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Old 12-21-2004, 09:51 PM
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Default Article: Books bring inmates, children closer together

December 20, 2004

By Carolyn Handy Southern Vermont Bureau

A woman read a story to her son while he sat on her lap, eating a candy cane. Make-believe presents, a decorated Christmas tree, holiday music and construction-paper chains made the prison visiting room more festive than usual on this Sunday afternoon.

Lewis Kishawn Greaves, almost 6, traveled from Epping, N.H., to spend two hours with his mom at Windsor State Prison. He selected "The Owl and the Pussycat" from the prison's new children's library books.

"They are beautiful books," his mother, Janet Slossberg-Mazza of Burlington, said. "The other books were falling apart and old."

Earlier this month, the Children's Literacy Foundation delivered $2,500 of new children's books to the prison. About half the books were used to replenish the prison's children's library. The other half was set aside for children to take home.

After the story was over, Lewis said, "Read it again." And she did.

According to Duncan McDougall, executive director of the Children's Literacy Foundation, the ability to read and write is one of the most important things in a person's life. During a Dec. 9 presentation, McDougall said that strong readers are more successful in school.

"There is nothing more powerful and has a more powerful impact than reading books," he said.

A parent of a 4-year-old son, McDougall said before he reads books aloud, he checks to make sure the ending is appropriate. If the story is too scary, the parent can change it while they tell it, he said.

He also said that parents could just look at the pictures and tell a story. There are no rules that you must read a book, he said.

"It's not reading the words that matters, it's the telling of the story that matters," McDougall said.

As far as selecting a good children's book, he said children love rhyming stories, stories that are predictable and stories about familiar things.

Girls love stories about horses and dogs, he said, and boys like stories about snakes, snails and frogs.

"There are a lot of great books that don't have any words in them," he said.

In fact, McDougall suggested telling stories without books and perhaps making the child a character in the story.

Just being close to the child and telling a story is a way to share and create a positive memory, he said.

"Change your voice," McDougall said. "You're an actor and this is your stage. Don't be afraid to be silly."

To get the children involved, he suggested asking them questions like "What will happen next?" or "Why did they do that?"

Make reading interactive, he said.

McDougall asked the inmates where they preferred to read books to their children. At the park, on the floor, on trips and before bedtime were some of the answers.

After Slossberg-Mazza read the book title again during the visit Sunday, she read the author's name.

"Who is Edward Lear?" her son asked.

She said that her son always notices if anyone ever tries to omit any sections of a story, regardless of who is reading to him.

"You can't skip," said Lewis' stepfather, Thomas Mazza of Burlington, who joined the duo near the end of their visit.

A kindergartner, Lewis visits his mom at least every other weekend, when there are special mother-child visiting hours. Regular visiting hours are twice a week, she said, on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Next, Lewis selected a book with a menorah on the cover, which was about Hanukkah goblins.

Slossberg-Mazza, who grew up Jewish and is now a Christian, teaches both traditions to her son. He celebrates Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah and other Jewish holidays with his grandmother and celebrates Christian holidays with his mother.

When the Children's Literacy Foundation made the presentation Dec. 9, Slossberg-Mazza was unable to attend because she was at work making license plates, both regular and vanity plates.

"Every license plate made in Vermont goes through our shop," she said.

"She made mine," her husband said.

Together almost three years, they were married a little more than a year ago when she was in the Waterbury prison. Slossberg-Mazza said she hopes to be out of prison in about 10 more months, by next Thanksgiving.

She decided not to send any books home with her son, she said, because he has so many at home.

Katrina Race, another inmate, said Dec. 9 her 6-year-old son lives in New York state, so he only visits once in a while. She has arranged to select a book for him and mail it to her mom, who has custody of her son, Colbie.

"They are usually pretty good about children here," she said, adding that she recently hosted a birthday party for her son that included a cake and presents.

Race said she will go home in January after seven months in prison. It is the first time she has been away from her son during the holidays, she said.

The literacy foundation's prison program began in July with a goal of establishing children's book libraries in family visiting rooms of all nine Vermont and seven New Hampshire prisons.

So far, it has donated books to the Dale Correctional Facility in Waterbury and to the prisons in Berlin and Goffstown, N.H. The next visit is scheduled Dec. 28 to the Newport prison.

The nonprofit organization was founded in 1998 by educators, librarians, publishers, storytellers and writers. Its mission is to nurture a love of reading and writing among children throughout New Hampshire and Vermont.

The literacy foundation does not receive any state or federal funds, but relies only on support from individuals, social organizations, companies and foundations.

One of the founding members of the foundation, Joanna Long, said that five Vermont libraries and five New Hampshire libraries get grants twice a year.

"We pick 20 a year in the two states," she said.

Towns with populations less than 5,000 get a matching grant, she said, which amounts to $2 from the foundation and $1 from the town.

"They don't ever get dollars; they get books," she said.

A former children's librarian, Long reviews books for the Los Angles Times.

The coordinator of volunteers for state prisons, Joan Kersey, said that the presentation on storytelling from the literacy foundation was part of the weekly parenting program to strengthen families.

The prison has about 97 inmates now, she said, and has a capacity of 100.

"The gift of books was made to the whole facility," she said, adding that a child could receive more than one book.

"These mothers do care a great deal about their children," she said. "I'm not saying men don't care about their children, but some men are not involved with their children."

Contact Carolyn Handy at carolyn.handy@rutlandherald.com.

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