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The Hechinger Report
Book giveaways work but are more effective when combined with instructions for parents.

The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education.

Literacy experts have long known that reading to toddlers, even babies, can make a big difference in children’s reading abilities later in elementary school. But does simply giving away free books to low-income families with young children help with early reading? An analysis of 44 studies of book giveaway programs concludes that free stuff does work.

Three researchers from the Netherlands and Australia looked for all the high-quality studies they could find on book giveaway programs, which reach millions of children under 5 in North America and Europe, and focused on the ones that compared the early literacy of children who received books with those who didn’t. Despite the large number of studies that made the cut (44), only three giveaway programs were analyzed by all of them: Bookstart, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and Reach Out and Read. (Multiple studies of the same program tested how the program worked with different kids and in different places.)

The three programs are quite different. Bookstart, a program that originated in the United Kingdom, gives only one or two free books on one or two occasions. Imagination Library, launched by American country music star Dolly Parton, mails a new book a month from birth to age 5. Reach Out and Read uses health professionals instead of the postal service; pediatricians and nurses hand out books out during regular checkups and are trained to tell parents that reading is important for cognitive development. At some health clinics, volunteers model effective book reading strategies for parents. Some of the programs give books to all families who want them regardless of income, but the studies mostly focused on low-income children — the intended target audience.

All three programs worked when measured by how much parents read to children and by how much kids’ early literacy skills improved. But the program that used healthcare professionals to give out the books and personally tell parents to read them achieved the largest literacy gains.

“Participation in any book giveaway program yielded a positive effect,” said Ingrid Willenberg, one of the researchers, by email.  “[But] we found that programs like Reach Out and Read, that involve interaction with parents and provide guidance on how to read, showed a greater effect.”

Willenberg, a senior lecturer at Australian Catholic University, was one of the three authors of the meta-analysis, “Do Book Giveaway Programs Promote the Home Literacy Environment and Children’s Literacy-Related Behavior and Skills?” published in the journal Review of Educational Research in May 2020.

The number of free books, it turned out, didn’t matter. Bookstart, which gives away only a few, was just as effective as Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library which gives out 60 books to each child over five years. (Reach Out and Read distributes about 10 books to each child over the same period.) What this means is that the giveaway programs don’t need to build an entire library for each child to be successful. This compilation of research supports the theory that an age-appropriate book or two laying around the living room can be an effective nudge for the parent to read. “The book gift may entice caregivers to try shared book reading, which may then lead to the development of a regular book reading routine, especially when these incidental attempts are positive experiences for both the caregiver and the child,” the authors wrote.

Harvard education professor James Kim, a reading specialist, cautions against mailing out books without some sort of parent interaction.  “I would say that the most cost-effective and effective approach is not simply to give books to kids/families but to ensure that there is some form of support via contacts, tips on shared reading, and providing ongoing nudges/supports,” Kim told me via email.  “Books are not a causal mechanism. Reading books and shared reading is the mechanism that leads to better skills. Books are just the resource that facilitates these literacy processes.”

And yet the authors of the book giveaway meta-analysis characterized the literacy benefits of simply giving away books as “impressive.” They noted that in a 2011 meta-analysis, more expensive family programs that involved parent guidance and training had a smaller literacy benefit than what they calculated for book giveaways. Eliminating human intermediaries also keeps costs low. Dolly Parton’s 60-book giveaway can cost as little as $126 per child over five years, the authors noted. A doctor’s or an educator’s time is much more expensive.

Given the cost effectiveness of the hands-off approach, the researchers suggest expanding book giveaways to more countries, especially places like sub-Saharan Africa and Middle Eastern refugee camps where many children don’t have access to books.  As Dolly Parton herself once wrote, “True love, so hard to find, it knows no boundaries.” The same might be said for reading.

This story about book giveaways was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Suzannah Holsenbeck heads Read to Grow

We start the new year with the news of a planned transition in our Executive Director position. Suzannah Holsenbeck takes over the job in January. We’re delighted to have her join our accomplished staff and the more than 100 volunteers who give their time and talents through Read to Grow’s services.

