BALTIMORE – The 3-year-olds pile on top of each other to see the books in each others’ hands. Two girls giggle inside the library, which is roofed at 3 feet to give a cave-like security.
Next door, eighth-graders clad in navy blue sweaters, pressed white shirts and dress pants or kilts write about topics of their own choosing. “I’m writing about snow,” said one boy.
The children are benefitting from a nonprofit organization called First Book, which gives books to disadvantaged children to get them reading.
The organization started its first Maryland program here in October 1994, at the New Song Community Learning Center in West Baltimore. Since then, more than 500 story books have been distributed at the center, and First Book is looking to expand its Maryland outreach.
Lawyer John Stierhoff, who serves on the Maryland First Book advisory board, said the program at the learning center could serve as a model for others in the state.
First Book is exploring possible programs at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup, at the juvenile court in Baltimore City and at numerous family and literacy support programs in Baltimore, Stierhoff said. It is also working with members of Maryland school boards in a fund-raising effort to distribute books to disadvantaged children in the local school systems.
Begun in 1992 by three D.C. attorneys, First Book is now active in 46 states. The national board of directors includes educators, government officials, business people and politicians.
Books have been given to the program or sold at a discount by B. Dalton and Co. and Barnes and Noble. Others have been bought with donated money.
Susan Tibbels, director of the New Song Community Learning Center, said she was excited when First Book decided to use the center for community outreach.
The median annual income in the community ranges from $7,000 to $10,000, she said. “On a survival income, you don’t spend money on books when you go to the store,” she said.
The private learning center provides pre-school, after- school and middle school programs for neighborhood children, all at little or no cost. One requirement is that parents read to their children regularly.
Many of the children at the center received their first books from First Book, Tibbels said. “But you don’t always get the truth, because sometimes people know it’s not politically correct to say, `No, we don’t have any books at home.’ ”
Because children are being read to at home, Tibbels said, they are learning to enjoy books at a young age. “They now know how to hold a book. They know how to turn the pages, and they have a greater attention span,” she said.
Through First Book, the center is able to give each pre- schooler two books a month, to take home and keep. The after- school and middle-school children are given books for Christmas, as awards and for completing a summer reading program.
Other books go to the library.
“First Book ended up being extremely effective with our pre- school parents,” who are given monthly classes to teach them ways to use books to help their children learn, Tibbels said.
At the end of the year, the learning center gives an award to the parent who reads the most books to his or her child.
“The mother who read the most books last year told me she was going to hit over a thousand this year,” Tibbels said. “That same mother … was raised in the projects and never read to her two older children until she became involved with the program.”
Teachers and children involved with the program are generous with praise.
Chanel Boone, 25, grew up in the neighborhood, “right on the same block, Pressman Street,” where she lives now. She became a teacher in the learning center’s pre-school program after her 8- year-old son, Ronald, became involved in an after-school program in 1993.
Boone said it’s important that First Book programs at New Song focus on very young children.
“You can see a big difference in every way,” Boone said. “Once you have the children, you begin to impact the adults.”
Garrie Cooper, 14, an eighth grader at the New Song Academy, said the reading and writing programs at school will help her become a pediatrician.
“If I write something now, then I look at the paper when I first came here, it look[s] a whole lot better,” Garrie said.
She said she wants to be a pediatrician because she wants to “help heal the world. … I want to save little children so they could do stuff that I couldn’t do when I was little.”
But the children at New Song are not sheltered from popular culture.
Michael Parker, 11, a sixth grader, said when he is home, “I do most of my time watching TV.”
But he is an A student and wants to graduate from college and teach elementary school in the city.
He said he enjoys First Book’s emphasis on learning through literature. “We learn something new every day,” he said.
However, he sometimes wishes the program wasn’t quite so effective. “If you finish up early before class ends, they make you read a book,” Michael said.