Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor reads to toddlers from "Courage" by Bernard Waber. Clearly, he's giving it his all, yet it just didn't fly with the youngsters. So he switched to another book, with mixed results.

A hospital stay at any age generally isn't viewed as a good time.

Tucson Medical Center is working to make it more enjoyable for its youngest patients, but it's also using the time to encourage literacy.

"Unfortunately, children in the hospital have a lot of time on their hands," said Mimi Warwick Coomler, director of TMC's patient care services for women and children. "Children are resilient, so even when they don't feel good, they still maintain a high energy level."

TMC has used the opportunity to ensure that children are reading and being read to during their stay, and that they can continue to do so at home.

The effort is part of a program that kicked off earlier this month called Books for Kids, which sends patients home with one new book for their own collections.

The collection offers picture books for babies up to titles for advanced young readers. It has been made possible by donations from the community and staff.

Though health care is TMC's primary focus, the hospital felt literacy goes hand-in-hand with health outcomes.

"We want people to be literate about their health, and to do so they have to be literate in general," Coomler said. "We have a high population of people with chronic diseases, and sometimes they are the ones with the lowest reading comprehension."

In addition to the Books for Kids initiative, TMC has put together a Dad Read-In series leading up to Father's Day to encourage male role models to get more involved in their children's education.

Community leaders have gotten in on the action over the last week, reading to and interacting with pediatric patients.

Thus far, guests have included Bernard Siquieros, curator of the Tohono O'odham Nation Cultural Center and Museum, who told a story in the oral tradition; Tucson Fire Chief Jim Critchley; and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.

On Wednesday, Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor stopped in to read to a group of about seven children - mostly toddlers.

He started out reading a book called "Courage" by Bernard Waber. After a few pages, Villaseñor recognized the message wasn't resonating with the young crowd, so he switched to plan B - "Rebekah Grace, The Practically Perfect Princess" by Tucsonans Jennifer Humphries and Nicki DiCampli.

"This is going to go over well with the other cops," the police chief joked before demonstrating how to do a princess wave.

Though the second book didn't necessarily appeal to 4-year-old Roman Rodriguez, he didn't mind as he enjoyed his bowl of popcorn.

Before the reading, Roman, who has been at the hospital for two weeks, shared with Villaseñor that he wanted to be a police officer.

"I already have a cop car," Roman told Villaseñor, to which he responded, "me, too."

Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll will close out the Dad Read-In series on Saturday.

Though Carroll's three children are grown - ages 17, 21 and 23 - he fondly recalls reading to them when they were young. Favorites included Dr. Seuss and Winnie the Pooh books.

"This is a great effort," Carroll said. "You're their role model - the one they look up to most - and hearing you read encourages your children to learn and find out more about the world around them."

If you go

TMC's Dad Read-In series will come to a close Saturday with a special event featuring "Star Wars" characters.

The Read-In, which will also feature Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll, will begin at 2:30 p.m. at the Tucson Medical Center Marshall Conference Center, 5301 E. Grant Road.

The "Star Wars" characters and Carroll will read aloud.

Families are encouraged to bring their favorite books for story time.

The event is free and open to the public.

How you can help

For more information on how you can donate to TMC's Books for Kids program, call 324-2018.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175.