Mackenzie Tinker lost all her belongings when her family home in La Vergne burned down two months ago.
What the second-grader couldn't stop talking about in the days after the disaster was what she missed the most: her books.
"She had books everywhere," said her dad, Jeff, who dislocated his shoulder and suffered burns trying to save the home. "After the devastation we realized, just about every room, she had some books."
The bookworm — known to walk through the house reading aloud — had so many books because, as she put it, they came "from Dolly Parton." That was Mackenzie's way, probably familiar all over Tennessee, of talking about the free books that came to her in the mail each month. They actually came from the Books From Birth program, an agreement between the Governor's Foundation, local affiliates and, yes, Parton's Imagination Library. Kids from birth until age 5 can get them.
But Mackenzie had already turned 8 when the fire took all of hers. Friends and relatives bought her some new books, but — at least for a few days — her parents, Jeff and Shannon, worried they wouldn't find a way to replace all the memories linked to the books she lost.
After all, Books From Birth is a big statewide program that's as busy as ever with all the new families joining in. Marking its 10-year anniversary this year, officials announced in April that 20 million books had been given out. A new report will soon tout the program's impact on literacy. And a bus tour will roam the state in September to sign up more families.
In June, 221,586 books will hit mailboxes, an all-time record for Tennessee. More than half of the state's children under age 5 now take part, and over its two decades the program has reached nearly 600,000 families.
"When I came in two years ago, I would say it was at a fairly decent plateau," said Theresa Carl, executive director. "We've really focused on bumping up the numbers. We've raised it almost 2 percent in two years, which doesn't sound like much, but it's about 7,000 children statewide."
A growth spurt this year came from Tennessee's new "Welcome Baby" mailings, which deliver information about state services to every family with a newborn. Books From Birth got its enrollment form included and received a boost of about 4,500 families with infants.
"All of a sudden, we're enrolling more babies," Carl said. "We want them to come in earlier and get 60 books by age 5."
Leaders think that by being aggressive they can raise the state's literacy rate.
"Still," Carl said, "less than 50 percent of Tennessee's third-graders read at grade level. Even though the numbers have inched up a little, it's still not acceptable."
For this year and last, Carl has overseen $3.1 million in state money, down from $3.4 million each of the two years before that.
Each book costs $2.10 to buy and ship. The state splits the cost with local affiliates in all 95 counties.
That includes Rutherford County, where chapter President Mitch Federman received an unusual request last month from a counselor at Cedar Grove Elementary School.
She asked him what could be done about Mackenzie Tinker's lost books.
'I used to have this book'
A few weeks later, on May 7, Federman walked into the school library shouldering a pink cloth basket filled with more than 60 books and a set of train-shaped Imagination Library bookends.
Mackenzie's parents and her older brother Jordan, 19, were there, too, when her teacher asked her to step into the library.
The sight of her parents — and then Federman's invitation to toss the tissue paper aside to reveal her new collection — left the little girl speechless.
But not for long.
"I used to have this book," she said, more than once, as family favorites like "Owl Moon," and "The Chicken of the Family" emerged.
Her mom, Shannon, emotional all morning just at the thought of the surprising gesture, called special attention to "My Two Hands My Two Feet," a book that calls on kids to move around.
"That's the one we read so many times that it fell apart," she said. "Literally."
Mackenzie couldn't wait to explain what the books were about.
"Sometimes I like to imagine being in the book, like meeting the characters," she said. "And I love reading a lot."
Looking on, Federman saw her pull out one familiar book after another.
"I was so thrilled to hear her say, 'I love this book.' I'm glad we got those in there."
A slow start
Reading wasn't always fun for Mackenzie.
Her parents said she got a slow start, but the spark came when she was 3 — a frustrating road trip in which she couldn't keep up with her brother's superhero magazine.
"She was reading everything after that," said Jeff Tinker. "She was reading the ketchup bottles, everything. She's been at it ever since."
Now Mackenzie reads well above her grade level.
The Tinkers credit Books From Birth, and new research has bolstered their beliefs.
For years, evidence of the program's success tended to be anecdotal. The Tennessee Board of Regents surveyed 470 preschool and kindergarten teachers in 2007 as one method. Using a five-point scale for all students, teachers said Books From Birth participants were significantly better prepared for reading.
Still, proof was sparse. The Urban Child Institute in Memphis said as much at the launch of a multiyear study in 2012.
This year, the institute revisited 334 of the same students, now in second grade, and gave them reading tests. In a side-by-side comparison between Books From Birth participants and other children, researchers found that those who took part had bigger vocabularies and better reading comprehension.
The institute tested for other factors but emphatically concluded that the books program made a difference.
The Tinkers think so, too.
If anything, they have the opposite situation on their hands. They can hardly get Mackenzie to stop reading out loud. At home, at school, wherever she is, she can't stop reading out loud.
"We'll say, 'Read to yourself,' " her father said. "She can't help herself."
Reach Tony Gonzalez at 615-259-8089 and on Twitter @tgonzalez.
Sign up or donate
Call 615-253-3600 or toll free at 1-877-992-6657, or visit www.governorsfoundation.org for information on enrolling children in the free books program, to get involved and to donate. A gift of $12 provides books for a child for a year.
Books distributed for June
A record-setting 221,586 books will be mailed free to Tennessee families in June from the state's Books From Birth program. Leaders wouldn't release data about how effective they have been at enrolling families in each county, but did share how many books will be mailed.
- Cheatham: 1,158
- Davidson: 21,238
- Robertson: 1,693
- Rutherford: 8,768
- Sumner: 5,074
- Williamson: 6,638
- Wilson: 4,711
Source: The Governor's Foundation