Three years ago, country singer Dolly Parton partnered with the city of D.C. to kick-start an initiative that aimed to promote literacy in young children by giving free books to to children. The ‘Books From Birth’ program sees enrolled children get a free book every month, up until their fifth birthday. After three-and-a-half years in action, the program has now given out over 1 million books, with Parton describing it as a “remarkable achievement to celebrate” in a letter she wrote to city officials. At the time of writing, nearly 35,000 children in D.C. are registered with the program.
Rich Reyes-Gavilan, the executive director of the D.C. Library, said: “That we’ve been able to hit one million books probably faster than any municipality I know that has implemented a similar program means there’s a thirst for early literacy in the city.”
As DCist reports, the ‘Books From Birth’ program is part of Parton’s Imagination Library, which first launched in 1995 and aims to improve literacy in children. The charity originally focused on children from Parton’s hometown of Sevier County, Tennessee, though it has come to support children from several counties and states across the U.S, and has even expanded overseas to the United Kingdom, Australia, Ireland, and Canada. While the ‘Books From Birth’ program has reached the 1 million milestone, the charity as a whole has given over 125 million books to children around the world.
The program is based on the fact that a child’s brain expands greatly in the first five years of their life, and research has shown that reading to youngsters under five helps to improve their educational development. Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen was inspired to introduce the ‘Books From Birth’ program to D.C. after visiting his niece in Tennessee who received a book from the mail.
“I was working on trying to come up with some ideas around ways to address the literacy gap that we see, and I happened to go down to visit my brother and his family down in Tennessee,” he said. “We were sitting around and all of a sudden the mailman shows up and my niece goes running to the mailbox and there’s a book. I had a really strong hunch this would be really impactful.”
Allen and Reyes-Gavilan understood that the initiative would be most effective if it targeted children who were most in need of books, so they began an outreach that targeted lower income neighborhoods to help get families signed up. “It’s important for us to do outreach in Wards 5, 7, and 8 because we want to contribute to the elimination of the achievement gap. We are firm believers that literacy from an early age and getting kids reading at grade level is a key to equity,” said Reyes-Gavilan.
The D.C. Library reports that those wards ranked among the highest in terms of book deliveries. Ward 4 has the highest with 180,767 recipients, Ward 8 came in second with 169,007, Ward 5 fllwed with 156,369, and Ward 7 at 153,568. Ward 2 and 3 had the lowest number of books delivered, with 48,820 and 77,284 respectively.
The books sent out are chosen by the imagination Library, and Reyes-Gavilan commented on how happy his is with the quality and diversity of the books children receive. “There’s something incredibly powerful about the fact that every kid in D.C. can see themselves in the pages. It’s an incredibly diverse array of books, there’s different languages, kids of different backgrounds. My hope is every single child will see themselves in the pages of these books,” he said.
The program costs D.C. just under $1 million a year, a figure many will agree is a small price to pay. However, for those unconvinced, it also adds the second benefit of increasing the number of visitors to the neighborhood libraries, especially those who have gained a love of books froth the program.
“The biggest complaint that I get about this program is that it stops at age five,” said Allen. “The number of five year olds that are upset when they get their last book really makes the case we should keep this going. But that’s why we have beautiful libraries ready for them. We want to get them in those doors.”