Library Helps Incarcerated Adults Create Lively Recordings for Children

Grace Bentley, a youth information specialist at Merriam Plaza Library, delights in leading Storytimes and helping children and parents discover the joys of reading books.

But one of the most gratifying parts of her Johnson County Library job is assisting incarcerated adults to make wonderful recordings of themselves reading aloud for the children in their lives, through a program called Read to Me.

The adults are clients at the Therapeutic Community Center, a six-month drug treatment program that is part of the alternative sentencing approach at Johnson County District Court. Johnson County Library assists those clients with a variety of services while they are TC residents, including getting Library cards and checking out books.

The Read to Me program specifically allows these adults to create audio book recordings, which then are shared with their children, along with copies of the actual books. It is funded by Johnson County Library and the Library Foundation.

Every other month, Bentley visits the facility for a day, training about 20 clients each time in how to record themselves reading aloud. She brings along recording devices and a diverse collection of books written for everyone from toddlers through teens.

She coaches the clients to have fun and to read with a lot of enthusiasm, including describing what’s going on with the images in picture books. Some adults are self-conscious or nervous, but she assures them that it’s okay to make mistakes, to stumble or to read slowly.  

Adults can record books for one to three children each time, and Bentley estimates the Library has mailed out 200 books over the past year.

The program has operated for years, but it used to be geared just for early readers. Now Bentley encourages parents of older children or teens to read the first chapter of a book, setting up a later discussion of the whole book. The recordings used to be on CDs, but now use QR codes, for access on smartphones or tablets.

The feedback from participants and recipients is wonderful.

“This is such a feel-good program,” Bentley said. “They love getting to talk to their kids about the books.”

In addition to parents, she’s helped grandparents, aunts and uncles. Older siblings can read to their younger brothers and sisters. Bentley just listens to the beginnings of the recordings to match them with the right books. In those snippets she hears a deep connection from reader to child.

“There’s so much love and joy in the first little bit of these recordings,” she said. One relative at home emailed that the child who received the recording kept playing it over and over in her bedroom.

On one visit to TC, a client said his daughter loved the “Elephant and Piggie” book series by Mo Willems. On that particular day, Bentley didn’t have that series available but did have another Mo Willems book to provide.

One client wrote Library staff about how meaningful the program has been to her. “The Read to Me program is a super fun and creative way to connect with kids of any age,” the client wrote. “Being away from my two kids right now is tough on all of us, and this has given us a little piece of happiness that has allowed us to bond over a book.”

Incarcerated Services Librarian Melody Kinnamon praises Bentley’s passion for the Read to Me program, for promoting a love of literacy and for building everyone’s reading skills.

“The parents love her,” Kinnamon said. “They see her having fun, being goofy, letting down her guard, and it encourages them to do the same with their children.”