It is bedtime, and quiet has finally fallen over the house. Toys are put away, at least for the most part. Homework is completed, and everyone has bathed and is tucked in bed.
One of the children asks for a bedtime story. The parent obliges, and the child drifts off to sleep, with images from far-off places, daring adventures and endless possibilities floating in their head.
This is a familiar ritual for many, but not a normal routine for a pair of sisters in second and third grades at May Street Elementary School in Hood River, Oregon.
“Upon arrival, neither girl was literate in her native tongue, nor could she speak any English,” says Damien Elderkin, an English language development teacher at May Street. “Their education had been tumultuous, to say the least, with constant interruptions in their schooling. Due to school cancellations and closures, the girls had attended school less than 50% of the time.”
Thanks to help from teachers, countless volunteer hours by many who sat side by side reading with each girl and the many books donated through First Book—an organization dedicated to providing high-quality books and programs and schools that serve low-income communities—both girls have learned to read and write in their native language and are learning English.
“As their skills have developed, much more than just their literacy abilities have blossomed,” Damien says. “We have watched them emerge, like new butterflies, into a literate world. Now, these once-silent girls laugh and joke, speak with minimal hesitation with adults and are developing healthy peer relationships.
“They still have a lot to learn, but as their abilities grow, so does their confidence. They show excitement for new education challenges and beam with confidence when they understand each new concept.”
Making Books Available
First Book and Dolly Parton Imagination Library are two programs committed to fostering a love of reading by providing books to those who may not otherwise have access.
Since 1992, First Book has distributed more than 225 million books and educational resources across the United States and Canada, reaching 5 million children a year in 1.3 million classrooms.
The organization buys books and places them on First Book Marketplace, where educators and program participants can buy them at a low cost and distribute them.
Renowned singer and songwriter Dolly Parton launched Imagination Library in 1995, in honor of her father.
“My daddy could not read or write, so I grew up seeing how limiting it can be,” Dolly says. “I often say he was the smartest man I have ever known, but I always wonder what else he could have done if he knew how to read.”
Through Imagination Library, free, high-quality books are mailed each month to children from birth to age 5, no matter their family’s income.
The book-gifting program has rapidly expanded, with 3,745 community partners in the United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and Canada.
Recently, the foundation announced 10% of eligible children in the United States younger than age 5 receive Imagination Library books each month.
“Our place in all of this is pretty simple,” Dolly says. “We want to inspire a love of books. Kids are pretty simple in that they will do what they love to do, and we want to inspire children to love books and reading. To inspire that love, we knew we had to start the moment a child was born. This is the entire point of my Imagination Library.
“I want to make it easy for parents to read to their children. I want the child to feel the magic of a book arriving and the excitement of opening it up. This love of books will last a lifetime.”
The organization reports that children who are a part of the program are twice as likely to read every day, and 85% of participants read three times a week.
Participants reported a 29% increase in children ready for kindergarten, significantly stronger reading skills and higher reading achievement test scores compared with nonparticipating peers, from kindergarten through third grade.
“For over 27 years, we’ve been giving books to children in their homes every month,” says Nora Briggs, North America executive director for the Dollywood Foundation. “Dolly calls this her heart program. She pictures families connecting, snuggling and sharing a great story together.”
When children see their parents read, it leaves a lasting impression.
“While brain development and community impact take place, fundamentally it is about connecting families around books and knowing that children will continue to do what they love doing,” Nora says. “Families connect with us to share that they are reading together more as a family, that different generations are reading and improving reading skills, that children want to read and want to be read to.”
Participants also describe a healing effect in the community that is manifested in neighborhood literacy initiatives, increased library use, and connection to adult and dual-language reading programs.
Breaking the Cycle of Illiteracy
According to Traveling Stories—an organization dedicated to making literature accessible to low-income children—in 2022, more than 6 million American schoolchildren will experience negative academic, social and personal outcomes due to poor reading and literacy skills.
The organization reports 82% of children from low-income families read below grade level, and children unable to read at a proficient level by the fourth grade are 15 times more likely to drop out of school—drastically altering the trajectory of their lives and curbing their future earning potential.
With the help of First Book, the Hood River sisters were able to avoid being caught in that cycle and have bright futures.
“The girls have been participating in the First Book program for three years,” Damien says. “Their parents, with their limited English, have been excited and grateful for receiving the new books. Due to the First Book-Hood River County program, their home library has gone from zero books to more than 30 books, including books in their native language, English, bilingual, multiple reading levels and at least one bilingual dictionary.”
First Book operates through the work of volunteers such as Nancy Paul.
“It really affects families because we know how few books low-income families have,” Nancy says. “The important thing with developing literacy is access to books. What I’ve seen in the home is the child has the book and they bring it home and they want their parents to read it to them. It’s the best toy they have.
“Kids used to say, ‘Where’s your bag, where’s your bag’ because when we visited, our bag always had a book in it. They always get so excited about someone visiting them with books. We always stress developing bedtime routines, and the parent learns a good way to put a child to bed is reading books with them, which is not a lot of those parents’ experiences.”
ABOUT THE SERIES: Pioneer Utility Resources, publisher of this magazine, is taking readers on a yearlong journey, The Learning Curve, highlighting success stories in rural education in challenging times. The series receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, a private nonprofit foundation serving nonprofits across the Pacific Northwest.