Ava Duchini, 3, read 1,000 books before Kindergarten.

Three-year-old Ava Duchini, one of 727 children participating in the Burlington County Library System 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten challenge, is the first child to complete the program.

Her mom, Jessica Hensley, attributes Ava’s having listened to that many books since January to a lifelong commitment to reading on the part of both mother and daughter. Hensley has read to Ava since she was an infant, and they are at the library at least two times a week—sometimes four or five. And today, Hensley says, “When she wants a bedtime story, she brings you 10 books.”

Having a mom who is a reading role model has also been important. “I love reading; I read all the time. And Ava has always imitated me,” Hensley says.

Choosing books for Ava at the library is a cinch. “I go through the library and pick what I think would really interest her,” Hensley says, “and the librarians are really good—they set out the really good ones on top.” Each branch in the Burlington County Library System also has a special 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten collection, with 1,000 librarian-selected books for this age group, ranging from board and picture books to story-books.

“I have no self-control at the library,” Hensley says. The library does place a limit of 35 books per card, but since both she and Ava have cards, she declares herself done once she fills up two big bags.

Danielle Haubrich, branch manager at Pinelands Library, coordinates the program for the BCLS. Aware that the 1,000 Books program was a nationwide initiative, she says, “We decided it would be a great fit. It is a simple, fun approach to building early literacy skills; it promotes reading readiness for kids going into kindergarten; and it encourages parent and child bonding.”

‘[Ava] is at the library all the time—she absolutely loves it. And her mom is always encouraging her to read and participate.’

Because BCLS already had an online reader-tracking program, Beanstack, on its website for its summer reading programs, Haubrich says, “it was a great platform to launch 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten because kids were already tracking their reading and could apply that toward the goal of 1,000 books.” Because it’s so easy to enter books, Hensley has continued to use it for the summer reading program, and as of early July Ava was “up to 1,400 books.”

The book challenge does not require children to read 1,000 different books, because the young library patrons are allowed to count a book each time it is read. Haubrich explains why. “Repetition is so great for that age,” she says. Hearing the same things over and over, the children are “phonetically hearing how sounds are put together into words and words into sentences.”

Since Ava and her mom moved to Bordentown two years ago, they have been avid participants in all of the Bordentown Public Library’s children’s programs. “The children’s program is amazing,” Hensley says. “It gets you so engaged.”

Her enthusiasm is shared on the library’s side. The children’s librarian at the Bordentown branch, Ann Marie Latini, says, “We love Ava. It wasn’t a surprise that she was first to finish. They are here all the time; and they are always checking out new books.” Furthermore, Latini continues, “She comes to all our library programs for her age. She is at the library all the time—she absolutely loves it. And her mom is always encouraging her to read and participate.”

The library offers a range of programs for the preschool set: a very popular preschool story-time; a toddler art hour that features very messy artwork; a monthly sensory workshop; and parachute play, where the children use a parachute for shaking games, dance, and music. Latini says, “Anything that we have that is within her age group, her mom has her here.”

Ava’s book interests vary. “She’s fine reading a silly pop-up book or a more involved story. We kind of mix it up,” Hensley says.

Ava does have her favorites. An early one was the pop-up book Charlie Chick, by Nick Denchfield, illustrated by Ant Parker. Another is Dancing Feet! by Lindsey Craig, illustrated by Marc Brown. The library’s copy of another of Ava’s most treasured books, Dear Zoo, by Rod Campbell, received a personalized commemorative bookplate in honor of Ava’s achievement.

“Those are the staples we read a million times each that she had memorized,” Hensley says, adding adds that sometimes when Ava recites a book from memory, she is momentarily shocked and wonders, “Did she read it?”

Hensley adds, “I hardly get to read my own books because we’re always reading her books.”

Not only have the library programs been fun and enriching for Ava and her cohort, but, Latini adds, “Ava and her mom have made friends with other kids who have come. They go to lunch or the park together—they formed a story-time bond.”

What Latini likes about 1,000 Books is that it gives parents and children “the opportunity to work toward something together.” It creates a nice bonding time that promotes shared memories—“remember when we read thus and such.” Latini adds, “All the studies show the more you read to them the better they are going to do. The no. 1 thing you can do for school success is read to them.”

Ava knows the alphabet, is always practicing her letters, and can write her name really well, Hensley says. She will be four on Oct. 24.

Ava also loves to dance, to be outside, and to play in water, snow, or on the swings. Next year Hensley may start her on T-ball.

Hensley grew up in Wayne and moved to California after her parents got divorced. She owns harness-racing horses that are boarded in the Poconos, where her best friend trains them.

Hensley got involved with horses via her ex-husband, who was a driver and trainer. “You don’t get into it unless you are born into it or marry into it—it’s a seven-day-a-week thing,” she says.

Hensley makes her daily schedule around that of the library. “Ava’s social calendar is so busy I’m just her sidekick,” she jokes.

She is thinking that she may return to work in mortgages and banking, which she did when she was younger, to have a more steady paycheck. Right now she prefers to spend her time at home with Ava: “I’m kind of obsessed with Ava; I would rather be by her.”

The 1,000 Books program motivates reluctant readers and rewards and encourages more avid readers, Haubrich says. At certain milestones—100, 250, 500, 750, and 1,000—children are invited have their picture taken in front of a special backdrop at the library, with the words “I have read x number of books.”

“Everybody at the library makes a big deal about their accomplishment, and I think it encourages parents and kids to make that effort,” Haubrich says. The 1,000 Books program “instills a lifelong love of reading and books from a young age,” she adds, and feedback from parents suggest that children in the program “are enjoying reading more and getting more excited about it.”