Suzannah comes to Read to Grow having spent the last 15 years as an administrator and teacher in a wide variety of rural and urban public schools, including serving as a special education teacher on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and as the arts director at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School in New Haven.

Most recently, Suzannah oversaw all components of the CT Schoolyards Program at Common Ground, including the CT School Garden Resource Center, Schoolyard Habitat Programs, and partnerships with 23 New Haven public schools and other community organizations such as All Our Kin and FoodCorps.

She holds a B.A. in English Literature from Yale and a M.Ed. in Urban Education from Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Our 20th Anniversary celebration

Read to Grow appreciates all who attended or otherwise supported our 20th Anniversary party on October 3rd at the New Haven Lawn Club.

We couldn’t have asked for a better evening to enjoy the company of old friends and new.
We were particularly pleased to toast Read to Grow’s founding Board Chair, Roxanne J. Coady.

To honor her in a lasting way, we formally announced the Roxanne J. Coady Legacy Fund for Children’s Literacy. Donations to this fund will go to operations of our three programs: Book for Babies; Books for Kids; and Early Steps to School Success-New Haven.

If you’d like to help in strengthening our work for early childhood literacy in Connecticut, please consider a gift to this fund by clicking the red donate button.

To see photos from the event, click here. (Photo credit: Emily McColl Photography)


Thank you!

A Child Blossoms with Books, Conversation and Care

After more than 30 years of providing childcare, Geraldine Elliott finds her greatest reward and joy in a very ordinary moment.

It’s the moment when a young child—nurtured on sharing books—expresses for the first time an understanding of words, objects, colors, and numbers.

“Today when tiny, 2-year-old Ka’liya handed me those little plastic flowers she’d been playing with and said ‘THREE PINK FLOWERS,’ I almost cried. Really. I just couldn’t believe it.”

For years, Read to Grow has given Geraldine the baby books and colorful picture books that she uses as essential tools in building the language skills of children under her care. The 71-year-old teaches and cares for three young children as a licensed Early Head Start provider at her home on Beacon Street in Hamden. All the children are under 3 years old.

Geraldine is one of more than 140 childcare providers across Connecticut to whom Read to Grow delivers supplies of children’s books. We also offer workshops on how to encourage the language understanding and communication of infants and toddlers.

Read to Grow has given more than 1.8 million books to over 1.2 million people in Connecticut since the year 2000. We operate statewide with three programs: Books for Babies, Books for Kids, and the new Early Steps to School Success-New Haven. Along with free books, we offer workshops and other early childhood literacy information to families, particularly those living at-risk.

Annually our programs provide more than 180,000 children’s books and services:

  • at 8 community health centers, for pregnant women to build home libraries before their babies are born and to understand they will be their babies’ first teachers.
  • at 14 hospitals, where families of all newborns receive our literacy packets and talk with volunteers about early brain development and the fun and importance of encouraging babies’ language skills.
  • at 33 Book Places set up at other nonprofits, for their clients and residents in their communities to select books to keep.
  • through 13 Partnerships, which include collaborations with Connecticut Food Bank, Nurturing Families Network and The Diaper Bank.
  • in direct response to requests from families, teachers, doctors, childcare providers, and community groups and services.
  • through a new partnership with Save the Children in New Haven called Early Steps to School Success, which promotes literacy and kindergarten readiness for children newborn to age 5.

This holiday season, please consider a gift to support our work.

You can donate in honor or memory of someone special. We will send a card for you or mail it to you for your delivery.

Pictured at left at Geraldine Elliott’s childcare, 2-year-old Koby (left) identifies the animals in a board book held by Ka’liya. 


Here’s what gifts can do:

$30 = 12 baby books for pregnant women at health centers     $250 = GROW! Truck workshop & books

$60 = literacy packets for 8 mothers of newborns                      $300 = 125 new multicultural books

$125 = 2 summer books to each of 25 young schoolchildren    $500 = 1 book for 200 kids at food pantry

$175 = 70 new bilingual books for young children                      $1,000 = 400 books for a BOOK PLACE

To give, use the enclosed envelope. Or give online: Or call: 203.488.6800


Hamden restaurant to support Read to Grow

Freskos restaurant at 2323 Whitney Ave. will host a benefit on December 12th for Read to Grow, a non-profit providing children’s books and literacy information to families in Connecticut.

