Jenna Huff snuggles in her mother's lap. She turns a page of "ABC, Look at Me." She runs her finger along a picture. She prattles as she goes. The sounds aren't recognizable words, but that's OK. According to experts, Jenna's learning to read all the same.
The Cleveland Heights near-2-year-old gets a free new book in the mail every month from Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, a national program launched by someone better known for songs than books.
The program serves children from birth to age 5, regardless of income, in many parts of the country, including nine Cuyahoga County communities or school districts, all of Summit County and all of Lorain County. Any family in those areas with a child under 5 can sign up at imaginationlibrary.com.
Jenna's mom, Demetra Madlock, says Imagination has already taught Jenna to love books and understand a bit of the contents. "She notices things like trees and babies. She'll say 'tree' and stuff. When the book's upside-down, she notices. She points at stuff. She's getting it."
During Madlock's workdays underwriting for Progressive, her parents take care of Jenna and read to her from the Imagination books. The parents are retired teachers, but neither family household has many books at Jenna's age level. Madlock also says it's hard for the family to take Jenna to a public library.
Studies show the youngest brains grow fastest, and the sooner they're fed, the better. Children learn more by sharing laps and read-aloud times and conversations about the books than by seeing and hearing the same contents on a TV or computer. But many low-income homes have no books for young readers.
The library reached Cuyahoga three years ago. Now it serves about 2,500 families in Cleveland Heights, Shaker Heights, University Heights, East Cleveland, Euclid and the school districts of Garfield Heights, Warrensville Heights, Maple Heights and Bedford.
The Cuyahoga program is part of the Literacy Cooperative, a 12-year-old local nonprofit that also supports elementary school tutoring, parent workshops and adult literacy programs. The Heights Family Foundation and Bruening Foundation cover the local costs: about $35 per child per year. The cooperative is seeking sponsors for more communities, such as Cleveland.
In Summit County, the library is run and funded by United Way for more than 12,000 children. In Lorain County, it's run and funded by the Stocker Foundation for more than 5,000 children.
Parton started Imagination Library in 1995 in her home county in Tennessee. At imaginationlibrary.com, she says she got the idea because her dad couldn't read or write. Still, "I knew my dreams would come true. I know there are children in your community with their own dreams… The seeds of these dreams are often found in books and the seeds you help plant in your community can grow across the world."
In its 23 years, the library has sent nearly 100 million books to nearly 1.2 million children in the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom and Australia. Experts pick the 60 titles, and the library gets bulk deals from Random House publishers and the U.S. Postal Service.
The books range from obscure to acclaimed, such as Ezra Jack Keats' "The Snowy Day" and Watty Piper's "The Little Engine That Could." Two books per year contain both English and Spanish. The Cuyahoga program also supplies reading tips, a monthly newsletter and links to other services for children and families.
Imagination's leaders say no fewer than 41 independent studies have shown the program boosting family reading habits and school readiness.
Local leaders hope parents use the books not to drill children but inspire them. Joan Spoerl, who runs the program in Cuyahoga, says, "We're really emphasizing the joy of reading."