Bring Me a Book


September 2003

Christine VanDeVelde reports on an inspiring program that brings families together to read

So, please, oh, please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away!
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl

Judy Koch began her career teaching junior high school English in Los Altos. Then, she joined the family business, building, and eventually selling, RSP Manufacturing, a machine and sheet metal fabrication company with sales of over $95 million. Today, she installs bookshelves on walls. As founder and president of the Bring Me A Book Foundation, her mission is to get families to read aloud by putting the best books available into the hands of children and parents, particularly those who might not otherwise ever get to read them.

Koch is a passionate lover of children's literature. Her favorite childhood book, The Little Engine That Could, she says, is the source of her can-do attitude. As a working mother, she vividly remembered the time spent in the evenings with her two sons, sharing a good book. And as a former teacher, she knew reading aloud to children was a vital indicator of later success in school.

So it was that, in 1977, when she wanted to give something back to her employees at RSP, she decided to build them a bookshelf – creating a lending library in the workplace. Working with children's literature specialist Kay Goines, they compiled an exemplary master list of over 200 books, the best of the classics and the classics of tomorrow. Koch designed a bookshelf unit four feet wide and six feet high, to hold 65 book bags. Each bag held three to four new hardcover books – no garage sale Disney titles here -- as well as audio tapes of the books, since English was a second language for some users. The book bags could be checked out for a week at a time by employees, who used a simple library database to log in their book borrowing.

The shelves' contents were grouped into five categories, based on age and development, and were, without exception, books that children would want to read again and again, books with flowing language, wonderful stories and beautiful illustrations. In "Rhythm, Rhyme and Sound," there were books for babies and infants, like Margaret Wise Brown's Good Night Moon and Over In The Meadow by Ezra Jack Keats, with its words and cadence duplicating the primordial rhythm of the heartbeat. In "Pictures More Words," older children could enjoy the antics of H.A. Rey's Curious George or the colorful drawings of a little duck alone on the Yangtze in Marjorie Flack's The Story About Ping. And, in a "Chapter Books" bag, a ten-year-old might find E.B. White's Charlotte's Web and spend the rest of the afternoon in the barnyard with a spider and a rat.

Koch called the program Bring Me A Book, because she knew that soon after a parent brought home a book bag and read to their children, it was the children who would drive the program -- "Dad, don't forget to bring me a book." It was, by far, the employee benefit that generated the most positive feedback. "It was a way for the employer to say 'We value you and your families and, when you value someone's children, it pulls one's heartstrings," says Koch.

In 1999, she left the manufacturing company she had built and sold, but, as passionate as ever about promoting family literacy, she decided to build more bookshelves -- on other manufacturing floors, but also in children's hospitals, battered women's shelters, prison visiting rooms, ESL classrooms, preschools, emergency waiting rooms and community centers.

Today, her not-for-profit Bring Me A Book Foundation continues to partner with businesses in their Book Bag Library In The Workplace program. In addition, with the Bookcase Library program (see the Shopping List), they sponsor custom libraries in locations that can't use a lending library, but need books on-site, such as homeless shelters and family health centers. Currently, Koch and her foundation have built bookshelves in more than 50 locations through these two programs. The foundation has also developed educational and video presentations on reading and literacy for use in parenting and ESL classes.

"We can really make a difference in the lives of very young children without spending a lot of money," says Koch. "It's a very low capital investment to inspire and educate parents to read to their children and a great opportunity for parents to have a significant impact on their children's success."

"Reading and being read children's picture books is a special memory that many adults keep with them throughout their lives," says Ellen Michelson, a children's book collector whose family foundation has funded Bookcase Libraries in not-for-profits such as job training centers here in Menlo Park. "The memory of the images and stories, and most importantly, the memory of being held on someone's lap or given quiet, focused attention while being read to adds to the positive emotional growth of any child."

In fact, reading aloud brings together the most important components for both emotional and cognitive development in children: human touch, social connection, exposure to print, and familiarity with how language works. 90% of the brain is developed to adult size by age 4 and research shows that children who enter kindergarten unprepared and unable to recognize letters and numbers have little chance of ever catching up with their peers. Literacy expert and children's author Mem Fox says that children need to hear a thousand stories read aloud before they read for themselves.

In fact, if there was only one piece of advice she could offer to parents about reading to their children, Esme Raji Codell, the children's literature specialist and author of the recently released How To Get Your Child to Love Reading, says it would be to read aloud every day, no matter what and no matter whether your children are infants or teenagers. "There are many, many theories in education," says Codell, "but the positive result of reading out loud is the one educational fact."

Koch does not consider her transition from teacher to tech-CEO to read-aloud evangelist to be quite as surprising as the casual observer of her resume might. "A teacher has to develop the skills of a leader to run a good classroom," she says. "You have to be creative, have empathy, appreciate people, make decisions that make the classroom successful." Furthermore, she believes that the leadership qualities required for success in business and in life are nowhere elucidated more clearly and amply than in books written for… children. Her current favorite is The Three Questions by Jon J. Muth, based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. If you make room for it on your own bookshelf, you might find "the answers to what is most important in this world." Bookshelves, of course, being one of them.