School Readiness

Building Brains One Book at a Time

It is among the most important gifts a child can receive – the gift of literacy.

Maricelys Turner Vargas, age 2, and her younger sister Nariah are among the first Hartford children to enroll in the monthly book-gifting program Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. The program includes chapters across the country and has an international reach. It officially launched in Hartford in October and is available to children ages 0 to 5 who live in the city.

The first book that young Maricelys and her sister received was “The Little Engine That Could.”

“I think it’s a great opportunity. I think many families will benefit from the program, especially our kids,” says Ledia Lopez, Maricelys’ grandmother.  “It is very important for kids to be introduced to books and reading. When you read, it takes you to many places. It opens a lot of opportunities.”

Ledia Lopez with granddaughter Maricelys Turner Vargas, age 2.

Imagination Library’s Journey to Hartford

Connecticut Children’s President and CEO James E. Shmerling, DHA, FACHE, led the effort to establish the Imagination Library chapter in Hartford.

Dr. Shmerling first learned about the program when he worked at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Tennessee. He worked with Dolly Parton to spread the program across that state. In late 2018, while leading Connecticut Children’s, he began building a coalition of local leaders to raise money to launch the program in Hartford.

That coalition grew to include Connecticut Children’s, Hartford Hospital, Trinity Health of New England and The United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut. The partners funded the launch of the program by each committing to a two-year, $25,000 per year contribution. They hope to draw additional supporters to expand the program to children beyond Hartford.

“One of the greatest things we can do for children in ensuring their health is to provide them with books,” says Dr. Shmerling. “We know that literacy and the ability to read is a great equalizer. Children who can read by third grade have a much higher probability of graduating high school. I can’t think of a better investment for the health of children than books.”

The Importance of Early Literacy

There is an extensive amount of research indicating how rapidly a child’s brain develops during the first eight years of life, with 80% of a child’s brain formed by the age of 3. Studies conducted on developing children indicate that the language and literacy skills they learn in their earliest years provide a strong predictor of future academic success. Reading to children before they learn to read themselves is shown to promote early literacy and brain development, as well as family bonding, which all help to set children up for success upon entering kindergarten.

For example, researchers have found that children learn almost 300 more words by age 2 when frequently spoken to by their mother, compared to peers who are spoken to less frequently. Additional research shows that academic success by age 9 or 10 can be attributed to the amount of words children hear before the age of 3, with lower socioeconomic status contributing to fewer words spoken to children in their earliest years. Further research shows that children who are regularly read to by the age of 2 exhibit greater language comprehension, vocabulary, and cognitive skills than their peers.

Enroll in Hartford’s Imagination Library program.

Sign Up!

By the time the Imagination Library chapter officially launched in Hartford, 177 children already signed up through early enrollment and together received more than 500 books. The coalition would like to see 2,215 Hartford families enroll in the first year, which is 27% of those with children ages 0 to 5. Families can enroll through United Way, which will maintain address lists and lead efforts to promote the availability of the program.

Ledia Lopez is thrilled that her granddaughters are enrolled in the program. She encourages other families to sign up.

“I recommend it and I hope a lot of families will benefit from it,” says Lopez.

Learn more about Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

To sign up to receive E-Updates from Connecticut Children’s Office for Community Child Health, click here.

Leave a Reply