Turning the Page on Early Literacy

on January 31 | in Featured | by

Partnering with a Roanoke nonprofit that promotes reading to children, three Hollins professors transformed a manuscript by Margaret Wise Brown ’32 into an interactive tool for parents and caregivers.

By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11

Photo of inside of book Four Fur Feet

Approaches to childrearing may have shifted through the years, but the dedication of mothers and fathers to encouraging early literacy remains a core component of parenting. “One of the most important things parents can do, beyond keeping kids healthy and safe, is to read with them…starting when they are newborns and not even able to talk,” said On Parenting editor Amy Joyce. Citing lead author Pamela C. High’s 2014 study, Literacy Promotion: An Essential Component of Primary Care Pediatric Practice, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated that “parents who spend time reading to their children create nurturing relationships, which is important for a child’s cognitive, language and social-emotional development.”

Early literacy initiatives are looking for ways to make it easier for parents to read to their kids. Turn the Page, for example, is a Roanoke organization whose twofold mission is to increase awareness of the benefits of reading with children from birth and to provide every child born in the Roanoke Valley with his or her own home library of books during the first three years of life. Turn the Page’s goal, in part, is to give books to every mom who delivers a baby at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital (CRMH).

Last fall, their efforts to achieve that objective enjoyed a significant breakthrough. Three Hollins faculty developed and printed a children’s book for the organization, with support from a faculty scholarship IMPACT grant provided by the office of the vice president for academic affairs.

In partnership with Hollins, Turn the Page gave CRMH 5,000 free copies of Four Fur Feet by Margaret Wise Brown ’32, the author of such beloved children’s classics as Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. President Pareena Lawrence, along with and Carilion Clinic President and CEO Nancy Agee, celebrated the gift by reading two classic Margaret Wise Brown stories and listening to Lauren Ellerman, Turn the Page founder, present a special reading of Four Fur Feet on Thanksgiving Day at Carilion Children’s.

Anna Baynum and Tiffany Pempek

Baynum and Pempek

Four Fur Feet’s journey from the archives of Hollins’ Wyndham Robertson Library to the pediatric unit of a Roanoke hospital began roughly three years ago. Associate Professor of Education Anna Baynum, a Turn the Page board member, and Associate Professor of Psychology Tiffany Pempek discovered a shared interest in creating resources to support child development.

“My doctoral dissertation involved a project in collaboration with Sesame Workshop to assess the effectiveness of their infant videos in which parenting tips were included and high-quality parent-child interactions were modeled. I love this concept because it is such a practical way to get information to parents who may be too busy to find time to read parenting information on their own,” Pempek recalled. “While reading to my own sons when they were infants, I had this idea of expanding on this research by writing a children’s book that included tips about reading to children integrated into the pages of the story.”

“Tiffany’s research parallels the work I do in preparing Hollins students for pre-K through sixth-grade teacher licensure,” Baynum added. “Students in our courses learn why reading with children from birth to age three is developmentally appropriate and how early dialog exchange helps them progress along the literacy continuum in elementary school,” she continued. “The amount of time parents, caregivers, and preschool teachers talk to and with babies and toddlers during their early childhood years has a tremendous impact on their development as readers. Our students learn strategies to use while reading aloud with children, so embedding recommendations regarding how and why to use those evidence-based strategies in an actual picture storybook has always seemed like a natural next step in my work.”

At about the same time the two Hollins faculty members were discussing resource development for their courses, Turn the Page was becoming “an incredible driving force for getting books in the hands of new mothers and building personal libraries for children in their own homes,” Baynum said.

The organization was investigating the possibility of producing a book of its own to distribute in the hospital. “While on a walk with [Professor of English] Julie Pfeiffer, I began talking about this project,” Baynum recalled. “We were brainstorming possibilities when Julie mentioned that Hollins maintains manuscripts written by Margaret Wise Brown that we may be able to utilize.”

Photo of Ruth Sanderson


Through an intermediary with Brown’s estate, Baynum and Pempek were granted permission to choose a manuscript they thought would be appropriate. They deemed Four Fur Feet to be the perfect text; then came the challenge of finding an illustrator. Pfeiffer connected them with Ruth Sanderson, codirector of Hollins’ M.F.A. program in children’s book writing and illustrating, for advice on finding the best fit. An accomplished children’s book writer and illustrator in her own right with more than 80 published books to her credit, Sanderson was so taken with the idea that she offered to create the artwork. “I was very excited by the concept Anna and Tiffany were proposing.” Sanderson said. “This had never been done to my knowledge.”

“Ruth helped us decide where to place the tips on the pages, and she adapted her artwork to complement the tips,” said Pempek. “The creativity and thoughtfulness she brought to this project helped bring our vision to life. With Ruth’s help, every page of the book was deliberately designed to enhance parent-child interaction during reading.”

Baynum and Pempek also praised Sanderson for her efforts to establish the Early Literacy Project Book Award. Students in Hollins’ graduate programs in children’s literature are invited to submit both text and illustration for consideration, and if their work is selected they will be eligible to receive tuition grants. The first student team has been chosen for the second book in the series: Writer Jen Wood and illustrator Lucy Rowe are developing a multicultural book about the interaction between caregivers and babies that is scheduled to be published in late October 2018.

Baynum and Pempek plan to conduct their own research to assess the effectiveness of their parent materials by comparing reading techniques used by parents who are given books with and without embedded tips. Down the road, they plan to undertake a large-scale intervention study following children whose families received books and informational material on language development from Turn the Page.

“We’re open to whatever the research shows,” Pempek explained. “Are there differences in reading techniques used by parents who receive a book with embedded parent tips such as Four Fur Feet versus a traditional children’s book? Can this type of parent intervention promote the development of language and reading skills as children grow? What do parents think of our tips? We plan to use the results from our research to continuously improve the books we develop in the future with our student authors and illustrators.”

“Our favorite aspect of this project,” said Baynum, “has been working together and with each of our wonderful collaborators from across campus as well as our local community to support the amazing cause championed by Turn the Page.”

Photos by Sharon Meador


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