Begin with Books Spreading Literacy to All Children

Begin with Books mom and kid

At least until age six, children learn to read. After that, they read to learn. Literacy is the bedrock of lifelong learning.

Begin With Books promotes early childhood literacy one book at a time from birth through age five.   The Charleston-based organization affiliated with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library delivers one free book each month to pre-schoolers in low-income neighborhoods in the Lowcountry.

The program has delivered nearly 400,000 books to nearly 13,000 children since 2010 at a miniscule cost of $2.75 per book, according to Nell Killoy, the program’s director. A $100 donation to Begin With Books outfits three children with age appropriate books every month for a year.

Why all the emphasis on books?

Research overwhelmingly concludes that the presence of books in a home is the number one predictor of children’s lifetime academic success. A study at the University of Nevada-Reno found those benefits accrued particularly in families with little education and low-status occupations.

“Reading time with a child is sometimes the only time during that child’s day that they are getting responsive one-on-one interaction with an adult. The bonding and attachment associated with reading together is so important to the development of the child,” said Dr. Caron Bell, a developmental psychologist who taught cognitive development at Ryerson University in Toronto and who now volunteers with Begin With Books in Charleston.

To the extent that the small step of getting books into the homes of at-risk children can improve economic opportunities to all segments of the Lowcountry population and produce a more educated workforce for employers, the Lowcountry Graduate Center supports efforts like Begin With Books. This is an empirically powered solution to the disheartening levels of school readiness and literacy among local children from low-income families.

Focusing Literacy Efforts on At-Risk Families

Indeed, Begin With Books focuses its efforts on the lowest-income zip codes in the area and works to recruit families into the program. Through a collaboration with MUSC and grassroots efforts by a cadre of dedicated volunteers, Begin With Books has connected with fully half of the 10,000 children it targets. The organization’s budget for delivering 60,000 age-appropriate books annually is an unfathomably low $165,000.

At MUSC, volunteers deliver the first book to mothers in the maternity ward and demonstrate best practices for reading to the child.

Begin With Books derives some of its financial support from the Town of Kiawah and City of Charleston, but most of it comes from private grants and individual donations.

Beneficiaries of the program sing its praises. “Our littles love getting the books in the mail! A lot of the books are new to us and many of our new family favorites came from Begin With Books. We definitely read more at home now because they have so many newer books,” said one West Ashley mom.

Books Are About More Than Reading

Surprisingly, reading is not the key to early literacy, experts say. The simple act of cuddling with a child around a book and having a conversation about the illustrations is more important than the words on the page.

“Parents may be functionally illiterate and have negative associations with books,” said Dr. Bell. “But it’s not about reading the book; it’s about the reading experience. Books are a wonderful springboard to talk about all kinds of things, like shapes and colors, but also about the many new things they are encountering in their day-to-day life and the feelings and emotions they may be experiencing.” 

Indeed, talking about books can boost numeracy as well as literacy. Even babies understand the concept of number; e.g, they can distinguish between one piece of food and many pieces. The stories in books help them learn key principles of counting (like counting each object once) even if they cannot yet name the numbers.

Those books that cannot be delivered to children, for example, because they have moved, are packaged up and donated to area childcare providers so reading promotion can occur there as well.

How You Can Help

Begin With Books needs volunteers for the two most challenging elements of the program: fundraising and family recruitment. If you would like to donate, or offer your services, visit