Partnering with a Roanoke nonprofit that promotes reading to children, three Hollins professors have transformed a manuscript by Margaret Wise Brown into an interactive tool for parents and caregivers.
By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11
Approaches to childrearing may have shifted through the years, but the dedication of mothers and fathers in encouraging early literacy is more than ever 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,” said On Parenting editor Amy Joyce. “That means starting when they are newborns and not even able to talk….”
Recent research supports the benefits of reading to children from birth. Citing lead author Pamela C. High M.D.’s 2014 study, Literacy Promotion: An Essential Component of Primary Care Pediatric Practice, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, “Children who are read to during infancy and preschool years have better language skills when they start school and are more interested in reading…. In addition, parents who spend time reading to their children create nurturing relationships, which is important for a child’s cognitive, language and social-emotional development.”
Research first published in the 1990s by Betty Hart and Todd Risley indicates that a 30 million-word gap exists between the vocabularies of 3-year-old children from low-income families and those from middle-income families. A significant body of research confirming this finding indicates the importance of early language interactions with caregivers, such as reading with children from birth.
Increasingly, early literacy initiatives are focusing not just on reading to children, but also the strategies to enhance positive developmental outcomes. One such local organization is Turn the Page, whose 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).
This fall, their efforts to achieve that objective enjoyed a significant breakthrough. With support from a faculty scholarship IMPACT grant from the office of the vice president for academic affairs, Hollins faculty were able to develop and print a children’s book for Turn the Page.
In partnership with Hollins, Turn the Page gave CRMH 5,000 free copies of Four Fur Feet by Margaret Wise Brown, who was a member of Hollins’ class of 1932 and the author of such beloved children’s classics as Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny. Hollins President Pareena Lawrence and Carilion Clinic President and CEO Nancy Agee celebrated the gift by presenting a special reading of Four Fur Feet on Thanksgiving Day at Carilion Children’s, a “hospital within a hospital” for pediatric patients at CRMH.
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 (the non-profit organization behind Sesame Street) 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 with the work that I do in preparing Hollins students for Pre-K through 6th grade teacher licensure,” Baynum added. “Talking with and reading to children under three years of age is an essential part of promoting language acquisition and increasing language capacity. Early language exposure and verbal interaction fosters communication skills, which are foundational to beginning reading.”
“Students in our courses learn why reading with children from birth to age three is developmentally appropriate and how early dialogue exchange helps them progress along the literacy continuum in elementary school. 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,” Baynum continued.
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.
Turn the Page was interested in producing a book of their own to distribute in the hospital and had been in communication with another nonprofit organization that had generated a board book.
“While on a walk with Julie Pfeiffer (an associate professor of English at Hollins) 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.”
Through an intermediary with Brown’s estate, Baynum and Pempek were granted permission to review and choose a manuscript that they thought would be appropriate. After reviewing and considering a couple of different options, Four Fur Feet was deemed to be the perfect text – now all they needed was an illustrator. Pfeiffer connected them with Ruth Sanderson, co-director 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 over 80 published books to her credit, Sanderson was so taken with the service of Turn the Page and the idea of Pempek and Baynum’s embedded work that she offered to create the artwork.
“I was very excited by the concept Anna and Tiffany were proposing for books that incorporated hints to parents and caregivers when reading with a very young child,” 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.”
“Tiffany and I immediately fell in love with Ruth’s illustration of the adorable fox and the alliterative connection between the main character and the title,” Baynum said.
“She generously walked us through the entire process of publishing,” added Baynum. “Ruth taught us what we needed to know regarding formatting and communicating with the printer.”
Baynum and Pempek praised Sanderson not only for her input on Four Fur Feet but also her efforts in establishing the Early Literacy Project Book Award, which will bring to fruition their vision of sustaining the creation of a library of books for Turn the Page to give to the community. 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.
“It is so exciting that some of our students will see their first publication before they graduate,” said Sanderson.
Professor of Spanish Alison Ridley has expressed interest in contributing to the Early Literacy Project book series as well. She and her students will be translating the books produced into Spanish, thus broadening the appeal and reach of each book.
Additionally, another exciting collaboration arose from the playful cadence and rhythmic language of Four Fur Feet, which easily lends itself to song. Local singer/songwriter Mike Franke enthusiastically offered to produce and record Margaret Wise Brown’s lyrics to music. His song can be found at www.HollinsEarlyLiteracyProject.org
Baynum and Pempek plan to conduct their own research on the benefits of early literacy by assessing the effectiveness of their parent materials. They will soon begin a study 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. For example, Baynum and Pempek will track reading and language progress as the children advance through preschool and early elementary school.
“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 parent’s think of our tips? Our goal is to develop books that are effective at enhancing development and are also enjoyable to parents and children. 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.”
Baynum concluded, “Our favorite aspect of this project 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, a nonprofit dedicated to enriching the trajectory of children’s lives.”