NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray Encourages Families to ‘Talk to Your Baby’

Last week, the First Lady of New York City, Chirlane McCray, kicked off a two-year initiative to distribute 200,000 baby book bundles, donated by Scholastic, to NYC families with children ages zero to three. Part of the City's "Talk To Your Baby" campaign, the distribution is intended to ensure equity and access to books for families at a time (ages zero to 5) when children's brains are developing rapidly. In partnership with the First Lady, Scholastic published a special book called "Love Is" for NYC families and printed 200,000 copies to include in the book bundles.

In this Q & A, we asked the First Lady about her goals for the campaign, how it works, and what books she read to her children when they were young.

1) What is the “Talk To Your Baby, Their Brain Depends On It” campaign all about? 

We want to help parents understand how important it is to talk, read and sing to their children. 

A remarkable 90% of brain development occurs before the age of five. But tragically, too many of our children do not get the stimulation they need. Studies have found that by age four, children in middle and upper-income families hear 30 million more words than their lower-income peers. In other words, tens of millions of children are in danger of being left behind before they even start school.

2) How does the campaign work?

My team is working in partnership with Scholastic and the Clinton Foundation to provide more than 200,000 high-need families in New York City with a Baby Book Bundle over the next two years.

The Bundle includes four complementary resources:

Love Is features beautiful photos of New York parents and their kids connecting through play.  It's a book for children and parents to read together. And the editor of the book just happens to be me! It was so much fun to put together.

- Two great children’s books from Scholastic for their own personal libraries. We want to encourage them to become strong, lifelong readers.

Talking is Teaching is a book that educates parents on the importance of building their child’s brain and models ways to talk, read and sing to young children. It was developed by Sesame Street and Secretary Hillary Clinton’s “Too Small to Fail” initiative.

3) What inspired you to spread the word about the importance of reading?

I know from personal experience that we cannot expect all parents to know instinctively how important it is to talk, read and sing to their children. For many parents it means beginning a new tradition. 

My own parents wanted the best for us and made tremendous sacrifices to provide my siblings and me with a good life. But reading books aloud was not something they knew they should do with us.

Luckily, once I got started I turned into a bookworm, one of those kids who loved the library and checked out as many books as my little arms could carry. As I grew older, I relied on books and writing to help me make sense of a world that wasn’t always welcoming to little Black girls with big ideas.

Once I had children, it was never a question whether I would read to them—that would be like withholding a precious gift from my most precious gifts. It is not an exaggeration to say that the hours I spent reading to them are among the happiest of my life. When they were little babies, they may not have understood all of the words I was saying, but I could see their eyes light up at the sound of my voice. Now I know that their brains were working extra hard to form all kinds of new connections.

4) What books did your children enjoy the most when they were babies and toddlers?

Oh my, where do I start? My daughter, Chiara, loved An Enchanted Hair Tale by Alexis De Veaux. Dante couldn’t get enough of Richard Scarry’s Cars and Trucks and Things That Go, which was a gift to him from my mother. And I was a big fan of The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, a book I first read in college. There are so many more, and I look forward to reading all of them to my grandchildren someday.

5) What advice would you give to new parents who want to instill a love of reading to their children?

Have fun with it! There are so many colorful, funny, creative, and deeply moving children’s books out there.  I guarantee that you will look forward to storytime as much as your kids. And you don’t have to spend a lot of money—public libraries are a parents’ best friend.

Because our lives are so busy, with a growing number of distractions, talking, reading and singing to children matters more than ever.  Every interaction and every word spoken is an investment in a child’s early development that will pay off many times over, for generations to come.