"The Very Hungry Caterpillar" slithered beside a neat row of desks and across the floor of a classroom in Sandtown. More accurately, it was 7-year-old Tierra Williams -- her body slouched over archlike, feet and palms gliding forward along the carpet -- acting out the lead character in her favorite children's book of the same name, by Eric Carle. "He eats apples, pears, oranges," Tierra said. "What else did he eat, Travon?"
"Strawberries and leaves," piped in New Song Community Learning Center classmate Travon Hopkins, also 7.
The caterpillar eventually became stuffed, formed a cocoon, and turned into a butterfly.
"He was real hungry," Tierra knowingly explained.
To see 7-year-olds gabbing about literature is refreshing -- particularly in the poor West Baltimore area, where median annual family income is about $10,000. But at the fifth-floor office of First Book in downtown Washington, people are at work hoping to jump-start such conversations in needy communities in every corner of the country.
First Book, a 6-year-old, expanding nonprofit group, is dedicated to putting books into the hands of children who otherwise might not own one because they can't afford the cost or because their parents are not aware of the value of learning to read early.
"The need is overwhelming," says Kyle Zimmer, First Book's president and co-founder. "We want books to not be the property of a privileged few, and that's what they are now."
"The Very Hungry Caterpillar" title was among the nearly 4,000 books that have arrived in Sandtown -- and into the hands of pupils such as Tierra and Travon -- since 1994.
Nationwide last year, about 2.4 million books from First Book reached young children free of charge. The organization is aiming for 4 million this year.
First Book's formula relies on convincing businesses, in particular publishers, that offering their products to underprivileged children at a reduced rate is not slashing profits but tapping a nascent market that would otherwise be left untouched.
Zimmer, 38, who left a career as a corporate lawyer in 1992, said the tobacco industry demonstrated how big profits can be made by turning youths into consumers. "If you get them when they're young, they're yours for life," she said. "That marketing aggressiveness should work the same way with books as with other products."
First Book therefore creates partnerships with publishing companies, which also get the satisfaction of contributing to a good cause.
The nonprofit, funded by national foundations and corporate contributors, and through fund-raising projects in each community, pays an average of $2.50 per book (the usual cover price for "Caterpillar," for example, is just under $10).
The organization funnels the books through local programs, which range from those that encourage parents in correctional facilities to read to their children to foster-care programs and relief programs for abused children. The usual stipulation for eligibility is that more than 80 percent of the children in a program be members of low-income households.
First Book's goal is to get at least one book per month to every child in its 213 communities.
Zimmer said she is not surprised that children who don't own books tend to fail. "Their dreams and aspirations are limited to their immediate experience. For a lot of kids, that's a dismal limitation," she said.
Local coordinators and the children choose the books they want from catalogs. The orders are shipped to Washington, and the books -- almost magically, say those involved -- are soon in the hands of young readers. Sometimes, children are set loose on a shopping spree in a section of a cooperating bookstore, during which they can choose a favorite from the shelves.
"I had parents with tears in their eyes," said John Stierhoff, chairman of First Book's Baltimore advisory board, recalling one such book party held at the Barnes & Noble store in White Marsh. The Baltimore group cooperates with the Sandtown program and four others, he said.
Youths at New Song Community Learning Center receive up to 40 titles each per year from First Book, allowing them to build collections at home, said center Director Susan Tibbels.
In one program there, "Starting With Words," parents attend monthly workshops that train them in the importance of literacy. The parent who reads the most books to his or her child at year's end wins a rocking chair.
"The parents get very competitive, insanely competitive, quite honestly," Tibbels said. "And once parents begin to understand the importance of having books in the home, you don't have to be the ones who provide them."
Information about First Book may be obtained by calling its national office at 202-393-1222, or local advisory board Chairman John Stierhoff at 410-269-1919.
Pub Date: 1/31/99