Mrs. Connecticut America 2018, Teresa Ladopoulos-Nakouzi, will sign autographs from noon to 2 p.m. A representative from Read to Grow will accompany her.

Freskos is donating 20% percent of all sales on December 12th to Read to Grow for its statewide services in early childhood literacy.

Freskos has earned top honors for both Best Greek Restaurant and Best Gyro in the 2018 CTNow—New Haven Readers’ Poll.

The restaurant is promoting “great food, a great hostess, and a great cause,” according to Peter Vouras, owner of the fast-casual establishment.

Mrs. Ladopoulos-Nakouzi is a reading specialist in the Woodbridge Public School system and has been advocating for Read to Grow as part of her literacy platform. She is training to be a workshop volunteer to educate parents about building their children’s literacy.

Read to Grow has given more than 1.8 million children’s books to over 1.2 million people in Connecticut since the year 2000. The non-profit’s mission is to promote language skills and literacy for children, beginning at birth, and to support parents as their babies’ first teachers.

Vouras, who opened Freskos in 2016, said he is a big supporter of reading, especially for children. “Both my children are avid readers and love the wonderful worlds of imagination that books provide,” he said.

Innovative Early Learning Program for At-Risk Children to Launch in New Haven

Created by Save the Children, program includes home visits and school-based meetings

New Haven – An early literacy program designed by Save the Children for infants, young children and their families launches this fall in New Haven.

Early Steps to School Success-New Haven, funded and managed by the nonprofit Read to Grow, will work with at-risk families to help ensure their children enter kindergarten with the skills needed for success in school and beyond.

New Haven will be the only urban-based adaptation of a highly successful, rural program implemented by Save the Children in 2006.

In the Early Steps program, staff work from elementary schools and make home visits to voluntarily enrolled pregnant women and families with young children, newborn to age 5. Through regular home visits and book exchanges, Early Steps providers equip parents with skills to build a foundation of language and literacy skills for their children. Also, through supplemental parent-child group meetings at the schools, the program gives children opportunities to develop socially and emotionally with their peers, while fostering strong home-school connections.

In addition to helping disadvantaged children gain essential early learning skills, Early Steps increases knowledge among civic leaders and agencies about the needs of early childhood education.

Early Steps was established by Save the Children 12 years ago in some of America’s most impoverished rural areas. Today, Early Steps serves more than 90 rural communities in eight states, assisting about 5,760 young children.

Based in Branford, Read to Grow has operated 19 years in Connecticut, promoting early childhood literacy through two programs: Books for Babies and Books for Kids. Through partnerships with hospitals, community health centers and dozens of nonprofits, it has given more than 1.8 million children’s books and provided workshops and other literacy services to parents so they are prepared to be their children’s teachers, starting at birth.

For more information, please contact Read to Grow in Branford, CT: Kyn Tolson, executive director (; 203.488.6800), or Robin Baker, office manager (; 203.488.6800) 

With Books in Hand …He works to Make Fathers & Mothers Good Role Models

Huwerl Thornton knows something about fatherhood.

And setting good examples.

And teaching and learning through books.

The 50-year-old has spent many years in classrooms, both as a student and then as an elementary school teacher for 14 years in New Haven. A champion of Read to Grow and its work for early childhood literacy, he’s now Youth Programs Coordinator for Connecticut Food Bank, which serves six of the state’s eight counties. He oversees its two special projects for young kids — the BackPack program and the GROW! Truck.                                                        

Read to Grow has been partnered with the GROW! Truck for four years. The truck—a large mobile food pantry—serves families with children in Head Start, giving them food, children’s books from Read to Grow, and workshops on topics ranging from childhood literacy to family-life management. Read to Grow staff gives the literacy workshops.      

“Being a black male and being a teacher and seeing how absent fathers are in so many children’s lives, I know how bad it is. Mothers are usually the rocks for the families. Fathers are so absent. If young boys can’t find role models in their homes, they’re going to start looking around in other places. They look out to the streets.”

