tools to read at grade level by the end of third grade. Parton founded the Imagination Library in her East Tennessee home of Sevier County in 1996 to foster a love of reading in all children, regardless of economic circumstance and to help level the playing field for children entering school. Since that time the program has spread to 80 counties in Tennessee and become a hallmark of Gov. Bredesen’s administration.
Under the Books From Birth initiative, the state ponies up $2 million a year, which is matched by private donors, including Ingram Industries, CBRL Group Foundation, Cumberland Bank, Alcoa Foundation and NashvilleRead, to fund the $27 annual cost per child. So far, private donors have contributed nearly $215,000. The Governor’s Books From Birth Foundation partners with the Imagination Library to implement the program, which relies on a panel of publishers and educators to select appropriate books. All children who enroll in the program receive as their first gift The Little Engine That Could.
Books From Birth of Middle Tennessee administers the program for Davidson and Williamson Counties, where more than 10,250 children have enrolled since the kick-off in March 2005. In Davidson County, almost 38,000 children are eligible to receive Books From Birth. This fall, Williamson County joined the program, with approximately 10,000 kids eligible for the need-blind program. In the first two weeks, more than 1,000 kids in Williamson County signed up.
The distribution of free books to Williamson County, one of the richest areas of the state, has drawn criticism as a profligate use of state funds, particularly during a health care crisis. But the cost of building administrative systems to assess the need of individual applicants would likely outstrip the cost to supply books to families who arguably don’t need the financial help. Adding a need-based component to the program would contradict Parton’s goal of providing books to everyone, regardless of family income, so that all children see books as gifts and none regard books as handouts. So far, almost 40 percent of BFBMT recipients live in eight of Nashville’s poorest zip codes.
BFBMT operates out of Vander-bilt Children’s Hospital. Staffed with two full-time employees, the program relies heavily on volunteers and the hospital’s team of physician-relations managers, who call on pediatricians and clinics every month and provide them with brochures to distribute to patients. Public libraries, daycare centers, churches and family resource centers also distribute the information, which has been translated into Spanish.
“It’s a really easy program,” says Mary Kate Mouser, who oversees the program at Vanderbilt. “Being at the hospital makes it really easy because there’s only a small percentage of kids between zero and 5 who won’t come into contact with a pediatrician.”
Getting books into the homes of all Tennessee children is just the first step, she says, adding that the program plans eventually to expand into reading and literacy programs.
How to enrollIf your child is under 5 years old and is a resident of Davidson or Williamson County:• Register online at www.vanderbiltchildrens.com/booksfrombirth• Download a form from the website and mail it in• Call BFBMT at 936-3554 and ask for Linda Wylie• Pick up a brochure at most pediatricians, daycare centers, family resource centers, libraries, Pre-K programs and birthing centers