With its gentle rhymes and exquisite illustrations, I’ll Build You a Bookcase tells a lovely little tale. But this new children’s book has big ambitions: to encourage parents in Philadelphia and beyond to read regularly to their newborns, infants, and toddlers.

I’ll build you a bookcase before you are born / that’s made out of boxes from shoes that were worn
For books we will read in the soft morning light / and books we will read before saying good night.

Written by Jean Ciborowski Fahey and illustrated by Simone Shin, I’ll Build You a Bookcase is designed to hold the attention of little ones, and is written to encourage them to listen. It’s the product of a two-year project funded by a William Penn Foundation program that focuses on readiness for kindergarten, and aims to boost the reading levels of Philadelphia students by third grade.

In 2019, the foundation sponsored an Early Childhood Book Challenge that drew 500 manuscripts from writers around the world. Their works-in-progress were posted so that all of the participants could view each others’ work.

“We [wanted] to create a book that would engage children while simultaneously helping parents and other caring adults to recognize and utilize their power as their children’s first teacher,” foundation program director Elliot Weinbaum said in a statement.

The creation of I’ll Build You a Bookcase was informed by research conducted at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, input from about 60 city parents at focus groups overseen by a former Temple University professor, and insights about early childhood brain development from researchers at CHOP.

“It had to be simple and rhythmic because babies love rhythm and they love listening to their parents when they talk [rhythmically] … up-and-down, up-and-down,” Fahey, the author of the winning manuscript, said from her Cape Cod home.

“The book also [is intended] to educate parents, especially parents who might not be frequent readers themselves, or who are learning English, or are [without ready access] to a bookstore,” said Fahey, a mother of a grown daughter and two young grandchildren. “Why not use a story to convey information to parents about how to get their very young children on a path to reading?”

From her home in Northern California, Shin, who was selected by the publisher to illustrate Fahey’s words, said I’ll Build You a Bookcase was a “wonderful” project.

“They wanted the city backdrop, and the diversity of Philadelphia, to be part of the book,” said Shin, the illustrator of 14 other children’s books and the mother of a 10-year-old son. In what she called the “warm and friendly” images for I’ll Build You a Bookcase, readers and their young listeners will see people who look like themselves reading books and being read to in places that look like their homes and communities.

And let’s build a bookcase for other kids too — / in parks and the Laundromat, even the zoo

“This was the first time I’ve worked on a book with this particular purpose,” Shin said. “I’m so happy to be part of something that has a larger scope like this.”

The book is published in English, with bilingual editions that include Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Arabic text, by Lee & Low Books. The company specializes in multicultural works for children.

“Early literacy has always been a cause dear to our heart,” Jason Low, publisher and co-owner, said in a statement.

“Jean Fahey has brought many decades of early literacy expertise to the manuscript, gently guiding families in how to read together,” he said, “while Simone Shin’s joyful, inclusive artwork allows all families to feel seen.”

Rachel Honore, the manager of The Book Depot for the West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning Program of the People’s Emergency Center, said the diversity of I’ll Build You a Bookcase “is not only good for the neighborhood, it’s good for all children. Everybody needs to have a view of other cultural values they can appreciate and understand.”

The project also “goes hand-in-hand with this whole movement to get books into the hands of children,said Honore, a mother of three.

I’ll Build You a Bookcase unfolds in a series of sunny tableaux that depict a diverse array of parents, grandparents, and other adults reading or offering books to all sorts of young children — from all sorts of bookcases.

I’ll build you a bookcase for when you turn 1 / with library books that are brimming with fun.

“We need many more culturally relevant books,” said Susan B. Neuman, a longtime Temple University professor who is now chair of the Teaching and Learning Department of the Steinhardt School at New York University. Along with Read by 4th, a Philly coalition focused on early literacy, Neuman conducted the focus groups for the project that yielded I’ll Build You a Bookcase.

While participating parents were eager to have their children succeed and often had reading material available, Neuman said “there was hesitancy” about reading to very young children. “We found that when parents started to do so, it was due to a relationship” with a medical professional or someone in a similar position.

Brieanna Wheeland, a West Philadelphia mother of a two young children, said she appreciates “the representations of different families and different family dynamics, heritage, cultures, and ages” in I’ll Build You a Bookcase.

“It’s really encouraging to see more books coming online that represent more of what our community looks like,” Wheeland, 37, said.

“From research, we know that the idea that reading to young children is important for brain development has not been fully embraced [by some parents],” Weinbaum said. “So instead of getting a brochure when you leave the hospital, there are tips embedded in it, in a nondidactic way. The medium is the message.”

I’ll build you a bookcase for when you turn 2 / my phone tucked away so it’s just me and you.

While reading on a screen can be fine, while doing so children, and adults, are more likely to interact solely with the device, rather than with another person.

“With a book, you stay focused on the content and are interacting with the person you’re reading to,” Weinbaum said.

We’ll learn about bluebirds that live in a tree / and giant sea turtles that nest near the sea

Reading a physical book “creates a moment” for very young as well as older children to bond and communicate with a parent or other adult reader, said Danielle Erkoboni, associate medical director of Reach Out & Read Greater Philadelphia, and attending pediatrician in the CHOP Care Network.

Because I’ll Build You a Bookcase “has lots of color and diversity and ways to interact, those conversations are richer and longer, and can help stimulate early brain development,” she said. “When families sit down with a book they love, when there are images in the book that the parents can discuss with their child, the conversations that go back and forth, even with preverbal children, help to grow and strengthen the language centers in the brain.”

The foundation has purchased 25,000 copies that are being distributed free to parents through CHOP’s Reach Out & Read of Greater Philadelphia program, as well as by community partners in the city’s Read by 4th campaign. Several thousand additional copies are being distributed to early learning centers by PNC Bank and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, and will be offered elsewhere in the country by the “Too Small to Fail” initiative of The Clinton Foundation.

“This story is a bridge connecting two generations, including the first and second generation of immigrants,” said LeQuyen Vu, executive director of the Indochinese American Council in Philadelphia, and a member of the committee that selected I’ll Build You a Bookcase.

“I was involved with the project from the beginning, and right through,” she said. “This book will allow grandparents and parents and children to learn together. There aren’t a lot of tools intentionally created to allow the generations to learn from each other, to learn each other’s language together. This may be the book they remember.”

I’ll build you a bookcase for when you turn 3 / for stories of faraway lands that we’ll see
and castles on islands and treasures of gold / The magic of reading will never grow old.