Babies and books are a natural mix

When public-health nurse Rhonda Wylie visits parents and newborns in the days after they return home from hospital, she likes to save the best for last.

After going through the home-visit routine of weighing the baby, checking feeding habits and discussing immunization plans, she hands over the little green bag.

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The contents are simple: One board book, a baby-music CD, a literacy pamphlet and information about Greater Victoria Public Library services for children and families.

But the GVPL Books for Babies can mean a lot to parents who just went through the stress of delivery.

“What I love to see is the smile on their faces. You can kind of see it’s not just about having the baby now, it’s about being the parent,” Wylie said.

Books for Babies is a community-based literacy program run by the Greater Victoria Public Library and funded through the Times Colonist’s Raise-a-Reader program. It encourages reading to newborns, with a goal of distributing kits to each family in the GVPL service area.

An estimated 5,300 families have received a kit since the program’s inception in 2010. Public-health nurses distribute about 63 per cent of Books for Babies kits during home visits. And parents who opt out of the home visit can pick up the kits at their local health unit or full-service library branch.

From the GVPL’s perspective, it’s a way to attract traffic to the library.

“It introduces new users to the public library,” CEO Maureen Sawa said. “And for people who haven’t used the library in a while, it’s a reminder that, now that they have babies and are raising children, there’s just a whole world of resources in support of family literacy through their public library.”

Several of the parents at the GVPL’s Baby Time program — a drop-in session where parents learn songs, rhymes and fingerplays with their babies — said they had received a Books for Babies kit.

“It’s a bit of a blur, but we got ours in the hospital,” said Sasha Prynn, while her two-year-old son Sean enjoyed the Central Branch play area.

The book in the kit quickly became one of his favourites. “He’s moved on to other things now, but he’ll still pull it off the shelf,” Prynn said.

Two mothers at Baby Time said that since English isn’t their first language, they appreciated getting the books so their children could learn.

“I don’t speak English [well], so for me it’s very good,” said Marietta Ribisi, who moved to Victoria last March from Italy when her husband got an engineering job on the Island. The couple’s son Davide is nine months old.

“My son is a Canadian and for me it’s important that he have Italian and Canadian culture,” Ribisi said.

Valeria Handzak, originally from Slovakia, said the books and library programs have helped her learn English-language rhymes to sing with her 19-month-old son, Daniel.

Meanwhile, eight-month-old Victoria would rather dance to the music on her Books for Babies CD than read the book.

“Right now, she loves eating the books. But she’s starting to like the pictures too, and she’s able to turn a page,” said mom Anna Arneja. “It’s definitely part of our bedtime routine.”

Keeping the program alive 

GVPL Books for Babies is doing well, but there was a time when the future of the literacy program appeared uncertain.

The GVPL only created Books for Babies when its parent program, Books for B.C. Babies, was chopped from the provincial budget in 2009, according to Sawa.

“When the funding was first cut, the library board here did make a concerted effort to acquire some other funding support from private foundations,” she said.

TD Bank Financial and the Steve Nash Foundation helped keep GVPL Books for Babies alive for 2010.

And the Times Colonist’s Raise-a-Reader program has continued support since then, alongside GVPL Friends of the Library. They contributed $25,000 and $5,000 this year, respectively.

About half the libraries in B.C. have resurrected similar programs independent of provincial funding, said Tracy Kendrick, co-ordinator of children’s and teen services for the GVPL.

GVPL Books for Babies also benefits from subsidized books from Orca Book Publishers.

“Every year, they have some lovely new board book by a local author, which is also a bonus for us because we like to support local authors,” Kendrick said.

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