Newborns at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center are being immunized against ignorance. Not with a shot--with a book.
Every baby born at the medical complex, the principal birth center in the Southeast area, is being given a brightly illustrated book of nursery rhymes and folk and fairy tales. Inside is a bookplate on which the baby's name and birth date are recorded in calligraphy.
Called Books for Babies, the project is the work of Long Beach educators and others who believe that reading to children changes their lives. This year alone, they expect to empower 5,500 babies by giving them books.
The first recipient was Cameron Scott Johnson, born last Sunday.
Cameron, who is home now in Downey, was already quite bookish, for a baby. His father, Curtis, owns a print shop. His mother, Cindy, is a reading and math teacher in the Downey Unified School District. Cameron is their first child, and in preparation for his arrival they bought him the works of Beatrix Potter and such modern classics as Margaret W. Brown's "Good Night, Moon." Cameron's library weighs almost as much as he did at birth--8 pounds, 10 ounces.
Books for Babies grew out of a conviction that young minds need nourishment as much as bodies do.
As originator Dorothy Garrett said: "I explain to the mother that it's just as important to read to the baby every day as it is to give the baby a bath every day. Recent studies show that children who have been read to on a regular and consistent basis enter school 18 months to two years ahead of children who haven't been read to."
Now retired, Garrett was a language arts consultant with the Long Beach Unified School District for 25 years. She said it was almost a decade ago, while still with the school district, that she first had the idea of giving books to newborns and pep talks to their parents. "I thought if we could only get to the parents of those children early, it would be a wonderful thing," she recalled.
Garrett was finally able to get the project off the ground two years ago in southwestern Oregon, where she now lives. Garrett, who is president of the Rogue River branch of the Friends of the Library, began delivering gift books in the society's name to children whose births were announced in the local newspapers.
In a telephone interview, Garrett said she buys bright, durable books from a local bookseller who gives her a 15% discount on such perennial favorites as the Golden Sturdy Book "Animal Sounds." Inside each gift book is a bookplate, inscribed to the child, that reads, "Welcome to the World of Reading from the Friends of the Library."
She always brings an extra bookplate for the family's baby book and two applications for library cards, just in case the parents haven't joined yet.
Richard Van Der Laan, head of communications for the Long Beach district and a friend of Garrett's, said she often tells new parents that they can expect "samples of baby formula, disposable diapers and other things for the baby's body, but not much for the baby's mind."
Garrett tries to make up for that lack. She advises parents to hold their babies on their laps as they read, so that the child can see the book (and the parent can nuzzle the baby's sweet hair). "Then they associate the warm feeling of being held with reading," she said. Sometimes she tells the parents of the Jewish custom of giving a child a taste of honey on the day he starts learning to read so that the child will always associate learning with sweetness.
Garrett believes that children too young to do much more than pat their books and drool on them benefit from being read to. "They learn what I call the hidden agenda of reading," she said. They learn the rhythm and flow of the language and that we who speak English say See the dog rather than Dog the see or See dog the. They learn "all those little skills" that eventually add up to being able to read, she said.
Cindy Johnson--Cameron's mother--agrees. She said that early experiences with books pay off in the classroom, even for the slow learners she teaches. "When we read to the ones who have been read to before, they sit there amazed," she said. "The attention spans of the children who haven't been read to aren't long enough."
Last year Garrett received national recognition for her program and a prize of $1,500 from Family Circle magazine. As a result of the cash award, the Friends of the Rogue River Library now give $5 books instead of $3 ones.
At last count, Garrett had handed out 46 first books and fielded 44 inquiries from people in other parts of the United States and elsewhere who wanted to set up similar programs. Garrett especially likes the name of one of the spinoffs, a program called "Catch 'em in the Cradle."
Last year Garrett wrote a note about her project to Van Der Laan. He loved the idea and thought: "Wouldn't it be neat to do this on a larger scale?" Van Der Laan knows of no other large-scale program like Long Beach's Books for Babies.