Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

April 29, 2013

A decade of books for children

Mike James
The Independent

SUMMIT — Every one of the 140 preschoolers sitting on the floor in their pajamas knew the words to “Five Little Monkeys” by heart, and proved it by reciting lines from the book in unison, at the top of their lungs.

That didn’t make them any less excited to receive their own personal copies of the children’s favorite Thursday morning at the Boyd County Early Learning Center.

The children also got four other books apiece, which meant they went home that day with the beginnings of a personal library of stories, nursery rhymes and alphabet books.

Every volume was personalized with the child’s name on a bookplate, and what made it special was that the books were brand new: not a scuff on the cover, not a dog-eared page in the lot.

The children received the books free, courtesy of the First Book program, which for nearly 10 years has been putting books in the hands of children and introducing them to the joys of reading.

In that time First Book has distributed more than 80,000 books to some 900 children in Head Start and preschool programs in the three school districts in Boyd County.

Looking back on the first decade, First Book advisory board chairman Bill Burch reflected Thursday on building the program and maintaining it for a second 10 years.

Burch, a former principal in the Ashland district, organized the board in 2004 after learning about and researching the national First Book program.

He had read reports of a truckload delivery of books to children in Harlan County and what struck him, as a retired educator, was the need for more children to have their own books.

Research shows that high percentages of children from low income families don’t have books in their homes, Burch said. “The mission of First Book is to get books in the hands of our most needy children,” he said.

It does so by forming local advisory boards that raise money to buy books, and scouts out supplies of books at lower than usual prices.

The books are age-appropriate and titles are chosen by the teachers. For instance, Head Start teacher Karla Conrad chose, among others, “Animal Alphabet,” an alphabet picture book in the “Little Einstein” series, based on what she knows about her pupils.

“At this age they like real pictures,” Conrad said. She was referring to the profuse selection of photographs that illustrate the book. “And the kids love animals and the ‘Little Einstein’ books.”

She chose some books the children already can read by themselves, or at least, in the case of “Five Little Monkeys,” recite the words they know by heart. That puts them in tune with the rhythm of the words and the shapes of the letters, she said.

It was the first distribution for children at the Summit center, which previously had gotten books through another grant. That grant expired, however, and First Book filled the gap.

The books weren’t absolutely free to the center, but it paid pennies on the dollar based on the retail value, according to director Jennifer Watts.

The local First Book board typically raises $10,000 to $12,000 per year, which is enough for about 5,000 books.

In an era of scaled-back giving, Burch said he will be happy if  he can maintain the program at its current level. “We want to encourage kids to read and to learn to love reading. We want them to take books home and read to their brothers and sisters, their parents and their grandparents,” he said.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.