Toddler holds open storybook
BEGIN WITH BOOKS Gets Kids Reading

Toddler smiling while holding and reading book

The busy organization known as BEGIN WITH BOOKS is an offshoot of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. And boy, is it ever delivering. Books that is. Almost 200,000 of them for the lucky boys and girls of Charleston, South Carolina.

Kars4Kids was so happy to provide a small grant to this worthy organization which is doing so much to bolster children’s pre-literacy skills. Because we know that getting kids reading means getting them books the minute their moms bring them home from the hospital, as newborns.

We spoke with BEGIN WITH BOOKS Director Patty Bennett to find out more about this inspiring and successful effort!

Kars4Kids: BEGIN WITH BOOKS currently has 4,711 children enrolled from 12 different areas within Charleston County, and you’ve delivered a whopping 193,881 books to Charleston children. How long has BEGIN WITH BOOKS been in operation? How many children were in the program in its initial year?

Patty Bennett: BEGIN WITH BOOKS started operating in 2010 in three rural zip codes in Charleston County. At the end of our first year, 490 children were enrolled in the program.

Children listen intently as a blond woman reads a storybook to them

Kars4Kids: How do parents find out about BEGIN WITH BOOKS?

Patty Bennett: We try to be visible everywhere that families with small children might be. We have major partnerships with the school system, Head Start, and the public library, which promote enrollment with their families. We also have enrollment displays at daycares and nurseries, low-income health clinics, and social service organizations like housing authorities and DHEC.

Our community has a lot of public events for families, like back-to-school events or events in the parks, and we always have an enrollment table at these events. We also have several co-volunteers at our major maternity hospital who visit new parents and offer enrollment. Finally, now that our enrollment averages over 50% of local children, our word-of-mouth buzz is a pretty effective recruitment tool!

Grinning child looks at a storybook at a BEGIN WITH BOOKS presentation in a local park

Kars4Kids: BEGIN WITH BOOKS is an affiliate of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Did the Imagination Library initiate the founding of BEGIN WITH BOOKS?

Patty Bennett: No. Co-founder Janet Segal and I were looking for an entrepreneurial philanthropic opportunity in Charleston County. She and I did a lot of research to determine what services the area was lacking, and “baby literacy” showed up as an overwhelming deficit.

We began researching options nation-wide and found the Imagination Library. It was a perfect solution because it makes a huge impact with minimal infrastructure and is easily scalable. BEGIN WITH BOOKS has essentially become the early-literacy branch of every single education and social service agency in the County.

Happy child holds book next to smiling librarian

Kars4Kids: Why is this program so necessary in Charleston?

Patty Bennett: In 2018, U.S. News & World Report ranked South Carolina last in education in the U.S., and in Charleston County, fewer than half of third- and eighth-graders meet reading proficiency standards. One study indicated that more than two-thirds of 4-year-olds enter our kindergarten classrooms without the basic pre-literacy fundamentals they need to learn in school. Child poverty averages 40% in the areas BEGIN WITH BOOKS has targeted for service.

Also, in the most-rural areas of the County, it can be as far as 30 miles to the nearest library or book store. These families are up against real barriers of cost, time, and transportation to find literacy resources for their young children. Free, monthly delivery of books by mail was the perfect answer to all these challenges.

Happy child receives brand new book

Kars4Kids: Do BEGIN WITH BOOKS volunteers do more than enroll children and distribute books for delivery? Do they stay in touch with families or spend time reading to children?

Patty Bennett: We distribute a bi-monthly newsletter that helps us stay in touch and includes easy hints for improving family reading experiences. We have outreach volunteers who do guest story time readings in Head Start and pre-K classrooms. Our favorite thing is being greeted by a class full of 3-year-olds who already have our books at home and can finish sentences for our readers!

We also visit child-care centers and model reading activities with the care-givers. We always have wonderful interchanges with participating families when they visit our table at public events. We often hear a call of “That’s my book!” coming from a stroller where a toddler is pointing to the books on our display table.

Parent signs his baby up for the BEGIN WITH BOOKS program

Kars4Kids: When the books stop coming, when the child turns five, are families encouraged to somehow continue what BEGIN WITH BOOKS begins, for instance, to take membership in a local library?

