Johnny Montenegro, for example, was at the Hurley Fair last June when he saw the Nelsons seated behind a small table, with the Imagination Library banner fluttering overhead.
"At first I thought the whole thing was a gimmick," he recalls, but still decided to register his two youngest children, Lucy, age four, and Joseph, age two. Now, several months and several books later, Montenegro praises the program to everyone he can.
"There is no better thing you can do for your children than read to them," he says. "And for me, it's comfort time with my kids — just us, nothing but a book and our imaginations. As I read, I watch their eyes as they try to imagine what is going on in the story."
He adds that he wants to plant the seed of reading "deep inside their heads" as they begin their formal schooling.
A few parents, however, have displayed a level of unawareness that, in effect, condemns their children to the same often bleak, lifelong path: "Why would I want any books? My kid can't even read yet." "We don't have room for a bunch of books. We don't have any bookshelves."
Barbara recalls a police officer at the Santa Clara festival "who asked, 'Do people really read to kids like that?' I said that they should. He said, 'Well, I admire your efforts but I don't think it's going to do any good.'"
To any such cynicism, the Nelsons tend to respond, "We know we can make a difference. We have seen it. We can spread the word. We can get people doing in other communities because it's so vitally important. We want to see all of these kids as learners who can be successful in all aspects of life."
There are now two other privately funded Imagination Libraries in New Mexico, in Alamogordo and Cloudcroft, along with several affiliates sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Most of the parents have not only signed up, but have encouraged friends and family members with children to also do so.
The Nelsons hear repeated stories of how children look forward to receiving their monthly books, running to the post office with their parents, of how one little girl never leaves the house without her books in her backpack, of how families talk about the changes since they are turning off the television and reading together.
"These stories are helping my kids dream," one young father says. "I think these books are telling them they can be anything they want to be."
For the Paz family of Santa Clara, for instance, by the time the youngest of their five children reaches kindergarten, they will have more than 150 children's books in their home.
How does the program work? A committee that includes educators, child psychologists, librarians and other professionals chooses the age-appropriate books provided by the Imagination Library. The first books are black-and-white, with simple bold lines and shapes, because that's what a newborn sees.
"The newborn is going to hear somebody's voice, its father or mother or grandparent, say the few words and turn the pages," Loren says. "And then, of course, the baby is probably going to chew on the corner."
Books for the second year stress repetition and predictability, things the baby is familiar with, simple nursery rhymes, along with colors, letters and numbers. Wordless books, where the child and the reader build their own story, are included in the third year of books, along with touching on issues of values and character, love and safety.
"The brain develops 90% of its adult size during the first three years of life," Loren says. "It's pretty well accepted that those first three years are critical in language development and potential success in school."
The books are more complex in the fourth year, with plenty of play, humor and fun, while year five stresses school preparation and readiness, including science and folk tales.
The Nelsons say research has shown that children who have literacy opportunities from birth and who develop the skills of print motivation, vocabulary, phonological awareness, narrative skills and letter knowledge become better learners and readers.
"Besides," Barbara adds, "they are getting good important snuggle time."
In its seminal study, "Becoming a Nation of Readers," the National Commission on Reading examined more than 10,000 research projects done over a 25-year period, finding that "the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children at home and in school."
The 2001 and 2006 Progress in Reading Studies surveyed hundreds of thousands of fourth graders in 35 counties, including the US, looking at reading comprehension, along with home influences on the child's learning. Both studies found that reading achievement in the fourth grade was markedly "related to their parents engaging them in early literacy activities before they started formal schooling." The studies also found that "students from homes with more than 100 children's books performed much better on reading assessments that students from homes with less than 10 books."
Shirley Brice Heath, in "What No Bedtime Story Means: Narrative Skills at Home and School," surveyed ongoing research on factors influencing student success. She noted that "few parents are fully conscious of what bedtime story reading means as preparation for the kids of learning and displays of knowledge expected in school."
Heath went on, "The bedtime story is a major literacy event that helps set patterns of behavior that occur repeatedly through the life of children and adults."
Barbara Nelson adds that when parents sign the Imagination Library form, "they are indicating at that point that they realize learning and reading — and bedtime snuggles — are important."
The Nelsons say they are working with the Cobre School System to do a longitudinal study looking at the changes in pre-school testing as the number of children in the Imagination Library increases.
So, in short, The Imagination Library of Grant County epitomizes exactly what Ronald Dahl was talking about in his book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:
"So please, oh PLEASE, we pray.
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install,
A lovely bookshelf on the wall."
The address to send pledges is: The Imagination Library of Grant County, Inc., 2529 Cecilia St., Silver City, NM 88061. For more information on the program, pledging or serving on the board, call (575) 534-9156, or email LandBnelson@cybermesa.com. For people living outside Grant County, log onto www.imaginationlibrary.com to find a local affiliate; if there isn't one, clear steps are outlined on how to start one.
Harry Williamson moved to Grant County more than three years ago after reporting and editing for newspapers in New York, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas. Feel free to contact him at email@example.com with comments or story ideas.
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