Huwerl tries to make up for the holes in many young lives. He does it as a father and grandfather to his daughter’s two young girls, a 3-year-old and an 8-month-old. All three lived with him and his wife until recently. “Mistakes I realize I made with my own daughter, when she was young, I try not to do now. I don’t let TV fill the time. … I read to my granddaughter. I find books that tell her, ‘You’re not white, but you’re still beautiful’.”

Huwerl also fills the gaps by encouraging mothers who come for workshops and food provided by the GROW! Truck. He doles out free books from Read to Grow as they wait their turns outside the mobile pantry. “Make sure you have books around the house!” he calls out. “Turn off the TV!”

“The road to college attainment, higher wages and social mobility in the United States starts at birth,” says James Heckman, a Nobel-winning economist at the University of Chicago. “The greatest barrier to college education is not high tuitions or the risk of student debt; it’s in the skills children have when they first enter kindergarten.”

 (Taken from “Building Children’s Brains” by Nicholas Kristof, NY Times, June 2, 2016)

Huwerl came by his wisdom a hard way. The older of two boys in his family, he saw that his father was a provider. He worked hard on an assembly line and always brought home a paycheck. But, Huwerl says, his father fell short in other essential ways. “He was a weekend drinker, and he was an abuser.”

“Fatherhood is so important. It’s what you show your kids, and what you do with them. I know it’s real important for fathers to be positive reading models. … As I always used to tell my students, if you can find a job — any job — that doesn’t require reading, I’ll give you an A for the rest of your year.”

“So keep at it Read to Grow! … I’ll keep reading to my granddaughters, because the way you lead is the way the family is going to follow.”

At Read to Grow, we distribute about 190,000 books annually and regularly give bilingual literacy workshops through partnerships that include our collaboration with the GROW! Truck.

Now in our 19th year, we hope you’ll support us in promoting language skills and literacy for children, beginning at birth.

Here’s what gifts can do:

$30 = 12 new baby books for pregnant women at health centers
$60 = literacy packets for 8 mothers of newborns    $250 = GROW! Truck workshop & books
$125 = 2 summer books to each of 25 young schoolchildren
$175 = 70 new bilingual books for young children
$300 = 125 new multicultural books
$500 = 1 book for 200 kids at food pantry
$1,000 = 400 books for a BOOK PLACE                                      



Guests who had their photographs taken with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the benefit event for Read to Grow on May 17 at the College Street Music Hall in New Haven can view those photos by clicking HERE. The link will take you to a page on the website of Tricia Bohan Photography.

You can download your photo by clicking the download button.

We will be posting other photos taken at the event on our website by May 26th.

If you have any questions, please contact our office at 203.488.6800 and ask for Robin Baker or Kyn Tolson

‘Big Words to Little Me’

Sakina Ibrahim (right) with two girls in her workshop at Wexler-Grant in New Haven.

Sakina Ibrahim used her book “Big Words to Little Me” to present a workshop on self-esteem and affirmation to girls in fifth, sixth and seventh grades at Wexler-Grant Community School in New Haven on April 5.

The hit presentation was part of the New Haven Police Department’s Community Wellness campaign, spearheaded by police Sgt. Shafiq Abdussabur. 25 copies of “Big Words to Little Me” were purchased by Read to Grow for the special program.

Ibrahim is a writer and social entrepreneur. She is an NAACP Image Award nominee for Outstanding Literary Work for her debut book “Big Words to Little Me: Advice to the Younger Self.” She holds a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of California Irvine. She has worked as a dance educator while operating leadership and education programs with organizations such as the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

It’s Out of This World!

The New Haven Public Schools received 5,024 free copies of the hardcover “Galactic Hot Dogs” this April from Read to Grow.

The books were collected by Lauren Canalori, who is the Lead Literacy Teacher for students in kindergarten through 8th grade in the New Haven schools. She and others are working on a plan to give the book to all students in two grades at the end of this school year for a summer reading campaign.

Read to Grow is delighted to be part of this special promotion of books and reading for young children!