Imagine the joy of a child who never had the privilege of owning a book being able to choose new hardcover or paperback editions for free out of hundreds displayed in front of him. The Children’s Literacy Foundation doesn’t have to imagine. Staff have seen the excited smiles on these young faces for the past 23 years, and they hear the same question wherever they go.
“You mean I get to keep it? It’s mine?”
The Children’s Literacy Foundation of Vermont is on a mission to nurture a love of reading and writing in low-income Vermont and New Hampshire children who are at risk of growing up with poor literacy skills. According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly two-thirds of low-income families don’t even have one book at home for their kids. CLiF places books in the hands of families like these and on the shelves of school or public libraries where books are old and funds are low, sends out local authors and illustrators like Caldecott and Siebert Honoree Jason Chin to present to everyone in town, and teaches parents how to make reading to their children exciting and fun.
Wherever there’s a need for books, CLiF is there. And CLiF is a model for others who want to help underserved children, schools, libraries and communities across the country.
The Children’s Literacy Foundation has donated $8 million worth of new books to 300,000 children in over 420 towns in New Hampshire and Vermont since Duncan McDougall founded the non-profit organization in 1998. McDougall left a successful career in management consulting for the chance to get out and captivate children and parents — to make them laugh and delight in great storytelling. And through it all he’s fulfilling the most important mission of all, and that is to raise children’s literacy so that underprivileged children have a greater chance for success.
Here is a sampling of a few of CLiF’s programs:
CLiF’s “Year of the Book” program provides $25,000 gifts to 10 rural elementary schools where at least 30 percent of the students test below grade level on reading and writing assessment tests. Children choose ten free books to take home from hundreds selected by teachers and librarians. Teachers select new children’s books for their classrooms and they receive mini-grants for literacy activities they’ve always wanted to undertake, and librarians can pick $1,000 worth of of new books each for the public and school libraries.
CLiF also provides 15 – 20 literary events through the year like writing workshops and visits by local authors and illustrators. Bethlehem (NH) Elementary School is a small school with a very tight budget. “There’s no way we would be able to do something like this,” said Principal Shelli Roberts.
As it nears Christmas, families are invited to come to schools for a special dinner and evening together. These are families who might never go inside their child’s school. After a dinner provided by CLiF, children go off to enjoy an activity while a CLiF presenter shares with the adults different ways to make storytelling the most engaging. “You can ask questions. You can make it a conversation. You can change your voice. They see different ways to make storytelling compelling,” McDougall said. Parents or caregivers then have the chance to choose books to give to their children for the holiday. Volunteers wrap them up in holiday paper. And once the children return, a CLiF presenter tells a story to the assembled crowd, an activity that is fun for the children and informative and inspiring for the adults.
Author/illustrator presenters must live in the two states. “We think it’s a very powerful message,” said McDougall. “Kids get to meet someone who lives a few towns away, and they get to realize that you don’t have to be a special person from New York City or California to write a book or be a poet or become an artist. There are people just like them in towns just like theirs, and they can do it too.” (Take four minutes to be inspired by this Year of the Book Video.)
CLiF’s Rural Libraries program has sponsored close to 90 percent of all public libraries in small New Hampshire and Vermont towns with fewer than 5,000 people. They receive $2,000 worth of new and outstanding books chosen by the librarian to fill in gaps in the library’s collection. The public library receives funds to support family programming. Local school libraries receive $500 worth of books chosen by the librarians, and two professional author or illustrator presenters speaking to all the kids in town, one in the fall and one in the spring. Finally, every child in town gets two books to keep, all the way from children in childcare to grade 6.
At-Risk Children CLiF reaches out to children in low-income families with free books and storytelling presentations in homeless shelters, affordable housing communities, refugee facilities, Head-Start, community and childcare centers. Children can choose two new books to keep, and parents can attend seminars to hear the importance of reading to their children and learn tips to making storytelling fun even if they are not confident readers. CLiF also donates on-site libraries of books in these sites, as well as in shelters, refugee programs, prison waiting rooms, and other facilities desperately in need of books that families can enjoy for years to come.
Children of Prison Inmates For many years CLiF has also worked to build strong relationships between prison inmates and their children, even while prisons are on Covid lockdown. In previous years, CLiF presenters conducted regular seminars with inmates to help them learn how to share stories with their children. Though kept from seeing their families during the pandemic, prisoners have the joy of choosing new books, writing loving notes inside the covers, and CLiF sends those books home. Inmates can also record the books onto MP3 and the children can enjoy the books and hear their mom or dad read to them at home. Normally, McDougall also walks right into prisons and sets up family fun days where inmates and their children can play games, choose books together, and listen to a lively storyteller. Now, when prisons are closed to children’s visits, being able to hear a mother or father’s voice reading to them at home is a wonderful way to help parents continue sharing story time and staying involved in their children’s lives.
The wife of one inmate in Berlin, NH wrote:
“My daughter, as well as her brothers receive books every other month from (their) dad …and it’s something that the kids look forward to each time! She is 5 and just yesterday she says to me, ‘Mommy when will it be the end of the month?’ and I said to her, ‘In just a few days. Why, what’s up?’ and she says, ‘Because that’s when I get my books from daddy in the mail!’ We have several recorded books, a library of regular books that have been mailed home, and the kids are always eager to check the mail to see if there are any books in the box. CLiF is definitely something that has kept my daughter more connected to her dad while he is away, and we couldn’t be anymore thankful than we are for both the “Family Fun Days” as well as being able to have books sent home to us every other month. The program that you guys offer is nothing short of incredible and gives kids a small light from a place that is looked upon so darkly.”
At a Family Fun Day at the women’s prison in S. Burlington, VT,
a mother helps her son, and other inmates select books for their children.
(Left) an inmate with two new books he selected for his children and (right) Duncan reading
a children’s book to inmates. They insist on hearing a new story each time, and it allows him
to model different storytelling techniques. Seventy percent of US inmates have
low literacy skills, and CLiF presenters show how anyone can tell
a great story, regardless of their reading skills.
Look for Free CLiF Resources
for Parents, Schools, and Teachers,
Including a Treasure Trove of Recorded Videos of Zoom Visits
by Famous Local Authors:
A national study shows that students who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. The Children’s Literacy Foundation is ensuring that doors are open for children’s success today and tomorrow. Said McDougall, “We are all about making reading and writing fun and inspiring.”
The Children’s Literacy Foundation is headquartered in Waterbury, VT. For more information visit https://clifonline.org or email Duncan McDougall, Executive Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach out to Communications Director Erika Nichols-Frazer at email@example.com. CLiF’s phone number is (802) 244‑0944.