The Anatomy of a Free ReadBooks! Bag

by Kesel Wilson, Editor and Programs Manager

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
―Frederick Douglass

How often do you come across something that is both free and of tremendous value? How often does everything you need to begin a challenging journey come in a single free bag? How often do you find resources created specifically for you by an organization with 90 years of experience? If you answered “Not often” to any of these questions, you probably aren’t aware of our ReadBooks! childrens’ braille literacy program.

Since we began this program in 2003, we have sent free bags of beginning braille materials to over 17,000 parents and teachers of the blind and visually impaired all across the United States and Canada. We believe passionately that literacy is the foundation of education, independence, self-expression, privacy, lifelong learning, and success in the workplace. Our ReadBooks! bags are designed to give caregivers and teachers the knowledge and resources needed to start children on a path of early braille literacy and they are 100% free. Let me take you on a quick tour of the bags and their contents:

We have 3 different bags, for 3 different age levels, and the bags come in both English and Spanish versions:

  • A red bag is for ages 0 to 3;
  • A blue bag is for ages 4 to 5;
  • And a green bag is for ages 6 to 7.

Blue ReadBooks! bag with below contents inside

Every bag has:

  • A welcome letter from our president, Brian Mac Donald
  • An order form for a free book for called “Just Enough to Know Better.” This book will help you learn “just enough” braille to help your child learn it too.
  • A sign-up sheet for our Children’s Braille Book Club—a low cost subscription program featuring a new print/braille book every month.
  • A flyer about our Great Expectations program—a program that brings picture books to life for blind children with picture descriptions and free online activities.
  • Our most recent catalog, so you can be up to date on all of our newest braille books.
  • A braille alphabet card, so you can learn the braille symbol for each letter of the alphabet.
  • A Happy Birthday coupon, which can be redeemed for a free braille children’s book.
  • A caravan block, which is a fun, tactile block for practicing your braille alphabet.
  • A “Because Books Matter” pamphlet to help you understand why braille is so important to literacy and independence.
  • A “Because Pictures Matter” pamphlet which explains how and why to introduce your child to tactile graphics.

The other items in the bag vary according to the age level of the bag, but each bag has:

  • A print/braille picture book for practicing beginning reading with braille;
  • A tactile graphic for exploring non-textual information through touch;
  • And a tactile manipulative, such as a sensory ball or Wikki Stix—to experiment with tactile play.

I encourage you to take advantage of this free resource! You can order your bags directly from our website at

What’s in a Name?

A lot, actually, especially if you are trying to come up with a name for a new program or website. You want people to “get it” as soon as they hear it. And you want it to be easy to say (or type).

Earlier this year National Braille Press asked me to serve as a consultant on their new program for children.

“What’s the program about?” I asked.

They told me it’s a free, online resource offering accessible, multi-sensory activities for parents and teachers to help them bring picture books to life for their kids. There’s advice on how to describe pictures in books, how to explain colors to kids who are totally blind, and lots of ideas for ways to experience the intangible concepts in books, which can be particularly difficult for kids who are blind.

“Wow! That’s amazing! I’m definitely on board! What’s the program called?”

Well, that hadn’t been decided yet. Diane Croft, Publisher & Creative Producer at NBP, told me they were using a place-holder name: “Great Expectations.”

I didn’t love it (partly because it made me think of Charles Dickens and top hats), but it worked for the time being. Plus part of the fun was going to be coming up with a name and thinking about how to present this program!

We met with the brilliantly talented team at FableVision Studios, a transmedia development studio, to brainstorm and came up with a list of questions the program’s branding needed to answer. What is the message? What is the vision of the program? What are we trying to say?

We had some ideas based on the building blocks of what we already knew. We’re trying to make picture books more accessible. We also want families to understand that just because their child is blind doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy picture books. With the right motivation and adaptations, this is possible!

