YORK — Dr. Stephen R. Brennan, a pediatrician based in York, knelt beside his patient, opened a book, and started reading “The Big Meow” – a tale about a little cat with a big meow – aloud while a small group of adults looked on.
“Your meow wakes us up from our catnaps. It scares off the cat birds in the catalpa tree. Your meow is one big CAT-astrophe!” Brennan said as 5-year-old patient Giovanna “Gigi” Bella, gripping a stuffed pink giraffe, rocked peacefully in a miniature rocking chair.
Brennan said he doesn’t usually make reading aloud to his patients part of his daily routine but Wednesday night’s session with Giovanna and her mother in his Woodbridge Road practice was a special occasion.
Giovanna was the recipient of the 2 millionth book – “A Collection of Stories from Maine” – distributed by Raising Readers, the statewide network that has been giving free books to children 5 and younger since 2000. “The Big Meow,” one of the stories in the book, was written by Elizabeth Spires and illustrated by Cynthia Jabar.
The Raising Readers program is funded by the Libra Foundation and is a collaboration of Maine Health and Eastern Maine Health Systems along with the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital and Eastern Maine Medical Center.
Free books are given to children born in Maine hospitals and at wellness visits to doctors through the age of 5. A child could receive up to 12 free books from the program. Raising Readers’ consulting doctors and health care providers believe that reading to children in their formative years can aid brain development.
“If children are read to three times a week for 20 minutes each day they are more likely to grow up to love reading,” said Dr. Brian Youth, a pediatric residency director at the Barbara Bush hospital and Maine Medical Center, as well as clinical adviser to Raising Readers. “The more a parent reads to a baby, it’s an opportunity for the child to respond to sounds and colors. The brain becomes stimulated, helping to build the brain’s wiring.”
Since 2000, Raising Readers has distributed 2 million age-appropriate books to more than 200,000 children across the state of Maine. The books are distributed through Maine hospitals and medical practices each week. The Libra Foundation has provided funding for the program since it began.
“We do read a lot, just about every day,” said Giovanna’s mother, Joya Bella, of York. Bella teaches elementary special education classes in Gonic, N.H. “Reading aloud absolutely does make a difference to my daughter. It allows her to be imaginative and descriptive. She makes connections between what she sees (in real life) and in a book. Reading a book creates memories and it brings us together as a family.”
Brennan’s practice is located inside a 1903 home on Woodbridge Road in York that he converted eight years ago. The lobby or what had once been the living room contains an aquarium and a fireplace.
Brennan said he supports Raising Readers because he believes the benefits of a parent reading to young children are too great to ignore.
“I’ve been worried about the threat that reading a book faces from things like video games and social media. It certainly helps with brain development and it brings a child closer to their parents,” Brennan said.
The books in the Raising Readers program are selected by a committee that includes teachers, nurses, doctors and librarians from across the state.
Raising Readers suggests that a child can be read to at bedtime, bath time, waiting at a doctor or dentist’s office, in line at the grocery store, at a playground , at the beach and using tapes in the car.
Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: