- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006

NASHVILLE, Tenn.

Know the children’s book “Boom Chicka Rock”? Lynne Beery does — almost word for word. The day it arrived in the mail as part of the Imagination Library program, her 4-year-old daughter, Heavenly, asked her mom to read it 25 times. That’s more than 25 refrains of “Boom chicka rock, chicka rock, chicka boom!”

Miss Beery isn’t complaining. She likes having that time with her daughter, who has Down syndrome. Each month when a new book arrives, the little girl has the same reaction: “She’ll open the mailbox, grab it and jump on the couch with the book. I have to stop whatever I’m doing and read right then.”

The excitement is a big reason for the growing popularity of Imagination Library, a children’s literacy program started 10 years ago by country singer Dolly Parton in her native eastern Tennessee.

The program has expanded into 572 communities in 41 states. This year, Tennessee became the first to take it statewide; some lawmakers in Indiana want to do the same.

Sharyl Emberton of the National Center for Family Literacy in Louisville, Ky., says Imagination Library is well-structured, relatively inexpensive and — judging by what she hears from parents and educators — effective.

“We’ve worked with other literacy programs that put books in families’ hands, but in my opinion, this one is the best,” she says.

“There’s really a lot of attention paid to the kind of books they send to children, and the books are mailed directly to the child. … We’re talking about families that don’t have access to books. And it’s a continuing thing. A lot of the other programs don’t have that kind of continuity.”

Children who sign up are mailed one free book a month from birth to age 5, regardless of family income.

The books are chosen by a committee of specialists and are age-appropriate, with bright colors and shapes for infants, letters and numbers for toddlers and more complex story lines for older children.

The series begins with “The Little Engine That Could” and ends with “Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come.”

In Tennessee, the cost is $27 per child, with half the money coming from the state through matching grants and the rest from the communities, whether local governments, businesses or civic clubs. So far, 90 of Tennessee’s 95 counties are onboard.

“It’s just one of those things that when I heard about it I thought, ‘What a great idea. Why didn’t I think of that?’” says Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, who made the library part of his campaign platform and then secured $2 million for it.

Funding varies by location. For Miss Emberton, director of the literacy center’s program for American Indian families in 16 states, the cost of providing Imagination Library to about 2,500 children is paid by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The program was born of Miss Parton’s experience growing up in the Smoky Mountains, where children’s books and education were luxuries. She often wonders what her father, a tobacco farmer who scratched out a living for 12 children, could have accomplished had he known how to read and write.

“He couldn’t write his own name. He wouldn’t even recognize our names if he saw it on a paper, but my dad was one of the smartest people I knew. He just didn’t have an opportunity to get an education,” Miss Parton told Associated Press.

“I’ve had a scholarship fund for years, but I started thinking, wouldn’t it be great to start the children when they’re little, when they’re most impressionable, to teach them how to read, teach them how to learn to love books, just to have them, to claim them?”

State officials say that 35 percent of kindergartners arrive at school unprepared, with many never having been read to or even having books in their homes. Once they start behind the curve, it’s hard for them to catch up.

A 2004 study of Imagination Library by the Tennessee Board of Regents said reading aloud to children helps them acquire the skills necessary to read, contributes to parent-child bonding and leads to higher reading achievement in school. The study found that in one county, Macon, libraries noticed an increase in children applying for their first library cards, with most being recent graduates of Imagination Library.

By going statewide, Imagination Library will provide free books to children in all Tennessee counties — the poorest and the wealthiest. The median household income in Williamson County near Nashville, for example, is $75,201, more than twice that of Miss Parton’s Sevier County and the state average.

Still, there are skeptics. The Rev. Henry Blaze, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee for Equity in Nashville, an advocacy group for the poor, doubts that the children who need the books most will benefit.

“We all know that for the most part, those who really benefit from Imagination Library will be middle-class and upper-income parents,” he says. “There’s a support system that you are going to need if a child is going to read.”

Mr. Bredesen makes no apologies. Whether it’s the poorest county or the wealthiest county in the state, he says all pay taxes, and all are deserving.

“I think it’s a very good use of public money,” he says.

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