When Alyssandra Atkins was a month old, her father, Richard, was deployed to Iraq.
In the six months since, her mother, Staff Sergeant Janet Atkins, 24, has been using reading and books keep the family bonds - and routines - strong.
Janet, who's stationed at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, recently was interviewed for an NBC Nightly News story about Reach Out and Read's Military Initiative. The segment aired as part of the station's "Making a Difference on the Homefront" series, an effort by NBC to "shine a light on veterans, military families, and the issues affecting them across the country."
I had the opportunity to chat with Janet about the role that books - and Reach Out and Read - have played in her parenting, her time with Alyssandra, and their interactions with Richard, 26, who arrived home safely on October 9.
Earl: When did you first learn that reading to your child was such an effective - and important - part of parenting? Why did you take that advice so seriously?
Janet: I love all kinds of books. My husband is also a big reader so we wanted to make sure our kids also loved books. When we first found out we were pregnant, we started buying books. Richard bought all of the Dr. Seuss books he could find! A mentor of his, a retired chief, told him to talk to my belly every night so he would read from a fairy tale book to Aly when she was in my belly. I also recorded him reading books to Aly on our camcorder. The night he left for Iraq, I played it for Aly. It was more for me but it was soothing to her, too. She gets excited and starts waving her hands. She tries to talk back to him.
When we were talking to the doctor at our first pediatric appointment, she started talking about Reach Out and Read. She told us reading was really good for the baby, and teaches her language and speech, and helps her IQ. Whenever it's a quiet time, I read to her. She's my baby and I want her to do well.
Earl: Do you read? Do you feel like Alyssandra watching you read sets a good example?
Janet: I'm a big reader myself. My mom always gave me books because she saw it was something I loved. Other kids at school wanted toys and I always wanted a book, and she would never tell me no. My dad stood in line to get me all of the Harry Potter books when they came out, and I read all five of them in one summer. He loved that I was that kind of kid. He was very proud of me whenever we'd go somewhere and I would bring a book with me.
Yes, I try to set a good example. If parents don't like to read, their children aren't going to like to read. Aly would much rather play with a book than read! Instead of a toy, I give her a book and she sits there for a long time. She even kisses the book and tries to eat it!
Earl: How did Richard stay connected to Alyssandra through books while he was away?
Janet: He has been reading to her on Skype around bedtime. He will tell her a story as I am turning the pages. The first time he did it, he got to see how much she loves books. When she was about 5 months old, she started connecting to him on Skype. She was grabbing the screen where his face was and talking back to him. It made him feel a lot better that she knew who he was. Some kids have a hard time transitioning when a parent is gone but I think because of Skype and his reading on the camcorder, she knows that's her dad. It's made her feel like he's part of the family. He's even sang her to sleep over Skype and she falls asleep looking straight at him.
Earl: In a military life that contains so much unknown, has reading given you and your family a sense of routine?
Janet: Reading is our relaxing time to get away from everything else in the world. For Aly, reading is part of her bedtime routine. We have a book called Goodnight Baby that we use as a checklist - it talks about playing, reading, eating supper, bath time, reading, and bed time. We do that every night. She knows what to expect and starts relaxing around that time of day.
With Richard back, we'll do the same routine. We are going to work on it together and he will take the reading part. He's really excited, he wants to be the one who reads her the book every night. We have a rocking chair in our room and I created a corner there with a bookshelf that's her height so she can grab the books and we can sit and read them together.
Earl: Why is it so important for all children to have access to Reach Out and Read? Why is it so important to you as a parent to prepare Alyssandra for a lifetime of success in school?
Janet: I didn't know about the program until the doctor explained it to me when Aly was 6 months old. I think it's great. I'm trying to give my kid that one extra step. She is going to know all of the shapes and colors. Anything I can teach her here at home to do better at school, that's my goal in life. I'm her mom. I'm her first teacher.
I want her to love reading and I want her to do well in school, to enjoy being at school. I was a good student. I loved the feeling of bringing home a good report card to my parents. I want her feel the same way.