photo of Joan Brest Friedberg

Turning pages

By Alicia Bessette

“I’d love to see a world where every child grew up surrounded by books, pictures and people who would talk to her about those things,” said Joan Brest Friedberg ’48 from her home in Pittsburgh. Humanity seems to be a theme of Friedberg’s recent past. Fifteen years ago, at an age when most people are planning to retire, Friedberg launched Beginning with Books (BwB), a nonprofit literacy program for children and parents with low incomes, because she had been struck by the tremendous social needs she’d observed in the poorer neighborhoods around Pittsburgh. “It’s almost a cliché to comment on all the intransigent problems around us,” she said. “We see them on so many sides and feel we must make a contribution. We think, how are we going to drop our drops into this enormous bucket of need?”

Friedberg soon decided how she would contribute. For a few years after retiring from her English professorship at the University of Pittsburgh, she worked part time at a children’s center. She was still in touch with friend Elizabeth Segel, a former Pitt colleague. “We began talking about starting the program when we were both teaching children’s literature at Pitt,” Friedberg said. “We were giving occasional talks and training to parents and early childhood professionals. Our personal experiences as children and then as parents, and Betty’s research into how and why children learn to read, had convinced us of the importance of early exposure to stories and books.”

In 1984 she and Segel started distributing paperback children’s books to low-income families through health and social service agencies. Now, many other services comprise BwB, including parent clubs, a story mobile, outreach workers from Carnegie Library who visit day-care centers and public housing communities, and Read Together, which recruits and trains volunteers to read to individual children. There are 23 full-time staff members in the program, now an affiliate of Carnegie Library.

But in the beginning Friedberg and Segel shared the program’s single, full-time position. They also shared the knowledge that most of their college students who were good writers and readers had been read to as young children.

Being read to as a child is immensely important: The activity prompts the brain to connect the neural pathways necessary for healthy mental development. “As a nonscientist I can’t speak to it scientifically,” Friedberg explained, “but the more appropriate stimulus a child has, the more receptive she is, the more articulate she becomes in expressing her ideas. We need to think of preschool children as apprentice readers. If you read to a child, she will get the idea that the marks on the page somehow become the story issuing from your mouth, and that there’s a connection between the written system and the words you say.

“We used to think that children became reading-ready at 5 or 6, and they entered kindergarten and bang, it happened. But researchers, teachers and parents now recognize that it begins long, long before that—in utero, in fact. Fetuses respond to the voices of their parents, and you can read anything—the stock market even—and that’s already an early foundation. Children who are read to, who grow up in households where they see other people reading and where printed material is available, are far better prepared to undertake the hard work of formal schooling.”

But many of the parents Friedberg and Segel wanted to reach were reluctant to seek the services that BwB eventually established. “We realized that people who might profit the most from the program were probably the least likely to come to us,” Friedberg said. “They might have been very poor readers themselves and therefore very uneasy. We knew that most parents want the best for their children. They want their children to do better than they did. If they suffered humiliation and bitterness in school as failing students, they do not want their children to repeat their experiences.

“As parents we’re sometimes fearful because of our own experiences. Those parents might have been thinking, ‘What is this parent club going to be like? Am I going to have to read out loud? I can’t read. I don’t want to humiliate myself.’ We’ve always been sensitive to that, and we’ve never put people in that position.”

Another problem that Segel and Friedberg anticipated in the early days of BwB was the perception low-income parents might have of them, “two middle-class, white women with college backgrounds. We didn’t want to be perceived as lady bountifuls with our baskets full of books instead of goodies, telling other people how to run their lives, and how they ought to be bringing up their children.”

That’s why she and Segel distributed books through health and social service agencies at first—agencies that had already earned the parents’ trust. “It was easier to reach people that way,” Friedberg said. Thanks to the popularity BwB now enjoys, most parents are comfortable seeking out its services.

Obviously, Friedberg puts stock in preparing for the future. But she stressed that fate inevitably lends a hand. “Our mission has been constant, and the philosophy that informs our work has never wavered, but we had no idea that BwB would grow the way it has,” she explained. “Many women of my generation—well, I should speak for myself. I expected to have a job, and expected to get married and have children, and those things happened to me. I had a job, not a career, and then I had a family. I devoted many years to home activities, and I started graduate school when the youngest was under 2. But I had no way of anticipating those things that came into my life all along the way.” Friedberg listed her husband Sim, her move to Pittsburgh from New England, and the influence of her children on her life as some of those things.

“My daughters’ and my daughter-in-law’s lives are very different,” she said. “They’re focused on developing professional expertise, and I entirely applaud that. But when I was teaching at the university and had students 18 to 21, they were so worried about how they were going to achieve their goals and what the future was going to hold, and I felt like saying, just prepare yourselves the best you can and then relax and let it go, because what will come may not be what you anticipate. I never would have believed that this was how I was going to spend the last quarter of my life professionally.”

Friedberg retired last fall, after being honored by Public Television’s Fred Rogers (of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”) at an event sponsored by Carnegie Library. Now she serves on the board of BwB and reads to Courtney, a little girl in the Read Together program, every Monday afternoon in a branch library. “She’s a quiet, self-confident child,” said Friedberg, “who lets me know very firmly and politely when she’s had enough books—usually four—and wants to spend a few minutes drawing or playing with puzzles.”

Friedberg also spends more time with her grandchildren. “I’ve always read to all of them as much as they would let me,” she said, “and they know that their birthday and Chanukah gifts will always include books. Because of my reading in the professional literature and my experience at BwB, I’ve become a more acute observer of their responses and of their growth as writers, readers and artists than I was with our children, and it’s been absolutely fascinating to watch the way personality, interests, experience and abilities all influence this development.”

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