Most people would agree that it's a good idea to read to young kids. But a new early childhood literacy campaign by the Dakota County Library emphasizes that how you read to a child is important, too.

For example, it suggests following words with your finger when reading aloud to young children.

"Kids don't understand that the goofy scribbles on the page actually mean something," said Anne Friederichs, children's librarian at Wescott Library. "It's the start of them seeing the representation of the written language as important."

That practice tends to make children more comfortable when they start reading on their own, she said.

Also, Friederichs said brain science shows that asking open-ended questions like "What do you think will happen next?" while reading can assist brain development.

"Especially in young children, the synapses are not completely active," she said. "It actually makes those synapses much stronger. It's like exercise."

The library's new "Get Ready to Raise a Reader" campaign targets caregivers for kids from birth to age 5 and offers tips like these.

"Every child's first teacher is the mom or dad," said Friederichs.

As part of the campaign, brochures will soon be distributed through Early Childhood Family Education, Dakota Healthy Families (a home visiting program for first-time parents) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. In addition to outlining ideas for developing pre-literacy skills, the brochures include information about library programs, services and hours.

"All the research shows the more you read as a kid, the better your chances are in life," said Eric Austin, a manager with the Dakota County Library.

Also, as part of the campaign, new brightly colored signs featuring a variety of different professions — firefighters, engineers, veterinarians — are displayed throughout the libraries. Alongside the characters are messages encouraging reading, such as, "Why read? To be an astronaut and walk on the moon."

Gail Plewacki, communications director at Dakota County, said they wanted to use a "retro, comic book look.

"We wanted smiling, bright, enchanting faces for kids to look at," she said.

The graphics and messaging have also been used on window clings, floor stickers, signs above service desks and in the stacks, and on library book bags.

A digital billboard with some of the characters and the phrase "Kids who read grow up to succeed" just went up along Hwy. 52. The billboard, done pro bono through Clear Channel Outdoor, will remain up for two months, said Plewacki.

No distractions

To promote the program, the library is partnering with the Dakota County Public Health Department. Public health nurses already stress the importance of early childhood reading during home visits, said Dakota County Public Health Supervisor Amy Mimm. They emphasize the importance of having books available and modeling good reading habits.

However, she said, this campaign is "more of a targeted message."

Part of the "Get Ready to Raise a Reader" program also involved waiving fines so that patrons with cards blocked by fines could start using the library again.

According to Ken Behringer, the library's director, the Dakota County Library had never implemented a fine amnesty program before. He called the amnesty, held throughout February, "a special one-time deal."

Behringer said he wanted to launch the campaign because promoting early childhood literacy brings long-term benefits to the county.

He also said that while it's not the reason for implementing the campaign, library circulation is down in recent years.

"Our circulation peaked at the height of the recession and it has been trending downward ever since," he said.

The fine amnesty program involved 5,108 Dakota County Library users, waiving $28,597 in fines.

Mimm said there are more distractions from reading these days. She said nurses try to stress to parents that reading shouldn't compete with television and other devices. They tell parents to "pause and do this with your child," she said.

"Children, at their core, love to read," she said. "The interest is still here."

The county will print at least 10,000 brochures, Plewacki said, noting that more will be printed if the program has the impact county officials hope for.

Plewacki said the signs, which cost about $21,000, will remain in the libraries indefinitely.

Liz Rolfsmeier is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer. Her e-mail is