Imagination library instills love of books
Knoxville News-Sentinel
June 15, 2005

"I think I can. I think I can."

 Shaun Smith, who's only 3 years old, joins in when his mom reads "The Little Engine That Could" to him.

 "He recognizes the pictures, and he says words like, 'I think I can. I think I can.' He picks up the repetitive words," Alva Smith says.

 The book was a free gift from the Imagination Library program. Since the program came to Knox County earlier this year, Shaun will keep getting one free book a month until he is 5.

 Your children could get free hardcover books, too, as long as they are under 5 and live in any of the 58 counties in Tennessee that have adopted the Imagination Library program.

 All that parents or guardians in Knox County have to do is fill out a form at any branch of the public library. No questions about income are asked.

 In Knox County, 21 percent of the 23,000 kids under 5 have registered. That leaves about 18,000 kids who are missing out on the deal, according to Mary Pom Claiborne, communications administrator for Knox County's public library system.

 "We want every child that can possibly sign up to sign up," she said. "The thing about early childhood development that's so important to know is that reading skills are really developed before (children) start school."

 For every child to get books, however, the county will have to raise more money. The program costs $27 per child per year. Knox County has raised about $80,000 in private donations so far. The state matches that amount, making Knox County's total pot about $160,000.

 That's enough money to cover all the children who are currently registered for one year, but if many more children sign up, the pot's going to need filling.

 "If everybody charged the doors (to sign up today), we'd probably have a problem," Claiborne said, adding that fund-raising efforts are strong.

 A recent radio-thon raised about $15,000, she said.

 Knox County Commissioner Larry Clark, who spearheaded the drive to bring Imagination Library to town, has high hopes the program will reach all children.

 "My personal goal is we have 100 percent of our kids registered within five years," said Clark, who recently retired as a Knox County public school teacher.

 The bigger goal, he said, is to help parents prepare their children for school. Research shows that that if children can't read well in third grade, then they will have a hard time catching up.

 Sevierville native Dolly Parton launched Imagination Library in 1996. The program now exists in 503 communities in 40 states.

 The Dollywood Foundation says counties generally register about 20 percent of all their youngsters in one year. Knox County has hit that mark in five months.

 "We are outpacing what that projection was. It's great," Clark said.

 Across Tennessee, 43,572 of the 375,000 youngsters have enrolled to receive the books. Titles include "The Very Hungry Caterpillar," "Look Out Kindergarten, Here I Come!" and several Spanish/English bilingual titles, said Margie Maddux, communications officer for the Governor's Books From Birth Foundation.

 Gov. Phil Bredesen created the foundation in May 2004 and this year the General Assembly approved giving $2 million in seed money for the group, which also will raise private funds.

 "There's no need to sit at home with a calculator and wonder when that $2 million will run out," Maddux said. "If Shelby County happened to register every one of their children today, and we needed to fund that half match and it was more than $2 million, we would."

 To Little Shaun, it's the books, not the money, that matter.

 "Oh, he is so excited when the book comes. He's ready for me to read it to him," says his mom, Alva. "He's kind of learning that it takes a little while to go from one month to another. He knows there's a waiting period."

 Ericka Mellon may be reached at 865-342-6334.