D.C. Library Fosters Kids’ Love of Learning With 5 Years of Free Books

Children and their families can receive up to 60 books for free over five years.
Alyson Scherer-White reads a book with her two-year-old son, Ayden, at their home in Kensington, Maryland. (Photo: Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
Feb 4, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

“I think I can. I think I can.” Soon each child in the D.C. area will know the iconic phrase spoken by a tiny blue train engine determined to conquer a big hill to bring toys to local kids.

Children under the age of five will receive one book in the mail each month as part of the District of Columbia Public Library’s “Books From Birth” program. By simply registering their child online, families will receive a book in the mail free of charge, regardless of income. For their first book, children will get a copy of the 1930s classic The Little Engine That Could.

“Our support for Books From Birth shows we are serious about confronting the District’s literacy and achievement gaps at their starting point, well before those gaps show up in the classroom,” D.C. council member Charles Allen, who introduced a bill last year to create the program, said of the launch on Thursday.

Because toddlers learn the majority of their words and sounds from their caregivers’ talking, singing, and reading, story time is an integral part of a child’s early development and learning. Families need the resources to help tell those stories. By the time a child is three, researchers estimate, there is a 30-million-word gap between kids from the wealthiest families and those from the poorest families.

“The goal of the program is that by creating this sort of pathway to literacy, that word gap isn’t there,” George Williams, a D.C. Public Library spokesperson, told TakePart. That disparity can translate into achievement gaps in grade school and beyond.

Fewer than 35 percent of U.S. fourth graders read at or above a proficient level, according to a 2013 report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, D.C., falls below the national average, with just 23 percent of fourth graders at or above a proficient reading level. Children from minority and low-income families in D.C. are more likely to have lower reading-proficiency levels than their white or wealthy peers, according to figures from the state superintendent.

Allen is confident the free book program will help close the gap. The program was created in partnership with the Imagination Library, a free-book program for kids in Tennessee created by country music singer Dolly Parton in 1995.

Parton’s program has proved successful. Teachers in Tennessee rated children who participated as more prepared for pre-K and kindergarten, according to a report from the Urban Child Institute and Memphis City Schools. Participants in Memphis were four times more likely to score in the highest percentile in reading readiness exams. Families in the program also reported more time spent reading together and a higher interest from children in books and learning.

Library officials in D.C. hope the “Books From Birth” program will be a jumping-off point for kids to get interested in reading and that it will usher in the next generation of library users.

“We want to use these programs to get kids excited about reading and be ready when they start school,” said Williams. “Our hope is that one book will inspire them to want a ton more books.”