Patty Bennett: In a child’s final month, s/he receives a copy of “Look Out, Kindergarten, Here I Come,” that contains a letter from Dolly Parton, congratulating them on finishing the program and wishing them success in school. We also send a personal note to each “graduate.” I admit I hadn’t thought of including a pitch for the public library, but I will start now!

Small Asian girl looks at storybook as big brother looks on

Kars4Kids: Why is it important that the books arrive in a clear plastic envelope?

Patty Bennett: Excitement! We get a lot of feedback from parents who report their children show real excitement about receiving their monthly books in the mail. By age 2, the children have figured out that they are going to get a book in the mail at some regular frequency, and they begin to anticipate the next delivery. When the book comes in the mail, everyone can see that it has arrived, and the picture on the cover immediately draws both child and parent to open the wrapping and dive into the book. As one of our parents put it, “A reading celebration occurs whenever our new book arrives in the mail!”

One of the great intangible benefits of this program is that it gets children (and their parents) excited about reading.

Smiling volunteer reads book to young child

Kars4Kids: The BEGIN WITH BOOKS website states that even illiterate parents can usually read at about a third-grade level, so even illiterate parents should be able to read books from BEGIN WITH BOOKS to their children. Has BEGIN WITH BOOKS measured parental participation? How many parents do come home from a long day at work and read to their children?

Patty Bennett: We have not measured this locally, but the Dollywood Foundation has. Their statistics show that during participation in the Imagination Library, daily reading with family members increases from 29% to 59%, and reading 3 times or more per week increases from 59% to 85%. Reading frequency is really important, because daily reading aloud during a child’s first 5 years can put him as much as one year ahead of his peers in literacy attributes when he enters first grade.

We have had unsolicited feedback from our local participating parents that indicates that the program really does encourage significantly increased reading activities:

“This is a beautiful program. I can’t say enough about the quality of the books. I can see its special value in my own grandchild, because it’s gotten us into the habit of reading every night. She loves to pick out which book she wants at bedtime; she’s only 2 and it’s already a routine!  We are so grateful.”

“Liam (age 2) just loves getting those books. You know that Goodnight Gorilla book?  He’s just crazy for it. If I don’t want to read it to him every night, he gets really angry!”

Storytime in the park

“My child love love to check the mail because he just cant wait for a new book to arrive. Everyday he sits and waits in 2:00 just to see if the book came. Then as soon as we get inside mommy can we read it now. My sweets boys all gather around for story time. Thanks a million.” (reproduced exactly as written, with errors)

“Thank you so much for the wonderful books! It was so exciting for the entire family when a new book would arrive. It was like a fun adventure for the kids because the book would be wrapped and they wouldn’t know what story was inside until we were ready for bed. What a great program you all have and again, thank you so much for doing this good work!”

One parent put it in a nutshell: “My children now insist upon being read to. This is a child-driven program!” 

Three smiling BEGIN WITH BOOKS volunteers

Kars4Kids: What are the criteria used to choose books? 

Patty Bennett: Books are chosen by the Imagination Library book selection committee. This diverse committee includes child development, education, health, and literary professionals. Prevalent themes and focus are inspiration and imagination. Other fundamental themes are love of reading and learning; regard for diversity of people, their roles, culture, and environment; promotion of self-esteem and confidence, appreciation of art and aesthetics.

Books are age- and developmentally appropriate and contain progressive characteristics specific to each child’s age, from vivid visuals, lullabies, and touch for infants; repetition, rhyming, colors and numbers for intermediate years; to school preparation, science, and appreciation for older children. The books include classics such as “The Snowy Day” and the Llama Llama series, as well as new releases and award winners. The lineup includes several bilingual titles (English/Spanish) and changes each year so that siblings do not receive exactly the same books as they cycle through the age groups.

Toddler holds open storybook

Kars4Kids: What’s next for BEGIN WITH BOOKS?

Patty Bennett: BEGIN WITH BOOKS has grown by 2-3 zip codes and about 700 children per year since 2010. We are now operational in all the rural and high-poverty areas of Charleston County, so we are not planning more expansion in the immediate future. We are going to concentrate on increasing our saturation in our existing service area – 15 rural and high-poverty zip codes — to ensure that our books get to the children who need them most.

We are also working with our partner, Palmetto Project, Inc. on an initiative to make the Imagination Library available state-wide. If we can secure funding at the state level – like Tennessee, Alaska, North Carolina, and the District of Columbia have done – then we can go county-wide with BEGIN WITH BOOKS. That’s our big dream!