By Amy Phillips & Brittney Everett
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
Among 50,000 attendees and hundreds of authors who attended the annual Baltimore Book Festival at the Inner Harbor Sept. 23, one creature captured the hearts of local residents.
A puppet sloth.
The puppet was one of the featured attractions at the festival’s National Aquarium exhibit. It represented the three live sloths on display at the aquarium and helped raise awareness about a program designed to increase the reading habits of young children.
In partnership with the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the Read to Reef Book Club has allowed 15,000 Baltimore family members to visit the aquarium for free. This is the third year for the book club and participation is free for kids to join.
“This program is really about families; families reading together, families getting to come to the aquarium to see the animals live in person, and building on the reading they did together,” said Jenny Hamilton, the National Aquarium’s community program manager. “Not only can they access our animals and start to become inspired to learn and care for them, but we are really raising a generation of Baltimoreans who will care for the oceans.”
The aquarium wanted to give families the opportunity to visit the aquarium for less, and learning about sea creatures through reading books was the perfect way to do that, organizers said.
The book club offers Baltimore-area children from fifth grade and under to read five aquatic books at the child’s own pace within the allotted time frame to redeem up to four tickets to the aquarium. The fall program goes from Oct. 1 until Dec. 28 and the spring program dates will be announced at a later time.
“They simply have to visit an Enoch Pratt Free Library, get a bookmark from the librarian, read their books, and then they turn in their bookmark at the aquarium and they get their free tickets,” said Elizabeth Reese, a National Aquarium volunteer.
As the sloth puppet drew crowds into the aquarium’s tent set up along the Inner Harbor during the book festival, guest presenters gave people reason to check out what Enoch Pratt Free Library’s station had to offer. The Enoch Pratt Free Library is comprised of 22 branches throughout Baltimore and serves as the Baltimore City Public Library.
Eiyana Favers, the early literary specialist at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, participated in the festival for the first time as one of the library’s guest book presenters. By holding presentations, she is able to get more children excited about reading and participating in programs like Read to Reef.
“They (children) love a good story,” Favers said. “They’re always interactive. They want to ask questions. Just being able to engage with those children is definitely my favorite part.”
Another Enoch Pratt librarian, Marilyn Hage, said the program has had a big impact on the community.
“The Read to Reef program is extremely popular, and many branches run out of the bookmarks quickly,” Hage said. “The library has set up an online registration process for the book club to more easily keep track of the kids who are wanting to take part.”
A group of friends in elementary school were some of those who were fascinated by the idea of learning about sea animals and getting to visit them.
“[I’m going to] read five books from the library and I’m going to try to win some tickets to the aquarium,” said De’naejah.
Her friend, Mykle, added, “I am looking forward to getting to know about programs with books and how to read. They said there were sloths in there so I wanna go see the sloths.”
Although the book club is only for children, the sloth puppet captured many adults’ attentions as well.
Greg Brown, a Baltimore resident attending the festival with his daughter, Pia, said he loved the opportunity the program grants for families in the area.
“I am appreciative of the fact that there’s a challenge to get young people to read and to learn about different animals,” Brown said.
As parents and their children took pamphlets from the aquarium’s stand, Paul Feldman, an exhibit guide, was able to create hundreds of smiles using the sloth puppet as a means to educate the public. He explained to young children that there are three, two-toed sloths that live in the rainforest section of the aquarium.
“Coming in once a week allows me to learn more and keeps my mind going,” Feldman said. “There are hundreds of volunteers that make the aquarium so special.”