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Five minutes with… Leanne Souster

Leanne of Better Start Imagine holding up Snappy Croc book

One of the first projects launched by Better Start Bradford back in 2016 was Better Start Imagine, a free book gifting scheme for babies born on or after 1 January 2016. Better Start Imagine is part of the international ‘Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library’, set up by the Country and Western singer, who grew up in a household with no books.

Those first babies who received books each month are now turning five this year and have now ‘graduated’ from the scheme with a specially signed ‘Just Imagine’ book, with a special message printed on the inside from Dolly Parton.

Mum of two, Leanne Souster is the Better Start Imagine Coordinator and has taken some time out of her busy day to chat with us about the last five years of the scheme and her favourite books growing up.

In your role as Coordinator, what do you do?

My role is to oversee and promote the day-to-day delivery of the project, my team includes myself, a Language Development Worker and a part-time administrator. Alongside the book gifting, I also provide weekly story and rhyme time sessions for families to attend.

I also help deliver outdoor Story and Rhyme Time sessions with the Better Place team. I provide and read the story and Better Place do an activity. A recent session was all about fairies, so I read ‘Clara the Cookie Fairy’. Annabel from Better Place provided fairy wings and we made some fairy wands out of wooden spoons.

How would you describe Better Start Imagine to a young child?

I have been arranging for wonderful books to come through your letterbox each month for the last few years. I also organise fun groups for your mums, dads and carers to bring you to, like Story and Rhyme Time sessions.

How many babies/children have now received books under the Better Start Imagine project?

Altogether 4,720 children have received 129,544 books so far between them.

What has been your biggest project ‘wow’ moment so far?

I have just been amazed by the number of children who are registered and now receiving books each month. We’ve got families that as soon as they have another baby, they sign the new baby up because they love the scheme so much.

I was thrilled when one mum told me how one of the books called ‘Our house’ had helped her with her English. There were pictures of items in each room with the associated word and this helped her to learn new English words – I just thought that was wonderful.

Knowing what you now know about your project, would you have done anything different in the early days?

I wouldn’t have worried so much about families not wanting to receive the books or attend Story and Rhyme Time sessions. I’ve been blown away by the response that we have had. We have had to put on more sessions around our patch as we actually had families on waiting lists for our Story and Rhyme Time sessions.

Do you have a personal favourite Better Start Imagine book and why?

I love ‘I Can Only Draw Worms’ by Will Mabbit. The first time I heard this story being read was at the Imagination Library Conference in 2017 by Will himself. I got a signed copy of the book for my own children and it’s now a family favourite.

What was your favourite book as a child and why?

My favourite was ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘. I have always loved caterpillars and butterflies and loved spotting them in the garden and out about in parks. I also like all the food that the caterpillar went through, especially the chocolate cake!

What would you say to families to convince them of the benefits of reading from bump onwards?

Reading to your bump is a really nice way to bond with your baby before they are born. It also gets you into a good routine of picking a book up. The amazing thing is from 16 weeks a baby can hear some sounds and from 26 weeks they become soothed by familiar voices.

Apart from your own project, which Better Start Bradford project do you like, and why?

I think all the projects are amazing and families in the area are so lucky to have them on their doorstep. I do like Talking Together because I used to be a Language Development Worker and know just how hard the team work. They see such a large number of two-year-olds across the patch and the programme of work they carry out with children who they identify as requiring language support is amazing.

What’s coming up? What have Bradford families got to look forward to?

The Imagination Library team are working hard to find new authors to come on board which means new titles will be added to the collection. Better Start Imagine is looking forward to sharing these with families at the Story and Rhyme Time sessions.

We are also working with Better Place to stockpile eight Little Free Libraries. The Little Free Libraries are small cabinets that will be situated in parks and pocket parks throughout the Better Start Bradford area. Each cabinet holds about 40 books and for absolutely no cost, anybody is free to borrow or donate to them – they are going to be a fabulous resource for the area.

And finally … what three words summarise your project?

Fantastic. Generous. Life-changing

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