'Clifford the Big Red Dog' visits McDonough

Photo by Hugh Osteen

Photo by Hugh Osteen

The faces of a roomful of youngsters lit up the McDonough Public Library recently when television's "Clifford the Big Red Dog" appeared as part of the Children's Book Week observance.

Aileen Pierre, a 4-year-old, was asked which books were her favorite. She gave a five-word answer, "Clifford the Big Red Dog."

Her sister, Dania, acknowledged that Aileen cannot read yet, but said she and her mother read to her.

The appearance by the television star accomplished part of the library's objective –– stimulate interest in reading.

Debbie Zerkle, the children's services specialist for the McDonough facility, the headquarters branch of the Henry County Library System, said bringing Clifford helps to get small children excited about books.

"It gives us a chance to promote our summer reading program that's coming up in June and July," Zerkle said. "They're getting out of school, and teachers are on vacation. We, in turn, become their literary caregivers. We have to make it fun for them to read all summer, so their brains don't get lazy."

The summer reading project is part of the Collaborative Summer Library Program, which encompasses 49 states and U.S. territories. Zerkle said the summer endeavor typically starts out strong at the beginning of the season, in Henry, as evidenced by the 1,874 kids who signed up for it in 2009. However, she continued, enthusiasm often wanes over the summer. She focuses her attention now on encouraging children to complete the program.

"We had about 620 that completed it [last year]," she said. "I really want to get those numbers up a little higher."

Zerkle is hopeful for 50 percent completion, or better. One key element to achieving success, she said, is parental involvement. "If the kids see the parents having fun, they're going to think, ‘Wow, this is cool,'" Zerkle said.

In Henry County, kids who complete the program will receive certificates to give their teachers, as well as a free book, and a prize to kick off the school year.

Elaine Black, director of youth services for the Georgia Public Library Service, donned a life-sized red costume to portray Clifford. She'll visit 14 facilities during Children's Book Week. She has had the role since 2007. "After they've heard the stories, and they've seen him on TV and ... his picture books, all of a sudden, there he is," Black said. "Just the look of pure joy and excitement, is my favorite part.

"The real programming meat is definitely done by those host libraries, who have just been so pleasant to invite us in for Children's Book Week," she said. "[Clifford] just comes out, shakes hands and gives hugs."

Kim Murphy, 36, of Covington, brought her daughters, 2-year-old Alaina and 4-year-old Aliya, to see Clifford at the library. She said she has read books to her children since they were babies, and plans to involve them in the McDonough library's summer program.

"It's important for them to be able to write and spell, and reading helps with all that," Murphy said.

Dania Pierre, 9, who is the sister of Aileen Pierre, of McDonough, came to the library to pick up books to take home. The McDonough Elementary School third-grader said when she heard about the library's special guest, those plans changed. "I was about to put away my book bag, and I heard Clifford was going to be here," Pierre said. "I wanted to stick around."

Pierre described reading as an "extremely fun" activity, while admitting it sometimes takes her focus away from other subjects in school. "Whenever I'm in class, and my teacher tells me to put away my book and start doing my math lesson, it's kind of hard for me to get out of my book, because I like reading a lot," she said.