By VANESSA McCRAY
TRAVERSE CITY — Local reading advocates hopes a box of books will spur more families to read out loud to one another.
ReadAloud.org, a nonprofit that started as a family literacy cause, launched a project to give children's books to families in Antrim County.
The Big Box of Books project is expected to spread to other area counties and beyond in 2011, said Read Aloud executive director Bob Robbins, whose family founded the organization.
The goal is to get parents to read to children for at least 15 minutes a day, instilling a love of books and improving children's reading skills.
"It's just a real uphill climb if you don't get the kids started early," Robbins said.
Read Aloud and local partners held the first Big Box of Books event this month in Alden at the Helena Township Public Library and community center. Nearly 100 parents and children attended by invitation.
Robbins wants to schedule events next year in Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Leelanau and Benzie counties and in Ohio and Pennsylvania and is looking for groups to partner with.
The program targets students who are struggling with reading and whose families may not be able to afford a well-stocked home library.
Participants receive a box of six age-appropriate books. For the pilot project, the titles centered on a heroes theme.
At the Alden event, organizers explained the importance of reading aloud, demonstrated techniques and shared videos. Families took a "Read Aloud Pledge," promising to read daily, and received a booklet to track reading. The plan is to hold a follow-up event next year with the same group and give out a fresh set of books centered on a new theme.
"Not only do they have new books, but the families have been able to come to an event where they've learned creative ways of reading a book — acting out a play, reading at the dinner table, many different ways that you can engage in reading as a family and make it fun," said Amy Burk, executive director of Communities in Schools of Mancelona.
The agency joined with Read Aloud and Friends of the Helena Township Public Library for the first event. Communities in Schools offers mentoring, tutoring, leadership and other programs and seeks to link the community to the school system, Burk said. Big Box of Books fit neatly into its literacy efforts, and students will be encouraged to report their progress to a reading teacher.
The library's Friends group hopes the project will bring more young readers to the library.
"We've got people coming in that haven't been there before," said Friends president Nancy Ludwa.
Volunteers grew excited as they boxed up the new, crisp books for children, she said.
Robbins estimated it costs about $6,000 to hold twice-a-year book events that reach 100 children ages 0-12. That covers the event, books and associated printed materials. Giving children books to keep is key because not all families have ready transportation to a library, he said.
"Over time, they are going to build a family library by being in the program," Robbins said.