Each day, nearly 1,000 Orange County children pick up the telephone and catch up on the latest adventures of literary characters such as: Wilfred the Rat, Winkin, Blinkin and Nod, The Man Who Didn't Wash Dishes, Casey at the Bat and Mr. Weird.
And in the bargain, say children's reading specialists and educators, they are probably getting a jump on literacy and developing an early affection for good stories, good books and their local library.
The stories in English and Spanish have been pouring out of receivers throughout the county, mostly toll-free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at the average rate of 30,000 to 35,000 a month since the Orange County Public Library's Dial-A-Story program began on July 1, 1974.
The program, the first of its kind in Southern California and one of the first in the nation, was designed as a type of teaser, a contact between younger children who have limited or no reading skills and the books available to them in the library, said Lynn Eisenhut, the library's coordinator of children's services.
"It makes stories accessible to children who can't read yet or who don't read well but who like to look at pictures or listen to a story being read," Eisenhut said. "And we try to use stories that children can find in the library, so we lean toward the more traditional, like 'The Three Billy Goats Gruff' and 'The Three Little Pigs.' We know that some children come to the library after hearing a story and ask for the story they'd heard. They're starting to develop a positive association with the library."
And, according to a Cal State Fullerton professor, they're also beginning to develop an affection for the written word through what many educators consider the best possible method: listening to stories being read aloud.
"Yes, I believe that it does turn children on to the library," said Dr. Allen Zeltzer, an emeritus professor of theater, "because reading aloud is such a time-honored tradition. It prevails in every socio-economic situation. Let's face it--everyone likes a story. Those words, 'Once upon a time,' well, they're magic. As old as I get, I can still get excited when I hear them. They're like 'open sesame.' They open a world for you."
Since 1981, students from one of Zeltzer's upper division classes, titled "Oral Interpretation of Children's Literature," have provided the voices behind an estimated 80% of Dial-A-Story's inventory of tales. In a recording studio on campus, the students, many of whom are majoring in child development or education, face a microphone with an open book and spin children's tales both new and traditional that will eventually be heard by thousands of young ears.
Not a Substitute
However, Zeltzer said he believed Dial-A-Story shouldn't be used as a substitute for the real thing.
"I don't think it can take the place of live reading at home," he said. "Reading to your children at home is such a wonderful form of family bonding. But it's possible that some parents are just telling their children to go call Dial-A-Story if they don't want to read to them themselves. Although it might be possible that if the parents see the children so interested in Dial-A-Story and maybe asking to be taken to the library, it might encourage those parents to read aloud to them."
With national campaigns to combat illiteracy gaining momentum in recent months, more and more educators and reading specialists are encouraging parents to read aloud to their children at early ages, even before the children have received any reading instruction in school. Dial-A-Story, said a Cal State Fullerton professor of reading education, may be a reminder and a catalyst for parents.
"If kids are bored at home, and maybe the parents don't feel comfortable reading to them, they can tell the kids to call Dial-A-Story and maybe create a kind of spark," Dr. Ashley Bishop said. "It's nowhere close to being the perfect situation, but it's a much better substitute for no literature at all. If the parents don't feel comfortable reading, something like this is a good vehicle for the child to hear what literature sounds like. And the most powerful thing in literature is language.
"The best thing we know about (Dial-A-Story) is that it's motivational. When the child hears the story, he's told that he can go to the library and get that book. That's powerful."
At one point in Dial-A-Story's operation in 1979, demand not only exceeded supply, it nearly blew it up. As a result of what Eisenhut said she believes was a strong response to a widespread advertising campaign for the program at the time, nearly 68,000 calls per month flooded the Dial-A-Story lines, straining the capacity of the recording machines nearly to the breaking point.