Our whiteboard looked something like this (only messier):

  • Picture the Possible
  • Picture Power
  • PicturePlay
  • The Whole Story
  • Touching Pictures
  • The Big Picture
  • Get the Picture
  • In Touch
  • Imagine Stories
  • Sensing Stories
  • Reading on the Move

It all felt so close… but not quite there. Picture the Possible and The Whole Story were frontrunners.

FableVision made up some really magnificent artwork to accompany the brainstorming process:

Picture the Possible sketch of a girl and her cat on a flying book     The Whole Story sketch of a girl sitting on a large book at a farm

And that’s when it hit me. It’s all about expecting more… more for our kids and from ourselves as parents and educators. Our children have the right to access literacy in the format that suites them best, but we can’t stop there. They also have the right to imagine and enjoy reading. They have the right to fall in love with a story or a character, to play out their own alternative endings, and to experience the words in the book in real, tangible ways. We need to help them learn how to get the most of books and we need to expect that this can happen.

We need to have Great Expectations!Great Expectations logo of a girl and her dog on a flying book

It’s not about Charles Dickens or top hats… it’s about attitude!

And that is the short version of the long story of how Great Expectations got its name.

Now I love the name!

Amber Bobnar lives with her husband and nine-year-old son, Ivan, in Watertown, MA, where Ivan, who was born blind and multiply disabled, attends the Lower School at Perkins School for the Blind. Amber is founder and website administrator of, a website dedicated to supporting parents and caregivers of children who are blind or visually impaired, with or without additional disabilities.

Abilities Expo: It’s About What You CAN Do

The Abilities Expo has exhibited in seven U.S. cities to bring information on products, services, technologies, and resources for people with disabilities. Their website states: “It’s about introducing opportunities that can enrich your life…especially ones that you never knew were out there.”

Joanne at Abilities Expo_

NBP Staff member, Joanne Sullivan, at Abilities Expo in Boston

NBP recently exhibited at the Abilities Expo in Boston, the first time that it took place in our backyard. It was a great mix of vendors, informative workshops, and fun activities like adaptive sports, dance, and assistive animal demonstrations.

Many visitors stopped by to learn about our work and to gather information for a teacher or a friend. The day I attended, I enjoyed talking to the braille readers, TVI’s, and parents who dropped by to say hello and check out our latest books.  I did notice that most of our visitors did not have a connection to braille or NBP, other than an interest in our work.

Over 4,000 people attended the Boston Abilities Expo, were you one of them? Have you heard of the Abilities Expo? We would love your thoughts as we plan for 2014.

Technology Does Not Replace Braille

When I posed the question, “Are we witnessing the demise of braille?” in last week’s blog post, I anticipated it would strike a nerve. After working at NBP for nearly 10 years, I know how passionate readers feel about braille and credit it for their educational and professional success. My NBP colleagues and I share in their assessment of braille as an essential means for literacy.

I am wondering, however, what the responses would be from parents, teachers, school administrators, and others who have the power to make decisions about braille learning for blind children. Do they feel as passionately as “Jeff” who posted, he would “hate to see a total shift away from the use of braille because in reality, it’ll lead to whole generation of illiterate people.”? Will the out-of-the box accessibility, via audio, of some of today’s technology change the way blind children will learn? There are many factors at play when you consider the education of blind children – limited public-school resources, the shortage of TVI’s, and a broad brush approach to serving kids with disabilities—I just hope that braille does not get lost in the shuffle.

Equally passionate were the responses concerning braille in the digital age. While opinions were varied, one sentiment is clear – technology does not replace braille. Instead, technology has unlimited potential to enhance and increase braille usage but the high cost of assistive technology remains a critical barrier that must be addressed. As one deaf/blind woman stated, “It’s sickening that braille is offered for premium pricing.”
I am thrilled that so many took the time to respond to this blog post. I want to dig deeper into this issue, and I am currently working with my colleagues to develop a short survey on how braille is used today—with and without technology. Stay tuned for more information on that survey. Thank you for your enthusiasm and let’s keep this dialogue going. I don’t know if the future of braille depends on it, but I don’t want to take any chances.