FREMONT — The kids at Fremont Methodist Preschool are the smartest on the planet.

Just ask Shari Stewart, director of the program.

Every year her goal is for each child to read 100 books, she says.

And every year they exceed that.

“I began this reading challenge in school year 2011-2012 because I wanted to do everything I could to keep the Fremont Library branch open,” she said. “This is a valuable resource in our community, and we need it.”

The effort serves two important purposes — to develop an early love of reading for children and their families and to boost the numbers at the library in hopes that officials would recognize the need of keeping the branch open.

It helps that the preschool program, at Fremont United Methodist Church, is just around the corner from the library.

“We walk to the library every Tuesday morning and have storytime with Mrs. Lisa Stevens and her library staff,” Stewart said. “After that, each child gets to check out a book of (his or her) choosing.”

Stewart explained how her goal is set for the challenge, which runs from September through May. It is determined by the number of students enrolled on the first day of classes. This year, for example, there were 47 children enrolled in the program, which translates to a goal of 4,700 books. 

As in years past, the students rose to the challenge, surpassing the benchmark, Stewart said.

In the first year, the goal was 2,600, with the preschoolers reading 3,598 books. The following three years, it was 3,000 and each year it climbed higher — at 3,900, 4,931 and then 5,198.

That has been the trend throughout, with the largest outcome in the last two years. In 2017-2018, the goal was 3,500 and 6,203 books were checked out. This school year boasted the highest number of students and books read. The students this year read 6,873 books, bringing the grand total since 2011 to 40,762.

“We have always reached and exceeded our reading goal,” Stewart said. “That is pretty amazing, in my opinion, for a small preschool to do. Our preschoolers look forward to going to the library and are disappointed on the days we can’t go due to bad weather.

“This year we lost about six or seven visits to the library due to bad weather. Our numbers would have been even higher this year if not for that.”

Beyond instilling a love of reading and expanding a little one’s imagination, there is the added incentive their teacher offers up every spring.

“For every 100 books checked out from Fremont, they (children) get to throw one pie in my face,” Stewart said. “I gather the slips each week and put them on a spreadsheet throughout the year.

“During our next to last week of school, which is what we call our FMP Spirit Week, we hold our reading challenge celebration on Thursday of that week. This is something our parents and students look forward to each year.”

The latest occasion did not disappoint. On an especially sunny and balmy Thursday, parents and students gathered on the playground as a large blue tarp was placed on the ground and Stewart sat in the middle of it, awaiting a succession of pies in the face.

For every 100 books students checked out, they were able to lob a paper plate covered in whipped cream at their teacher. 

Kelsie Smart was at the top of that list — checking out 662 books, translating to six pies.

There was a bit of trepidation as she stood before the preschool director. It’s got to be daunting to hit an adult in the face without consequence.

Her first attempt was to let go of the plate mid-air, with it instead landing on Stewart’s lap.

A good sport, though, Stewart egged on students, inviting them to take their best shot. At times she offered not only encouragement but pointed to her face or head to encourage their taking aim at the target.

Others with the highest number of books read included Blake Webb with 411, Corban Mumford with 333, Abbie Caveness with 213, Zachary West with 212, Easton Green with 208 and Maggie Lancaster with 206.

All told, nearly 60 plates were tossed at the teacher. 

She definitely had her fill, she said.

“I don’t touch whipped cream the rest of the year,” she said with a laugh, “because it goes everywhere — in places you don’t want to know.”

The popular activity remains a worthwhile one for the longtime educator, she said.

“Many people have asked why I do this every year,” she said. “I have always loved to read, and I love libraries. Books are magic because they can take you anywhere: past, present, future, back in time, to outer space, around the world and to make-believe lands.

“Books can make you laugh or cry. The possibilities are endless. This is why I am willing to make a fool of myself because I want my preschoolers to see that reading and libraries are fun.”

In this day of social media, Stewart said, it is especially important to develop more readers because it can be a challenge to pull children away from that screen.

Children who can read, though, “can do anything” and they will be successful, she said.

“It also gives parents a time to sit down with their children and spend some valuable time with them,” she said. “Reading is a powerful resource that every child and adult needs in their life.”