The bag babies of north Sunderland

Elaine Williams

Elaine Williams finds an award-winning library determined to catch its readers young.

Karen's house in Marley Pots is clean but sparse. There's carpet on the floor, curtains at the windows, some furniture, few knick-knacks and certainly no books.

She lives on this large estate in north Sunderland with her nine-month-old son Daniel, an alert, chubby baby in whom she takes pride and pleasure. But it's a lonely life. Karen, who's 23, knows few people in the neighbourhood and apart from taking Daniel for walks, she doesn't get out much. Outings and toys are expensive items for a single mum on state benefit.

Karen did join a book club after he was born and got a pack of Disney books - "you know the ones that you press". But Daniel just put them in his mouth so she put them away for later. Then she got a letter from Angela Wilkinson, a librarian from nearby Southwick Library, saying it had a book pack for Daniel. Could she visit Karen at home?

Daniel greeted Angela in his baby walker and followed her every action wide- eyed and silent as she emptied the contents of the "goodie" Bookstart bag - an attractive linen plimsoll bag with a free book The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle; a poster of Jane Hissey's Old Bears; an essential booklist to help parents choose their child's first books; a leaflet promoting the use of local libraries; a bookmark and an action rhyme about a mouse, drawn by Angela on a card for parents.

As Angela turned the pages of The Hungry Caterpillar with its delicious colours and shapes, finger holes and story of a caterpillar who munches his way through an astonishing range of fruits, vegetables and other foods before turning finally into a "beautiful butterfly!" Daniel moved closer, held out his hand and watched the turn of every page. This baby liked books.

Angela explained this was a special book, carefully chosen. Karen could sit with him, play the finger games, name and count the fruit, recite the days of the week. The list, she said, would help Karen choose books appropriate for Daniel's age: "If you are going to buy books then you will find it better to buy ones he can use now."

The library had cloth books, board books, the whole range of children's books and Karen was welcome to bring Daniel and enrol him as a library member. She was already a member herself, addicted as she was to "film books", but she'd never imagined that Daniel was old enough to join.

Angela visits a lot of homes like Karen's - Sunderland libraries felt they needed help and guidance when it came to books. And the Bookstart programme has just been awarded the 1995 Library Association Holt Jackson Community Initiative Award set up four years ago to highlight the crucial, unsung work that libraries do for their communities. This year the judges were impressed by the holistic approach to child development taken by the Sunderland library workers and health visitors who do follow-up home visits, evaluate the effect on families and chart children's progress through the early years.

Since the initiative began 12 months ago funded by City Challenge, Angela has given out 400 packs, both at the Southwick and Hylton Caste health centres and to other families who she's visited at home.

In this way, she targets every family with a young baby - about 40 a month - in the designated area around the library. She follows up with a home visit after three months to find out if parents are using the book and reading lists, whether the child is enrolled at the library, whether parents need further help.

Sunderland will use the Pounds 4,000 award money to build up a bank of book bags and to extend evaluation of the project. Angela, a former playworker, has been employed for three years, but it is hoped the initiative will continue beyond that.

"This isn't just a gimmick," says Ann Scott, Sunderland's senior librarian for children's youth and education services, who first presented the idea of Bookstart, having seen it at work in Birmingham. "We want to follow up with some serious researchIto chart these children's progress through school.

"This is turning into a family literacy project. Parents and grandparents who have never been good readers themselves are trying books out at the same time as they are getting books for their babies."

Recent findings by Dr Barrie Wade of Birmingham University, and Dr Maggie Moore, of Newman College, Birmingham, show that Bookstart families are more committed to books and that the babies concentrate better, participate more, turn pages over and even point to the print.

Jacqueline Carter, a 28-year-old mother of twins, who lives near Southwick library, had never picked up a book for her babies before Angela's visit. Now Andrew and Daniel, aged 22 months, are regular visitors to the library and spend much of their time looking at books. Jacqueline, who lives alone, goes to sales of old library stock and scours supermarkets for bargains. "They love books, they have really taken to them. Now they read to each other for hours. It has given me peace of mind."

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