INDIANAPOLIS – State leaders want to send free books to each Hoosier child under age 5.

As part of his proposed two-year budget, Gov. Eric Holcomb wants to offer Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program to all Hoosier children statewide. Under the program, all children in Indiana would be mailed a free book once a month from birth until age 5.

Currently, 56 providers offer this program in some Indiana towns and counties.

“It was clear to me that the kids in our area really need books,” said Susan Crisafulli, who launched the Imagination Library of Johnson County.

Crisafulli, an English professor, said she compiled data before she launched the program in 2017 from each of Johnson County’s school districts and found 41% of the county’s 5-year-olds were not ready for kindergarten.

“Research shows that one of the best ways to get kids ready for kindergarten is to give them access to books before kindergarten,” Crisafulli said.

Five years later, she has roughly 3,000 children enrolled, she said.

“A parent said we would have little to no books in our home if it weren’t for this program,” Crisafulli said.

Holcomb is calling on lawmakers to contribute $4.1 million in state funds over the next two years.

“Even before entering the classroom, children should have access to books at home and develop a love of reading,” Holcomb said during his State of the State address earlier this month.

It’s one of several state initiatives aimed at improving literacy skills. Last year’s IREAD scores showed nearly one in five Hoosier third graders can’t read proficiently.

Kateri Whitley, senior communications director for The Mind Trust, said reading to children as early as possible makes a difference later on.

“Even when you’re a little baby, you’re still learning how to hear sounds and understand how sounds go together to make words,” Whitley said. “And those are skills that you can really start to have built with your child early on.”

Parents said they’re excited about the idea.

Rachel Burke, Indiana PTA president, has a daughter who received books under the program for six months when her family lived in Ohio.

“It gives you new books to read your child,” Burke said. “It helps with bonding time. We always used them before she went to bed.”

“I really hope that the state legislature recognizes the importance of this program and what a significant difference it can make in the lives of these children,” Crisafulli said.

Senate Bill 340 is being considered by the Senate Education and Career Development committee. At a hearing Wednesday, no one testified against the bill.