Maddie Horlander plucks her favorite books from the shelves in her school library and stacks them next to her mom’s chair before wiggling onto mom’s lap.
“Llama Llama Gram and Grandpa” is at the top of her heap, and although the precocious 5-year-old can’t read the words, she’s doing more than looking at the pictures.
As Maddie’s mother, Kristin, reads aloud, Maddie follows, top to bottom and left to right, her small fingers tracing the braille dots that accompany the print on the page.
It’s a Braille Tales book. That means a sighted person and a visually impaired person can sit and read the book together because it’s written in both print and braille.
Braille Tales books are an effort of the Lions-supported American Printing House (APH) for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. Every other month, APH sends a specifically chosen print/braille children’s book for free to about 1,500 visually impaired children throughout the U.S. and U.S. territories.
Bob Belknap, APH vice president of development, would like to see that number grow. He encourages families to sign up for the free program because the books encourage reading and help build early childhood literacy skills, but they also give blind children and sighted parents, or vice versa, the chance to cozy up and read together.
Maddie, a student at Visually Impaired Preschool Services (VIPS) in Louisville, is not blind. She was born with a rare genetic disorder called ocular motor apraxia that affects her peripheral vision. Her eyes do not move quickly enough to focus on the right or the left, so she moves her head in a figure 8 motion to compensate.
She is learning braille in preschool, but her parents are uncertain if she’ll be a braille reader. From Braille Tales books she has already learned that we read from top to bottom and left to right on the page. She has discovered that not every person reads in the same way, and she has taught her older sister how some of her school friends read.
At home, Maddie has about 10 Braille Tales books that have come in the mail since her mom registered her for the program.
They are thankful for the books, Kristin Horlander says, because braille titles for children are rarely stocked in bookstores and libraries, and are not only limited, but expensive for parents to buy.
If you start getting Braille Tales books when a child’s born, your child can have quite a library by the time they turn 6.
The Braille Tales program began when a blind mother in Tennessee searched for braille books so she could read to her young sighted child. Her child was receiving free books through the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, a popular program that mails about one million free, age-appropriate books to children under 6 throughout the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia every month. But the blind mother could not read the books to her child.
In 2011, the APH found a way to solve her problem. APH, Dolly Parton Imagination Library, and Penguin USA, which provides the books, launched the Braille Tales program together. Parton presented her favorite book, “The Little Engine That Could”—the first Braille Tales book—to a young braille reader from Tennessee. And by 2012, the first 200 print/braille books were in the mail from APH to children nationwide, with Louisville Downtown Lions contributing.
Belknap says through a simple online process families can register visually impaired children from birth through age 5 in the program to receive a free book every other month. APH’s goal is to have 2,000 children receiving their books this year. A donation of US$77 pays for one child to receive the books for one year.
At APH, a reading specialist chooses books appropriate for visually impaired children from Imagination Library’s list, then has the books delivered to the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women near Louisville. Women in the prison braille program who are skilled at transcribing braille—a highly marketable skill when they are released—affix the clear braille labels to the pages.
Recordings of all of Imagination Library’s books are also available through the APH website.
Lion Adam Ruschival, president of the Louisville Downtown Lions and a graduate of the Kentucky School for the Blind, says the club is happy to support APH’s efforts as well as the VIPS that Maddie attends. The Lions have sponsored VIPS for about 30 years.
Throughout the years, Lions clubs from West Virginia to Wyoming and Illinois to Alabama have also supported APH, says Belknap. But the downtown Louisville Lions have established a particularly strong working relationship with their neighbors.
Louisville Lion Charles “Burt” Boyer, retired from his work in blind education, is proud of his club’s contributions. “If you start getting Braille Tales books when a child’s born, your child can have quite a library by the time they turn 6,” he says.
Lions Clubs interested in helping visually impaired children in their community with Braille Tales books can find more information at www.aph.org/brailletales.