Arts & CultureKiddie Dope

Free Kids’ Book Program Expands, and the Hungry Caterpillar Comes to Athens

As adults, we tend to forget about the simple joy of getting something in the mail. We’ve grown jaded by bills, credit card offers and general junk. When was the last time we got something that was truly a surprise and just for us to enjoy? So, for kids, you can understand why the mailbox is a magical thing—and this is also why a literacy program supported by the United Way of Northeast Georgia is such a hit.

The United Way funds the delivery of books, provided by the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, to about 2,500 children younger than 5 in Clarke County and another 1,000 in Oconee County. I can say these are a hit, because both of my children have received books through this program. When my 3-year-old discovers he has a book in the mailbox, it becomes his focus for the rest of the evening.

The fact that we even have this program is unique; it’s one of just a handful in Georgia. In Tennessee, where the Dolly Parton Imagination Library is based, the state pays for every child to receive books through the program. Typically, parents sign their child up when they’re in the hospital, still in the blur of having just given birth. The books begin arriving every month, which means that by the time the child is 5 and ready for kindergarten, they have a home library of about 60 books.

This is a big deal. Just getting kids to understand the concept of a book is something not all children get to experience. With this program, kids get to hold them and practice turning the pages, even if they don’t know what the words are. But beyond that, the United Way now has some concrete data showing the benefits of receiving the books. Mark Madison, director of community impact for the United Way, said information provided by the Clarke County School District shows children who have received the books do start school better prepared. “We were able to find that kids who got our books did 10% better on reading evaluations going into kindergarten, and they are twice as likely to be in gifted programs,” he said.

The program serves all children 5 and younger, regardless of income; it’s funding that keeps all 7,500 children in Clarke County younger than 5 from getting the books. A new partnership with the Athens Housing Authority is bringing the numbers up slightly: In January, the AHA began sponsorship of books for all its resident children in this age range, which is more than 300 kids. Officials are going door to door to sign up families for the free program, and also plan to host family reading nights, dinners and other events to promote reading and literacy.

But even if the United Way had the funding for all 7,500 children in Clarke County (and about 2,300 in Oconee) age 5 and younger, the money is only part of the equation. (FYI, a donation of $31 covers adding a child to the program; $155 covers that child for all five years.) The other part is just getting the word out. If you missed the sign-up in the hospital, or you moved to the area after your child was born, but they’re still too young to be in school, there’s also a window of opportunity in late summer, as children age out of the program and head to kindergarten, and the United Way recruits new parents at the school district’s Early Learning Center.

Now that I understand more about the program, I feel lucky to have been able to experience it with two kids. My oldest was among the first to sign up—she was born in 2007, the year the program launched with funding from the Ferst Foundation. It’s changed a bit over the years, but in 2012, the United Way began working exclusively with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library. No matter how the books are delivered, it’s interesting to see the variety of age-appropriate books that arrive, along with the opportunity to learn about new stories and authors.

Some of the books are classics, such as The Little Engine That Could, but most are not that familiar. It really doesn’t matter, though—it’s a great way to discover new authors and also develop new favorites, like the Corduroy and Llama Llama series.

Madison’s goal is to be able to send books to 70% of the children in the county within a decade. The program also dovetails with Books for Keeps, another literacy-focused nonprofit that picks up where the Dolly Parton Imagination Library leaves off by providing age-appropriate books to elementary-age children.

“I tell people, if they support this program, your county is better off,” Madison says. “These will be your future employees, and these kids are developing soft skills that will benefit everyone down the road.”

The Hungry Caterpillar: Bring your young reader to the Athens-Clarke County Library between 10:30–11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Apr. 23, for a special event with a very hungry caterpillar. Avid Bookshop and the library are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the release of the classic book by Eric Carle. Kids of all ages are welcome to come to the library for this free event, meet the caterpillar, hear a reading from the book and take part in an activity.